By the time the heritage walking tour ended, my guide and I became fast friends. We decided to have lunch in Colaba. I’m sure you must have heard or read about Leopold’s Café in Colaba. It was made famous by the book Shantaram, and its author Gregory David Roberts frequents the café every now and then. Leopold’s was also unfortunately the target of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Bullet marks can still be seen in the café. I was tempted to go to Leopold’s but read reviews that the food and drinks are overpriced due to its fame and the café gets too crowded. However, do read the 900-page Shantaram because it’s gritty and riveting. Some say it’s based on Roberts’ actual experiences with the Bombay underworld in the 80s and his fight with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. Well, there were parts of the story which I found to be incredulous but I liked to believe it was true because only then the story became more compelling.
The Colaba area is also known as the “Culture Square” of Mumbai. It is chock-a-block with cafes, restaurants and bars; hotel accommodation ranging from shoddy guesthouses to 5-star hotels; tourist shops and book stalls on five foot ways; and art galleries which make Colaba a rendezvous point for the art community.
After lunch, I was on my own, so I continued to walk from Colaba to spend some time around the art district Kala Ghoda. Every year, Mumbai hosts the Kala Ghoda Art Festival which is usually held in January or February when the weather is cooler. The festival has become popular now and it features visual arts, dance, music, cinema, literature, workshops, heritage walks and a street festival. Some of the venues which participate in the festival are the Jehangir Art Gallery, The National Gallery of Modern Art, the David Sassoon Library, just to name a few.
To cool off
I decided to check out Jehangir Art Gallery to see the latest exhibitions. The other reason was to cool off in an air-conditioned building! Humidity was getting to me and I was perspiring profusely. The weather is exactly like Malaysia but back home, I was often in the office or driving with air-condition 🙂
Over the years, Jehangir Art Gallery is recognized as a centre of contemporary Indian art. It has 4 exhibition halls including a terrace gallery for Photography and Visual Art.
The exhibitions I saw were from a group of artists featuring their works consisting of oil paintings, watercolour paintings and metal castings. Their exhibitions were on display for about a week, and I think that’s the usual time frame given for any exhibition there.
Visitors are not allowed to take any photographs. However, if you would like to find out more information about the gallery’s current exhibitions, you may check out their website.
Mr. No-Nonsense Librarian
Just across the road from Jehangir Art Gallery is the Venetian-Gothic-style structure, the David Sassoon Library . It is one of the oldest Library and Reading Room still in use in Mumbai, and it houses a large collection of rare, old books.
During the heritage walking tour in the morning, I learnt that the library started as a Mechanics’ Institute in 1847 by a group of young mechanics and foremen to provide technical education. They worked out of rented premises. 15 years later, Albert Sassoon, son of the famous Baghdadi Jewish philanthropist David Sassoon, wanted to have a library right in the centre of the city. He contributed money to the government to build the Mechanics’ Institute which is now called the David Sassoon Library. Hence, thanks to the generosity of David Sassoon, the original Mechanics’ Institute was able to move to their own building.
The Library and Reading Room is not open to the public, private members only. Well, I didn’t know about this until the librarian barred me from entering the foyer. I tried to persuade him to let me enter to have a look – 10 minutes only – but he was quite adamant. However, there was an older gentleman in the foyer (I have no idea who he was) who heard my conversation and sort of admonished the librarian for being so strict. The librarian relented and allowed me to go up the wooden staircase but he followed me from behind very closely.
In the Reading Room, I saw university students poring over textbooks, underlining texts with yellow highlighters, and senior citizens reading newspapers. Shelves of old books high up against the wall – I wonder if people still borrow these old books? The Reading Room opens out to the balcony and it is such a lovely balcony with patterned old tiles, high ceiling fans and rattan chaise lounges. It was a perfect photo opportunity but Mr. No-Nonsense Librarian gave me a stern look as if to say that my 10 minutes was up! I asked him, “Can I take a photo of the balcony?” He gave me a terse reply, “No!”
During the time when the David Sassoon Library was built, there was a huge Baghdadi Jewish community living in the area, particularly the affluent community members. The Sassoon family was prominent philanthropists in Bombay at that time therefore a synagogue was built which was a stone throw away from the Sassoon Library. The synagogue is the Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue built by Jacob Elias Sassoon (Albert Sassoon’s nephew) and his brothers to commemorate their father, and the synagogue is currently run by the Jacob Sassoon Trust.
Over the number of years, the Jewish community in Mumbai has declined, leaving the synagogue without sufficient funds for conservation. I walked across the Kala Ghoda car park to the synagogue and it’s impossible to miss it due to its baby blue colour. I have never seen or visited a synagogue, so when I was reading about it prior to my trip to Mumbai, I was very curious. Unfortunately, there were police barricades around the synagogue and an army tank parked right in front of it. I don’t know what the reason for the tight security was but my guess is the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks on Nariman House/Chabad House, a Jewish outreach centre in Colaba. Perhaps the Jewish community probably still feel vulnerable, thus requesting for protection from future aggression?
I took a photo anyway of the synagogue, but was not satisfied with the photo. Two policemen saw me with the camera, one blew his whistle and another waved the lathi (baton) at me, so I had to leave the site.
Monument on Waterfront
After an unsuccessful attempt at trying to get a good picture of the synagogue, I wasn’t sure where else to go. It’s either the Gateway of India or back to the hotel to rest for a while. The weather was getting the better of me – it was 38 degrees Celsius and humidity was high. Friends have told me before that Gateway of India area gets extremely crowded especially during the weekend but it’s one of the major icons of Mumbai that I should not miss. As much as I like to see major city icons but large crowd is something which I don’t quite fancy especially in hot weather. Having said that, I was only in Mumbai for a short time, thus I took a short taxi ride from Kala Ghoda to Gateway of India. I could have walked but energy level was running low.
Gateway of India is situated on the waterfront of Apollo Bunder. The moment I reached, my friends were right, it was very crowded (although it doesn’t seem like it from my photo below). Tourists, both locals and foreign, thronged the area. Street vendors selling ice-cream, bhel puri and balloons. Photographers promoting their services for great photo opportunities with the monument and the view of Arabian Sea in the background.
The atmosphere was very carnival-like, I could see why the Gateway of India is a major tourist attraction in Mumbai. The jetty was used by local fishermen in the early days but it was later renovated, and the monument was built on the waterfront during the British Raj days to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay in 1911. Since then, the monument would have been the first structure that visitors by boat would have seen. Ironically, it was also the last Bombay structure for British ships to pass through and set sail for England when India gained independence, marking the end of British rule.
Many tourists also come to this area to catch a boat ride to Elephanta Island. The Elephanta Island has Hindu and Buddhist caves with religious carvings. I didn’t go on this trip because I had already planned to travel to Aurangabad where there are a number of UNESCO heritage sites featuring similar caves with carvings and sculptures.
The other renowned landmark on the Apollo Bunder is the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This 5-star hotel, part of the Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces flagship property, has hosted many distinguished guests from presidents, ministers, royal families to international film stars.
The hotel was the centre of international attention and outrage when it was attacked in 2008 by terrorists. It suffered material damage including its roof was destroyed. According to Wikipedia, hostages were taken during the attacks, and at least 167 people were killed including many foreigners. It took several months to rebuild the damaged parts of the hotel.
Security is quite tight around the Apollo Bunder area – Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel – but that doesn’t deter the crowd from visiting these major icons which are very much intertwined with Mumbai’s historical past and present.