India: Mollywood in focus

All human life is here - and more. James Rampton explores the heaving heart of India's most dynamic city.

Farewell, Bombay: the old colonial title has wandered west into the Indian Ocean. The new British Airways timetable states "Bombay: see Mumbai". The name of a goddess has been borrowed to describe the vast swirl of humanity that comprises what is possibly India's largest city (though Calcutta would argue that it is still a million or two ahead).

The woman at the BA Travel Clinic in London said I was far more likely to be hospitalised by a car crash than a disease in Mumbai. The motto for driving round the city is "good horn, good brakes, good luck".

Figuratively, if not literally, it's the traffic that hits you first. As you leave Mumbai airport, you join a beeping, bumping mass of cars that makes the M25 at rush-hour look like a quiet country lane. Locals advise you not to move around town unless you have to - and then move very quickly. This takes its toll - four-fifths of visits to the doctor are for respiratory complaints, no doubt brought on by the exhaust fumes that lie in a visible fug over the city like an old London pea-souper.

But gridlock on the streets is only part of the overwhelming experience of Mumbai. The city is not so much in your face as in your pores, over- running your very being with its liveliness. The place is bursting at the seams. Five thousand new people stream into the city every day, helping to expand what is already Asia's largest slum.

Every time you step outside, you embark on a new adventure, peopled by an extrovert array of beggars, hawkers and canvassers. When a car pulls up at the lights, likely as not an imploring entreaty will appear through the window. There is never a dull moment in this vibrant place, liable at any time to elicit gasps of excitement, exhaustion or exasperation.

The overcrowding is in no way eased by the frequent snarl-ups that build up around the numerous film shoots that take place on the streets of the city. Locals buzz around the revered matinee idols who are the public face of Mumbai's vibrant film industry. By dint of pure output, the city is the world's most productive film-making centre.

Not for nothing is it known as Bollywood (or should that now be Mollywood?). Virtually every day you pass a different "masala movie" in production. The finished product tends to be a hugely popular if rather gaudy three- hour extravaganza heavier on song and dance than complex plotting or characterisation.

At the numerous street-markets, such as Chor Bazaar and Crawford Market, natural-born traders will try to sell you anything from inflatable dolls with "Hit Me" inscribed on the nose, to Kama Sutra postcards and a snake- charming session. Haggling comes with the territory.

But it is at the city centre's many temples where the sheer volume of people threatens to envelop you. Walking down the kilometre-long causeway that snakes out to the island where the Muslim Haji Ali Mausoleum is situated, for instance, you could almost lift up your feet and be carried along on the tide of pilgrims. Both sides of the causeway - which is submerged at high tide - are lined by the most seriously disabled beggars; four men with not an arm or a leg between them lie in a circle chanting loudly.

Behind the temple - a dramatic white marble confection of minarets silhouetted against the sea - people gather on the rocks to catch some welcome sea breeze. Back on dry land opposite the entrance to the causeway, you are incongruously confronted by a huge poster proclaiming "A wedding is the perfect excuse for a Versace suit". Er, right.

It was to escape the masses that, more than 1,300 years ago, Hindus built the breathtaking shrines in the caves on Elephanta Island, an hour's boat- ride across the bay from Mumbai. Today they still represent a refreshing respite, a quiet sanctuary for contemplation away from the hectic city. You leave Mumbai from one of the rickety old boats tethered by the Gate of India, a triumphalist construction in the style of, say, Marble Arch, built "to commemorate the landing of their Imperial Majesties George V and Queen Mary", as it proclaims across the lintel.

Chugging away from the arch and the downtown skyscrapers that surround it, the air seems fresher in the bay. Soon, a lush, tree-covered island - like something out of Robinson Crusoe - hoves into view, and the boat draws up at a kilometre-long jetty. A steep climb up 100 or so steps affords traders the opportunity to flog you beautiful polished stones and less beautiful plastic children's cars. Beware of two things - women in brightly coloured saris carrying shiny metal pots on their heads who invite photographs and then demand money for them, and light-fingered monkeys which are adept at removing food from your bags without you noticing.

The caves themselves are worth the puff-inducing ascent (the infirm - or those with Papal fantasies - can hire a sedan chair at the bottom and be carried up in state). In case you forget the religious purpose of the temple, a sign orders you to "Keep Strict Silence" - on pain of prosecution. The only sounds come from chattering monkeys and hushed guides.

Inside the caves, entered through some impressive pillars, are nine sculpted relief panels telling the story of the Hindu god, Shiva. Since their construction in the 7th century, they have suffered their fair share of vandalism. One Portuguese commander used to let off his cannon inside the caverns purely because he enjoyed the sound of the echo, while another thoughtful visitor from Portugal bricked over the panels he deemed heathen. Just for good measure, the British utilised rocks from the temple to help build Mumbai.

The only panel not to be damaged is the central, six- metre-high figure of the three-faced Maheshmurti Shiva - representing creation, protection and destruction - which the Portuguese left untouched because they assumed it was a tribute to the Holy Trinity. Despite all this, the panels retain an awesome power derived from a potent mixture of their age, size and serenity. Looking back across the bay, the figures do have the air of masters of all they survey.

Such oases of calm are harder to come by in Mumbai itself, but they can be found. Swish hotels line the lavish waterfront on Marine Drive, where real-estate prices are higher than in Manhattan. The poshest is the Taj Mahal Hotel, overlooking the Gate of India. It is the sort of establishment where flunkies turn the taps on for you in the loos; it may also be one of the last places on earth where you can get a genuine high tea (available only after 3.30pm). All of them make you feel physically comfortable, but morally less so.

The Gandhi Museum in Mani Bhavan, the house on Laburnum Marg where the great man was arrested in 1932, is a comparable haven. We were the only visitors there one day. The prose in the captions has a leaning towards the purple - one declares that "the assassin of the ages came with unholy design and lodged hot lead in the flesh of the man who had known no enemy". But the collection of photos and documents builds up a comprehensive picture of the man. The most moving part of the museum is the room where Gandhi lived. Now a shrine, this remains the way he left it, adorned only with a spinning-wheel, a desk, a mattress and his famous stick.

Mumbai is a fascinating, if draining, place to visit. It is impossible to walk its whirlwind streets and remain unmoved.

I asked one resident how he managed to live there, and he answered with a laugh: "Ask a New Yorker the same question, and you'd get the same reply. No one else but a native would live here."

Passages to India

Getting there: Reaching India is easier and, in real terms, cheaper, than it has ever been. Dozens of airlines will take you from the UK to various Indian cities. But before you buy your ticket, make sure you've taken the necessary visa and health requirements into account.

Scheduled flights: the main airlines flying direct from the UK to Delhi and Mumbai (formerly Bombay) are Air Canada, Air India, British Airways and United Airlines. KLM/Northwest offer daily connections from several UK airports via Amsterdam. Many other airlines will get you to Delhi via a range of indirect routings, stopping anywhere from Ashkhabad to Zurich.

The lowest fares are always available from discount travel agents rather than direct from airlines.

One useful agent for non-stop flights is Welcome Travel (0171-439 3627), a leading discounter for Air India, but other firms can offer good deals on a range of carriers. For example, sample fares from Bridge the World (0171-911 0911) for travel in November, including UK tax, are: Delhi pounds 410 on Gulf Air via the Middle East, Mumbai pounds 346 on Qatar Airways via Doha, Calcutta pounds 530 on Air India via Delhi, and Madras(now officially Chennai) pounds 457 on Gulf Air.

Charter flights: The main gateways are Goa and Trivandrum, catering for the package holiday destinations of Goa and Kerala respectively. In addition, some services this winter will be operating direct from Gatwick to Agra, location of the Taj Mahal.

Visas: British passport holders need a visa for India, usually the six-month, pounds 26 variety. Contact the High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA, or the Consulate-General of India, The Spencers, 19 Augustus Street, Jewellery Quarter, Hockley, Birmingham B18 6DS.

Call the 24-hour visa information service (0891 880800) for more details, but be warned that this premium-rate service can prove expensive.

Health: the only compulsory vaccination for India is yellow fever for people arriving from areas where it is endemic. But protection is advised against typhoid, polio, tetanus, hepatitis and malaria. Call the Masta advice line, 0891 224100, for more information; this is another premium- rate line, but better value than the Indian visa one.

More information: Indian Government Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, London W1X 2LN (0171-437 3677). Open 9.30am-1pm and 2-6pm.

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