Like many, I have heard so much about India; from stories told with passion about the kindness and warmth of the natives to horror stories of poverty and dirt along with endless toilet trips. However, my five days experience with Mumbai has shown me that apart from all the chaos, India proves to be the most engaging, colourful and spiritual country in the world.
It was two o’clock in the morning when I landed at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, yet the humidity was bizarre. Who would have thought someone from Southeast Asia would have taken note on such matter? The immigration control was a chaotic experience for me as there was no proper signage to indicate which counter I was to head to. After a good 15-minute wait in the horrendous queue, I was directed to another counter (thankfully the line was fairly empty) due to the fact that I was entering the country with an e-visa. It was after then that everything ran like clockwork; I collected my luggage and cruised my way to the arrival hall, where the hotel’s guest services picked me up at the airport gate and ushered me straight into a Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
The drive from the airport into the heart of India’s Maximum City is not a journey to forget. At three o’clock in the morning, the grey highway was still packed with vehicles. Drivers were still honking their horns regardless of the time and situation, and instantly, “noise” was deeply engraved in my memory. “It’s a form of communication, madam. Here in Mumbai, it’s our way of avoiding accidents,” said my driver. Dark as it was, I was affronted by views of one of the city’s hundreds of slums with the occasional out-of-place skyscrapers.
As the car slowly drove into Lower Parel, Mumbai’s premier entertainment and commercial district, it was easy to spot The St. Regis flagship among other buildings as the hotel is recognised as India’s tallest hotel tower. Once we arrived at the main entrance of the hotel, I was overwhelmed by the hotel’s attentive service. For a property that prides itself on excellence and personalisation, The St. Regis Mumbai’s impeccable service is top of its class. In addition, the invisible presence of the hotel staff is extraordinary. Throughout my stay, I looked forward to returning my room as I know that it would have been replenished back to its glorious tip-top condition. Apart from the usual room upkeep expected from a five-star hotel, they even made it a point to wipe down the fingerprints on my makeups and facial care products as well as arrange everything neatly and accordingly on the table.
Needless to say, I was utterly charmed by every detail and service offered by the prestigious hotel. However, as much as it ached me to leave the heavenly premises, I decided to join the St. Regis’ Aficionado tours to find out more about the city. Formerly known as Bombay, the city is also famously known as the heart of the Bollywood film industry. Within minutes, I have concluded that India is not a place for the faint-hearted. I was partly not prepared for the interesting blend of scent from Indian spices, human sweat and heady incense all intensified by the heat of Mumbai. The crazy driving on traffic-choked roads (which is, unfortunately, a permanent fixture) was a hair-raising experience for me as well. I was partly amazed (though mostly petrified) by the driver’s skill to weave all over the road and overtake from both sides. And lastly, the wealth disparity, which can be seen through the buildings itself, was a new scene for me: beautiful palatial apartments are built directly next to endless rows of huts, constructed out from scraps of plastic and metals, held together with an array of rags and frayed ropes (in many cases, mere gravity).
From that point, I thought I had Mumbai all figured all, but I was wrong. After an hour drive, the tour took me to Colaba, Mumbai’s unofficial tourist headquarters and also where all the historical monuments remain from the colonial era are located. Unlike Lower Parel, the expansive roads are lined with lush green trees while cobbled architectures speak of old money, with a spectacular combination of Gothic, Victorian, Art Deco, Indo-Saracenic and contemporary architectural styles.
The first building to greet me was the Chhatrapati Shivaji (formerly Victoria) Terminus and the Central Railway Headquarters building. The only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the island city of Mumbai, it is a well-known landmark that is constantly bustling with people. The beautiful structure is blended with themes deriving from Indian traditional architecture and was designed based on the late medieval Italian model.
The Gateway of India, which was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary, is an outstanding example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. The arch and design of the windows are derived from Islamic architectural styles of 16th century Gujarat while the pillars are reminiscent of Hindu temple design.
However, my personal favourite was the Rajabai Clock Tower, which stands in the lawns of the Fort campus of the University of Mumbai. Modelled after Big Ben in London, the clock tower fuses Venetian and Gothic styles. Of course, the university itself is a grand masterwork. The Convocational Hall is built in the Gothic style of architecture and has stunning stained glass rose window with the twelve zodiacal constellations. Asides from that, gargoyles are adorned around the top of the building.
Roaming around the area surrounded by buildings that are old and regal, for a moment, I have almost forgotten that I was in Mumbai — it could have been any old European city! From the windows and doorways to the turrets and spires, Colaba managed to transport me to another time and place in history. Vibrant and colourful, the cosmopolitan temperament of the city instantly made me feel one with it.