Monday, February 27, 2012

Sea'ing what's real

Standing on the shore of the Arabian Sea, at a beach in Mumbai I looked out across the sea feeling that sense of awe at the magnificence of nature in its humongous form. As I looked across the waters away from the civilization, away from the hordes of people and the urban buzz of vendors, vehicles and bright billboards, I felt nothing would ever be more real than the Sea which I grew up looking at.

Growing up in the coastal and picturesque city of Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, I had the good fortune of facing the sea for a good part of my childhood. More fortunate was the fact that the ‘Al-Ghubra’ beach near our home for a long time was a calm undiscovered virgin beach in the heart of the city and was almost a private beach for us with not more than 5-6 people at any given point on it! 

The Al-Ghubra beach may not be the most beautiful beach in the world, but for me this beach was my gym, my playground, my picnic spot, my hang out, my hobby and evenings pretty much revolved around it.  The Al-Ghubra beach was a lovely expanse of unpolluted clear waters, fine sand, coarse sand, squelchy sand, white sand, and dark sand that formed lovely patterns shaped by the wind and the water dotted by millions of sea shells, pebbles  and horse hoofs all along the beach.  

I spent many an amusing evening doing plenty of digging which fortunately brought up only sand, water or the hand that dug at the other end of the tunnel instead of the odd slipper or polythene bags from Juhu beach at Mumbai.  Building sand castles with all that dug up sand was also another pleasurable activity although destroying these castles before we left was more fun!

A little bit of nature also found it way home especially when I entered the water to play with the waves. Each time I entered the water, mom had to deal with a messed up hallway and a bathroom with sand pouring out of my shoes, socks and folded up trousers.  More of the nature found its way to my home in the form of shells, ‘kaudis’, corals and pretty little pebbles of all hues which now stand  in a vase in my showcase.  My Dad argues that all I did on the beach was walk with my head down and scavenge for these sea souvenirs all along a walk. Hence he made me run on the sandy beach which usually was done with a great deal of reluctance and grumbling amidst huffing and puffing.

No visit was complete without food of course. A packet of chips or sandwiches with Kissan Tomato Ketchup were usual favorites.  For visits which were more planned, mom used to make yummy ‘Batata Wadas’ eaten with Kissan ketchup or gobi parathas which we spread out on newspapers and ate. Visitors to the Ghubra beach with huge families also brought in beach chairs, barbecue skewers, tables and plenty of food making us want to go home that was 2 minutes away and get all that!

My favorite time back then and today on the beach was during twilight when the skies and the waters assumed a golden hue and looking out into the sea became more ethereal than ever each time.  A distant ship in the horizon conjured up speculations of what it might contain and stories around it.  A sense of calm prevailed and the sea breeze became cooler after a hot day. Listening to the musical rhythm of waves and watch them gush forth and recede in their ever changing colors, I was completely refreshed everyday with this natural Real beauty that took my breath away every time I visited the beach.

This memory is an entry to the exciting Kissan contest on Indiblogger. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Local Tourists at Maximum Mumbai

Busy days, late hours and horrid traffic left me and hubby SS exhausted on the Friday evening. Thus came many pleasurable and contented ways of spending our weekend. That of ‘relaxing at home’, ‘chilling out with a dvd’ and getting chores done.  Then a simple campaign by a leading newspaper happened asking us to switch off our teevees for a day. It sounds like a mighty marketing gimmick, but it honestly worked. We decided to finally get out of our contented monotonous chilling at home and explore what was closest to us – the city of Mumbai. What first came to our head was the symbol most popularly associated with Mumbai City - The Gateway of India and and decided to start with areas around it.
The Taj and the Gateway from the Sea

Colaba Causeway
It was walk down memory lane for me as I passed the legendary Regal theatre and the Alibaba Restaurant that was adjacent to an office where I once worked right after my engineering on the way to the Gateway. It was wonderful to walk on Colaba Causeway and hear the vendors speak expertly in English and French and still see them target only the white tourist population and ignore the brown skinned locals!  The array of gaudy necklaces, trinkets, scarves, marble and wooden showpieces that have not changed for a long time now continued to be there and continued to fascinate me. Only most of them were pretty pricey targeting a dollar audience dollars and not for local Indians!

The Taj Hotel
Right across the Gateway of India, The Taj has stood like a shining beacon of lovely architecture in Mumbai city and a balm to eyes tired of filth, peeling paint, slums and box like buildings with matchbox apartments. From the Gateway it looked grand as always and a testimony to what Mumbai has withstood, repaired though not healed. The luxury hotel has attracted distinguished visitors in Mumbai and it was always a pleasure to enter its luxurious, and rich interiors even if it was for just a cup of late night coffee or for a conference in one of its grand ballrooms.

Wah Taj!

The Gateway of India
Coming back to the Gateway of India, my earliest memories as a kid were walking right under the Gateway and buying puzzles, tricks and such paraphernalia from a thriving market of encroachments even back then.  Now, amidst security concerns, there is a large police barricade and siege with elaborate screening, constant security vigil and a heightened awareness although it was fortunately pervaded by much laughter and photographers asking couples to make various funny poses to hold the Taj and the Gateway.
The Gateway of India

The Gateway of India was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay back in 1911, a 100 years back from the approaching March 11, 2011. The last of British troops to leave India also passed through the Gateway in 1948. In earlier times, the Gateway was the first glimpse of Bombay that visitors arriving by Bombay would get.  The architecture of the Gateway is Indo-Gothic representing the cosmopolitan culture of the city of Mumbai even today.

Elephanta Caves and the Ferry ride
Our next destination was the famous Elephanta caves, which are on an island across Bombay, reachable by a ferry ride in the sea from the Gateway. It is funny how most locals including us have never seen these caves despite residing in Mumbai for so many years. It never helped that that those who had visited only disparaged the place saying there were just a few broken idols and little else to see. Well, but look at it this way, it really is fun to be a tourist in your own city and see things from a new perspective, understand history and see where the roots of your city indeed lie. The Gateway is one part of understanding the city, the Taj another and the Elephanta caves set in an era long bygone adding yet another dimension to this huge city.

Cruising in the Arabian Sea on an hour long ferry ride, fanned by a cool zephyr, watching the Mumbai skyline recede and trying to make out major landmarks in the city all added to our really touristy experience.
We reached the Elephanta Island by boat and clambered on a toy train which really ran the distance of a 5 minute walk but was again, a part of the experience! We then had piping hot tea from the ubiquitous tea stalls and then proceeded to clamber the many steps up the hill that led to the caves. As usual, the entrance all along the steps was lined by a huge market of souvenirs that sold everything that can be found at any souvenir market in India I suppose. We saw rows and rows of endless ‘handicrafts’ that we had bought foolishly in Rajasthan at high prices  as something unique and refused to buy more ‘unique items’.

Toy Train to Elephanta Caves

We finally reached the caves and found a guide (unauthorized guy since there were no official guides!) to tell us the history of the place instead of us looking blankly at the statues. We learned that the Elephanta Island as it was now known is known originally and referred to by locals as the Gharapuri Island which means literally island of caves. The island consists of Hindu and Buddhist caves with the Hindu caves depicting tales from the life of Shiva.

The Portuguese called the island Elephanta on seeing its huge gigantic statue of an Elephant at the entrance. The Statue is now placed in the garden outside the Jijamata Udyan at Byculla in Mumbai. This cave was renovated in the 1970s after years of neglect, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 to preserve the artwork and is currently maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. If the Portuguese used the sculptures for target practice blowing them up for most part, Indian ruffians scribbled and carved their names and declared undying love to their beloveds and desecrated the statues. ASI has done a good job however in cleaning up a majority of these names, though on close scrutiny, one can still make out English letters in the haze.

The guide told us several interesting stories about the sculptures most of which could be confirmed by the guidebook or Wikipedia. The ones I liked are Ravan lifting Shiva and Parvati on Mount Kailash, Wedding of Shiva, Shiva slaying a demon named Andhaka, and the most famous one, the Trimurti. The Trimurti is a 20 ft rock sculpture that depicts a three headed Shiva manifesting creation, preservation and destruction and thus the three important deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively.
The Trimurti Idol

It took us around 2 hours to go around the entire place, take photos and listen to stories besides indulging in chai, and look at knick-knacks in the souvenir market. The ferry service starts early in the morning and continues till around 5:00 pm in the evening in winters. I suppose this time gets extended in summers.
The ride back thrilled us again as sea gulls swept up and down, and in circles with their cries over the lapping waters. We disembarked at the Gateway and headed back into the chaos of the city. With a few hours left to kill on that perfect weekend, we ate pav bhaji at one of the tiny restaurants at Colaba Causeway, ate a really yummy looking pan and watched the Bollywood movie ‘Agneepath’ at the historic Regal theater.
I would definitely recommend this trip to anyone who wants to become a tourist at Mumbai. Go Out Mumbaikars and take that ferry ride!

A Glorious Sunset

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