Elephanta Island and Mumbai

Chaotic and wonderful.  Mumbai  (Bombay, if you prefer):  crowded, hot, humid, rich, poor, diverse, colorful, fragrant, smelly, and so on!  So many contradictions, yet so vibrant. What an incredible place.


Unless you were traveling here, you may not have been paying attention to what has happened with the Indian currency, the Rupee.  On the night Trump was elected, the government in India decided to pull its 500 and 1000 Rupee notes from circulation.  These notes made up over 80% of the currency in circulation, throwing the populace into a very, very difficult situation. Many are going hungry due to not being able to access money.  People can withdraw only 2000 Rupees per day from an ATM (about $30); the line-ups are long, and by the time many reach the front of the line, there is no money left available to withdraw.  As I mentioned in a previous post, some on the cruise had pre-purchased Rupees and were hoping that the tour company would accept them.  I had contacted the company and had been told that they would accept US Dollars or credit card payment, but could only pay with a credit card on the day we arrived in Mumbai.

India was the only country that we had to pre-arrange a visa for (all other visas were “in transit” visas, and taken care of by the cruise line); the process was incredibly time-consuming and relatively expensive.  Before arriving in India, we had to go through an onboard immigration process as well.  Each floor was given a particular time frame to go through the process.  When you arrived, you were given your passport back and then given a copy of your passport and a series of cards to sign (one for each port).  After signing everything, you moved forward to meet with the immigration people.  They looked over your documents, verified that your visa was correct, stamped your cards and then sent you along.  Your passport was collected back from you; you turned in all except for the immigration card for Mumbai and then could return to your cabin.

Upon exiting the ship, your paperwork was once again examined when you entered the port building.  There were scanners set up for you and your bags/purses.  Our tour guide was to be waiting for us on the other side of the building.  There was also a shuttle bus to the port gate which was a bit confusion; for past tours, if there was a shuttle bus, we had to take it to meet our bus.  In this case, the bus was allowed to enter the port area but was not there yet.  We arrived early so verified that we were in the right place and waited for the others in our group to show up.  Eventually, one of the two buses and guides showed up along with the man that was to process our credit card payments.   Unfortunately, the credit card machine did not work.

There were two couples that only had old Rupees to use as payment.  They told the tour guide that they would not take the tour if the company would not accept the Rupees, so she called the company.  The company representative said that they would not accept the Rupees, so I had to tell the couples that they would have to pay another way.  Both couples refused to pay and so canceled not only today’s tour but the next 4 days as well.  Fortunately, this company did not demand payment if there were those that did not show up.

The card reader was taken across the street and was able to connect to the network, so payments could continue.  One other thing:  I had been told ahead of time that we could pay for all of our tours on the first day using the card reader.  That decision was reversed and we were told that we could only pay using a credit card for the first two days (while in Mumbai); we would need to pay in US dollars from then on.  There was an ATM on the ship so this would not be a problem; we all had access to cash.  I suppose if someone did not have an ATM card that they could get cash via a room charge.  This all took quite a while so we got a late start on our tour.

The tour we chose today was to see Elephanta Island and “Must-See” Mumbai.  Our first stop would be Elephanta Island which was a one-hour ferry ride away.  The bus stopped at the port gate; our immigration documents were examined yet again by an official.  This was our first opportunity to see the roads of Mumbai.  Oh my goodness!  I will try to describe some of what we saw as I describe our day, but this is one place that you really must experience to understand.  For starters, there are people everywhere.  Literally, everywhere.  Lined up along the streets, walking in the streets (most don’t use the sidewalks), anywhere you can imagine.  We docked on a Sunday and so most people were not working.  Apparently, the traffic today was much less than usual.  To add to the mix, there were also cows sitting alongside the road.  Keep in mind that we were not in the country; we were in a city of 14 million people (21 million if you include the suburbs).  Our guide, Meherukh (most gave up and called her Mary), told us that the cows don’t wander free.  They are attended by a person that sells grass to passersby.  They buy grass the feed the cow; the cow is fed, the person selling the grass can afford to feed their family, everyone wins


In 1661, the 7 islands that originally composed Bombay were given as a marriage gift to a royal couple (one from Portugal and one from England).  Bombay was then given to the East India Trading Company at a cost of 20 pounds per year.  The East India Company developed the city, filling in most of the waterways to create what is now the city of Mumbai.  The Portuguese called the city Bombay; the name was changed back to Mumbai around 1995-6.


The buildings are a mixture of styles including Art Deco and Gothic.  Many are fairly recently built but are not very well kept up.  Except for a few notable exceptions, most of the buildings look pretty run down.

We were let off the bus by the “Gateway of India” (built in 1911, completed 13 years later, commissioned by King George), a famous landmark. There was a military band playing and large groups of children in school uniforms dancing (it looked like Highland dancing).  This was apparently a special day!  The ferry that would take us to Elephanta was just past the Gateway.  We were able to board immediately; it was a one hour ride to the island.  I was amused by the posted sign, “Photography not allowed”; everyone on the ferry was taking pictures!  The ride to the island was smooth.  The water looked very polluted.  As a matter of fact, the toilet on board was a hole in the floor that led directly into the water.  We learned later that the sewage of Mumbai is fed directly into the Arabian Gulf as well.  Ick.  It is no wonder that none of the beaches we saw over the next two days had anyone swimming!

We arrived at Elephanta Island.  No, there are no elephants here!  Plenty of monkeys, cows and goats, but no elephants.  The island was formed by repeated volcanic eruptions, each adding another layer of lava.  The island was found 1600 years ago and excavated between 525 and 575 AD.  The caves were excavated using hammer and chisel; children would carry out the rocks.  Next, hollow rectangular areas with pillars were fashioned and finally, artists added the details.  Many such caves exist on the western hills of India – there are about 2000 in all; 1200 are accessible.  Different religions have used these caves; the Elephanta Caves are Hindu.  All caves face east for ventilation and light.  This island used to be on a trade route, but in the 10th century a shortcut was found and the sailors bypassed the island.  It remained lost until the 18th century when some lost Portuguese sailors landed on the other side and decided that they saw a formation shaped like an elephant and named the island Elephanta.

After exiting the ferry we walked a short distance to a mini-train that would take us the length of the pier and drop us off on the island.  It was hot and humid (mid-90’s).  Fortunately, there was a restroom (though you had to pay to use it); even more fortunately a person in our group shared his Rupees so I could use the restroom (thanks, Michael P.!).  The entrance to the island was filthy.  There was garbage washed up all over the shore and garbage strewn all over the island itself.  Goats and stray dogs wandered about.  There were a few cows wandering as well.  Monkeys kept us entertained while we waited for the guide to send us up to the caves.  I had read that the walk up to the caves was over 100+ stone steps and could be a challenge since they were uneven.  I was expecting a walk through the jungle or wilderness, but it turned out to be a walk lined with shops on both sides.  People were selling all sorts of trinkets; you had to ignore them or and just keep going.  For those that did not want to make the trek, they had chairs on poles (palanquins, but low-rent ones – a wooden chair tied to two wooden poles) that you could hire for $30 round trip.  Four men manned the poles and a couple of people from our group opted to be carried up.  The walk up wasn’t that difficult; it was just hot.


The cave is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, god of destruction.  There are 9 sculptures contained within; all show the strengths of the god.  There is also a sacred sanctum chamber.  The sculptures have been damaged over the years due to erosion and natural causes, but also by the Portuguese soldiers using them for target practice.  Originally the statues had color but virtually none remains.

At each stop, Memerukh explained the symbolism in the statues.  She explained quite a bit about the Hindu religion as well.  In the first statue, Shiva sits on a lotus with eyes closed.

The next statue is related to a story about an ideal king and son (Ram) whose wife was kidnapped.  He rescued her.  There is no devil in Hinduism but evil exists (it is the absence of God).  In this statue Shiva is at the top and has a god to the left and right.  Below is Ram.

The third depiction shows Shiva and his wife (Shiva’s abode).  In case you are wondering why many of the gods in Hinduism are depicted with multiple arms, the idea is that more arms = more power.  In this scenario, four arms are shown.  Shiva has been playing a dice game with his wife and keeps winning.  She accuses him of cheating.  She has turned away from him and he is pulling her back.  The message is supposed to be that we should accept everything with equanimity.  There are celestial beings watching above (they can be seen in several of the statues).  Women are depicted with large breasts and “child-bearing” hips.  Women are revered in Hinduism, but day to day life for women in India does not reflect that.  The feminine energy is referred to as Shakti.

I took notes on each panel, but can’t match all of them to the pictures, so will just give some general notes.  The inner temple has 4 entrances, each guarded by two gate-keepers.  The “shiva-linga” is the form given to a formless one.  In this case, contained in the sanctum sanctorum is a form shaped like a phallus – the seed of creation.

We saw a panel showing the marriage of Shiva and his wife.  The woman traditionally stands to the left of the man (on the heart side).  The man holds the woman with his left side and protects with his right (the armed side).  This depiction of Shiva is two-armed to show his human form.  During a Hindu wedding ceremony, the couple does 7 circles around the fire, each is for a special benediction.

The Destroyer panel shows and angry Shiva with 8 arms.  Shiva is destroying the god of ignorance and demons. Lastly is the dance at the creation and destruction of the universe (creation to the left, destruction to the right).

We left the caves and waited under the shade of a tree for the rest of the group to come out.  A monkey was trying to steal someone’s lunch.  When the guy wouldn’t share, the monkey ran up and hit him on the back!  We saw monkeys doing a variety of amusing things, but I don’t think you want to get one mad.  I found one that was picking fleas off of its baby – too cute.

The walk down was much easier than the walk up.  By now it was about 1:30 and we were getting hungry.  We regrouped and found that we were missing a woman from the 2nd group.  She had decided against going up to the caves and was supposed to wait for us at the bottom of the steps.  She was traveling with her family; the rest of them had viewed the caves.  She was an older woman, and obviously, everyone was very concerned.  We waited for a while; someone from her family went back up to look for her.  She was nowhere to be found.  Our group decided to go ahead and catch the ferry back to the city.  A few of her family members stayed on the island and the rest of her group continued on.  The tour guides were both very upset and had to report the situation to the police (who were none too pleased).

The ferry ride back was uneventful.  When we exited the ferry, Meherukh spotted the missing woman waiting near the pier.  Thank goodness!  Why she decided to take the ferry back rather than waiting for her family and the rest of her group on the island, I will never know.  Meherukh called the other guide to let her know that the lost sheep had been found and we continued on to lunch.  Traffic was a mess!  This is a normal state of being in Mumbai.  It looked like over half of the cars were taxis; hardly anyone here owns their own car.


We passed by the famous Taj Mahal Hotel (built in the early 1900’s).  We passed a large field with multiple (probably hundreds) of teams playing cricket (the national sport) side by side.  Green space is at a premium here, so they make do with the space they have.  Since it is a Sunday, people have time to play so the fields were extremely full.  Lawn tennis and soccer are also popular sports here.


We had a quick lunch at a restaurant.  I had samosas in some type of very spicy sauce; Clayton had “corn on toast”.  The condiments were excellent (a lovely mango chutney, some spicy vegetables, and a mild yogurt sauce).

We loaded the bus and went on a scenic drive towards our final stop of the day, the Gandhi Museum.  Meherukh told us that 60% of people in Mumbai live in slums.  We would be visiting the largest slum tomorrow, so will explain more fully in that post.  The concept of a slum is different here.  Slums are not for homeless people.  There are homeless people in Mumbai as well; they live on the streets in makeshift shelters and their children do not go to school.  These are predominantly tribal people who come to the city because there are no opportunities where they are.  We drove along Marine Drive, also known as the Queen’s Necklace.  We viewed $2,000,000 apartments across the bay.  There is a promenade along the Queen’s Necklace; we saw quite a few families out for a Sunday stroll, but the evening is when things get really busy there.

We passed an area where many weddings take place.  Before a Hindu wedding takes place the couple meet with an astrologer to determine the most auspicious day and time for the ceremony to take place.  Therefore, marriage ceremonies take place every day of the week at any time of day.  Around 80% of marriages here are arranged marriages.  Their weddings are a joining of two families and since the wife goes to live with her husband’s family, it is important that the future mother-in-law approves of the choice of bride.

We arrived at the Gandhi Museum which is located in a house that Gandhi lived in. A few random Gandhi facts:  Gandhi married at 12 or 13 years of age.  He was assassinated in 1948 right after India got its independence from Great Britain.  He loved to spin; he did it daily as a form of meditation.  The Gandhi library is located on the bottom floor.  The middle floor had fascinating dioramas displaying information about Gandhi’s life. One famous act of Gandhi’s was a 240-mile walk to protest the British tax on salt.  He walked 10 miles per day.  When he began, he had only a few people with him.  By the time he finished, he marched with thousands.  Martin Luther King visited the Gandhi Museum in the 50’s and was greatly influenced by Gandhi’s views.  Although the house was not set up for overnight guests, an exception was made for Dr. King.

As usual on the drive back to the port, our guide told us some random facts about India.  Someone asked Meherukh about the caste system.  There are four castes; which caste you are in is determined by birth.  The “top dogs” are the Brahmin class (priestly).  I couldn’t get the name of the others, but the next level below Brahmin is the warrior class, then the traders and finally those that serve others.  She said that the untouchables are those without a caste and do jobs that involve things like cleaning toilets and other jobs that no one else wants to do.  Gandhi did these jobs; he considered the notion of an untouchable to be a blot on Hinduism.  It is against the Constitution here but still exists in the mindset of the people.


Another question came up about Hindu women who are widowed being cast out of their homes.  Remarriage is not an option and yes, some women are indeed cast out upon the death of their husband.  In India, sons are very important because your son is your “social security”; he will look after you in your old age.  No sons; you are out of luck!  The daughter’s responsibility is to her new family, not her mother.

Since we were talking about religion, Meherukh shared that she was born into the Zoroastrian faith.  This religion was founded in Persia.  The Zoroastrians left Persia in the 8th century and moved to India.  There are not too many of the faith left in India because marriages can only take place within the faith.  Unlike most in India, Zoroastrian couples do not continue to have children until they have a son (or two or three). You cannot convert to the faith either.  If a Zoroastrian man marries a non-Zoroastrian woman, their children will be Zoroastrian.  However, if a Zoroastrian woman marries a non-Zoroastrian man, their children will not be Zoroastrian.  The people in the sect are very highly educated and treat women well.

We had one final photo stop at the famous Victoria Terminus.  I think I mentioned earlier that 7.5 million people take trains into Mumbai daily.  Since it is Sunday, the station wasn’t overrun with people, but if it were a workday would be jam-packed.  Across from the train station is the Bombay Municipal Corporation (city hall), also a visually striking building.

After the heat of the day and the length of the tour, we were definitely ready to return to the ship for the evening.  Meherukh was a phenomenal guide; she will be our guide tomorrow as well. In order to get back to the ship, we had to once again produce our immigration cards for the gate guards.  A guard entered the bus to check everyone’s  paperwork.

On a whinier note, multiple people have canceled their tour tomorrow for a variety of reasons.  Very, very frustrating for me.  In order to have fairly equal groups, I need to reassign people.  Hopefully, a few extras will show up at the dock to join us.  I really do hate when this happens.