Mumbai: "The Gateway of India"

Mumbai,

India
March 11, 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

The Gateway of India was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary who visited their colony in 1911.

The Gateway stands tall in Mumbai (Bombay) on the shore of the Arabian Sea. This "bold basalt arch of colonial triumph" greeted the many thousands of soldiers who arrived during the later years of the British Raj.* It also was the last structure they saw when they departed in 1948 after Indian Independence was proclaimed.

The British soldiers and I are more fortunate than King George and Queen Mary. In fact, the monarchs were greeted by a mock cardboard arch. The Gateway was not completed until 1924. Since that time, the Gateway has attracted thousands, perhaps millions of tourists.

We hundreds of Sunday visitors stroll around the monumental arch and through the adjoining parks. Balloon vendors, food vendors and "gift item" vendors vie for our attention and pry a few rupees from our pockets. Indian women and children are dressed in their traditional bright pastel outfits. It's a colorful, celebratory scene.

Up on Malabar Hill, the Hanging Gardens are a soothing retreat from the tumult below. Groups of young folks and young families, and hand-holding, daring young couples wander the paths lined with flowers and topiary shrubs. Nearby, in the Jain Temple, marble carvings of elephants and the Jain tirthankars offer a shady, tranquil repose. This temple is dedicated to the first Jain tirthankar or teacher. His name is Adinath, a name remarkably similar to another blessed name.

Unlike the Monarchs and their entourage who sailed from England, I arrived in Mumbai by airplane from Gujarat. And unlike the royalty, Mumbai is my final stop on this trip to India. And what a final stop! A city of more than sixteen million! A modern, imperial city.

The red-domed Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, Royal Bombay Yacht Club, Army and Navy Building, National Gallery of Art and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Terminus) are only a few of the grand, ornate, regal Edwardian-Victorian structures. They share the metropolis with equally grand, yet spare Twentieth Century skyscrapers that are filled with Twenty-First Century moguls and tycoons.

Despite the rush, anxiety, veneer and trappings of the modern temper, just below the surface and beneath the subcontinental crust lies a deep layer, an eternal foundation of tradition and ritual. Simply put, India is charged, suffused, saturated with religion. So putting aside her family obligations, business interests, and social engagements, my host, Sushma, along with her young son and nanny, escorted me on one final pilgrimage: the Haji Ali Mosque.

The Haji Ali Mosque sits on an island at the end of a long causeway in the Arabian Sea. The dazzling white marble mosque holds the tomb of a rich merchant, Haji Ali Shah Bukhari who gave up his wealth after a pilgrimage to Mecca. One version of the legend is that Haji Ali died on the pilgrimage and his casket miraculously floated back to Mumbai and landed at this spot.

Sushma and her family are not Muslims. Neither am I. And neither are many of the other visitors to the mosque. Nevertheless, the devotion, enthusiasm and energy of the crowd creates an atmosphere of reverence and celebration for members of every faith. There's singing and picnicking. Everyone enjoys the sea breeze and the hypnotic view back towards the city and the Gateway.

The Haji Ali Mosque and the Gateway of India are my final stops. But when I return to see my friends Paawan and Sushma and their generous families, when I return to this diverse, frenetic, vibrant and compelling land, my first stop in India will be through the grand Gateway into modern Mumbai.

The Republic of India has more than one billion people, eight major languages, one thousand regional languages and dialects, and six major religions. India is grand, modern, traditional, ancient and always, always magical.

Namaste,

Jan

* "India." Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. 2005. p 696.

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