“Lets go for a walk. You can see a different side of Mumbai that way,” I said to a friend from Delhi, who was in Mumbai on work and wanted to experience the city in a zara hatke way.
“A walk? In Mumbai?,” she asked incredulously.
“Of course,” I replied.
She laughed herself silly over my suggestion and then asked, “But where is the space to walk in this city? And what about the weather, the crowds, the traffic, the pollution, etc.?”
“The weather is not too bad in Mumbai now. Besides, if we go for a walk on a Sunday, the crowds, the traffic and the pollution will be manageable,” I responded.
“Er… what is there to see in Mumbai, apart from the not-so-clean beaches, the Marine Drive, the Siddhi Vinayak Temple, the Haji Ali Dargah, and houses of film stars?” she asked a little too politely.
Since this was the first time that my friend was visiting Mumbai, and was only repeating what she had heard from others, I guess she could be forgiven. But still, it was a matter of pride for me to present my city to a visitor in a way that only an insider can. “You and I are going for a walk this Sunday. No ifs and buts or whats and wheres. No arguments. Meet me outside Platform 1 at CST station at 8.00 am. And try not to be late, will you?”
So that is how, we came to standing outside Platform 1 at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or CST (formerly known as Victoria Terminus or VT) at around 8 am looking and soaking in the activity at the station on a beautifully cool and crisp Sunday morning (well, as cool and crisp as Mumbai can possibly get at this time of the year).
The CST building is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and perhaps the only living one, in the sense that it is still in use today and is not just another monument. In addition to being a railway terminus for both suburban railway services in Mumbai and long distance trains, the CST building is also the headquarters of the Central Railways, which was earlier known as the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR). Designed by the British architect Frederick William Stevens, construction of this building began in 1878 and was inaugurated on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s (the then reigning British monarch’s) golden jubilee in 1888. Today, only the platforms and the suburban booking office are open to the public and photography is strictly forbidden inside the premises.
We began our walk with a stroll down Platform 1, one of the six original platforms of the CST building, and which still retains many of the original features today.
Since it was a Sunday, there were hardly any people and we were able to wander around leisurely. I was particularly keen on showing my friend the only two remaining stained glass windows located somewhere in the middle of the platform. One cannot miss them at all—their vivid colours, design and the quality make them stand out. Their brilliance is enhanced as they are easily visible in a row of insipid, washed out replacement “stained glass” windows, which look suspiciously like acrylic. The picture on the left, sadly shows only the replacement windows.
We then moved to the suburban booking office to look at some more stunning stained glass work, wood paneling, intricate trellis-work as well as soaring pillars reaching up to an arched ceiling. The ceiling is grand—painted a light greenish blue and gold, it is a sight to behold. A few years back, this ceiling came under some controversy when a regional party in Mumbai declared that the ceiling design looked suspiciously like the Union Jack, and should therefore be destroyed ! In the photograph on the right, one can only get a glimpse of the ceiling; for a better look at the “Union Jack” ceiling of CST, do click here.
Once done with a tour of the interiors of CST, we step outside to see the building in its entirety. Though I have seen the building countless times, it still thrills me whenever I see it. As for my friend, who is seeing the CST building for the first time, she is quite awestruck with delight !
Built in the Victorian Gothic style, the CST building has a distinctly polychromatic effect, in spite of the visible dirt/soot on it. The bulk of the different coloured building stones were locally sourced from quarries in Kurla and Ulhasnagar, with only the white marble sourced from elsewhere. The building is very discreetly, yet richly, embellished with sculptures of animals found in the Indian subcontinent like the mongoose, bandicoot, squirrel, peacock, lion, tiger, among others. The GIPR emblem can be spied at regular intervals too. The main entrance to the CST building, which leads to the Central Railway offices, has sculptures of a lion and a tiger guarding it—the former supposedly representing Britain and the latter, India.
We walked around the entire building trying to identify the different animals and admiring the architecture and design. Once done with the CST building, we walked the short distance to the General Post Office (GPO), our next halt in this walk.
The GPO building is supposedly modeled on the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur. Designed by John Begg, a consultant architect to the British government, the GPO building was the first building to be constructed in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture in India. Inaugurated in 1913, the GPO took 9 years to build, and today functions as the central post office for the city of Mumbai.
The architectural features of the GPO building are not visible up close as there are a lot trees around the building. Its only when we crossed the road and saw the full building could we discern the influence of Islāmic architecture in the design of the GPO, as well as its symmetrical features (see photo above).
The GPO’s interiors are beautiful and quite in contrast to the CST building that we have just seen. No stained glass windows or soaring pillars here—instead, there is a circular central hall with an (apparently) unsupported dome towering above at 120 feet. The Central Hall is also the hub of the activity at the GPO with a circular wooden counter positioned in the centre for conducting business. Since it was a Sunday, the Post Office was closed for business, but visitors like us could still walk in and admire it, but not take photographs.
Our next destination is Ballard Estate, which is a pleasant 10 minute, leisurely walk from GPO. I am quite excited about this part of the walk as I used to work here once upon a time and can’t wait to show my friend around the area.
Wikipedia best describes Ballard Estate as “an old European style business district”. Built on reclaimed land, Ballard Estate is a collection of buildings that are uniform in architectural style and design. This was possible only because all the buildings were designed by one person—George Wittett. The first building to be constructed here was the Old Custom House. A much sought after business address in Mumbai, Ballard Estate is home to some good restaurants (think Cafe Britannia), the Grand Hotel, corporate offices and headquarters, some amazing street food, etc.
We had fun walking in and out of the various tree-lined lanes that criss-cross the Estate. Except for security guards posted outside the buildings, a group of boys playing cricket, 4 goats and 2 cows we saw no one else. This was the first time I was visiting Ballard Estate on a Sunday and the place was quite unrecognisable without its cars, hawkers and the suited and booted men and women who inhabit the place on working days. It was almost like seeing the place for the first time !
The Alexandra Docks skirt the Ballard Estate and we manged to persuade the security guard at the gates to let us peek inside. He allowed us on the condition that we would only peek and not take photographs. After we had put our cameras inside our bags and our mobiles too, he allowed us to look inside. And what did we see? The sea, of course, a cruise liner which was docked there, and some rich and famous looking type people walking about !
After the walk in Ballard Estate, it was time to head to our next destination—the Asiatic Library and Horniman Circle Garden. It was another lovely walk, where we passed the Mint and the Reserve Bank of India buildings on our way there.
Construction of the Asiatic Library building or Town Hall was completed in 1830 and today it has been classified as a heritage structure. The Greco-Roman architectural design of the Library building is striking and it is not at all surprising that this building finds its way into ads, films, and videos ! The Horniman Circle Garden, earlier known as Eliphinstone Circle, is perhaps one of the few places in Mumbai with well-defined pedestrian arcades. The Garden was laid out in 1869 and is oriented in such a way that it has the Town Hall at one end and Flora Fountain at the other.
The Asiatic Library building is a popular tourist destination and it was not surprising to see tourists there posing and clicking photographs. It was also not surprising to see cars and bikes slow down and have a look at the building before moving on. Such is the effect of this grand structure and in spite of its rather sorry state due to renovations these days, the Asiatic Library building still made for an impressive photo-op.
Since the Horniman Circle Garden was closed, we decided to move on to our next and final destination of our walk: St. Thomas’ Cathedral.
St. Thomas’ Cathedral is the first Anglican church in Mumbai and is also believed to to the oldest British building in this city. Though construction of the Cathedral of St. Thomas began in 1676, it was abandoned and remained neglected for nearly 40 years, when it was “adopted by an East India Company Chaplain in 1710. It was opened for worship as a church on Christmas Day in 1718″ (for details click here). St. Thomas’ was consecrated as a cathedral in 1837 and was selected for the UNESCO Asia-Pacific heritage conservation award 2004.
This was my first time at the Cathedral and I was looking forward to seeing it.. When we arrived, Sunday morning services were over and except for a couple of people, the premises were empty. The cool white- washed interiors, stained glass windows, simple wooden pews, polished brass, and memorials and wall plaques—all this transported me back to England and I had to actually tell myself that I was in Mumbai !
We spent some time reading the wall plaques and memorials which were dedicated to soldiers who had either died in battle or had succumbed to illness. And then we spent some more time admiring the many stained glass windows. My pick was the window with St. Gabriel, St. Thomas and St. Michael in one frame. Isn’t it gorgeous?
By now, hunger and thirst had caught up with us and we went looking for a place to have refreshments. It took us a while as all the eateries were closed on account of it being Sunday. So you can imagine our relief when we discovered the little café at the Kitab Khana at Flora Fountain. That was an absolute life-saver ! The next hour or so was unwinding and relaxing over some excellent sandwiches and tea, and discussing our morning walk.
I confessed to my friend that when I had
ordered asked her to meet me at CST station for the walk, I had no clue as to what kind of walk I was going to take her on. I just had a vague idea of the places that I loved and wanted her to see. I guess that if hunger and thirst pangs had not interrupted, we might have just gone somewhere else.
My friend stared at me for some time and then burst out laughing. She said, “I could never tell that this was not a planned walk, if you know what I mean. If you are looking for another profession, Sudha, start conducting such walks in Mumbai. It was just P.E.R.F.E.C.T.”
“So does that mean one can walk in Mumbai and see things other than the not so clean beaches, Marine Drive, etc.,” I asked my friend slyly
“Touche, Sudha. Touche,” she smiled.
So, dear readers, what do you think of the walk that you just took with me?
P.S.: I know that, ideally, I should be putting up a map and routes and directions and what not, in case you are keen on doing this yourself. Umm… I’ll try to do it sometime soon. But really, this is not a difficult walk to do without directions and each stop is a maximum of 10 minutes away from the next. So directions or no directions, why don’t you try out this walk this Sunday or next Sunday or the Sunday after or … You could even do it on a weekday, but I would always recommend a Sunday for this walk.