GEO
EN ROUTE TO ELLORA: BRAVING BOMBAY
October 1984
Most visitors to the Ellora caves arrive by way of Bombay, India's great western port. It is about 200 miles from there to Aurangabad ‑the base for exploring both the Ellora and the somewhat earlier Ajanta caves (noted for their wall paintings). A day trip from Bombay to the caves is thus possible (though rushed) and a weekend jaunt ideal.

Travelers bound for Ellora should prepare themselves for a rather jolting preliminary urban experience in Bombay. (The rioting that plagued the city last spring has subsided, but Americans can keep abreast of the political situation via the U.S. State Department's India travel advisory service; Tel: 202‑632‑1289.) Andrew Ward, whose novel on India will be published next year by Viking, offers these thoughts on the city:

My first memory of Bombay is that of an eight‑year‑old boy arriving by P.&O. steamer during the 1950s, beggars scrabbling at my sleeves. Present‑day visitors may be just as daunted, for the airport swarms with people. Those who consider it beneath their dignity to butt in line at the customs gate could conceivably wither away and die as Indian families stream in front of them, hauling huge, castered suitcases bulging with video equipment and duty‑free cigarettes. Whether you sign up for an air‑conditioned hotel bus or take your chances in a Hindustani cab, the ride into the city is torturous, along a cluttered four-lane highway that's intended to impress you but succeeds only in making the engulfing slums all the more appalling.

If you're visiting Bombay for the first time, my advice is to take it easy. Don't add to your sensory overload by accepting your driver's offer to tour Bombay's sideshows: the "Girls in Cages," those dismal galleries of prostitutes in the red‑light district, or perhaps the yogis thrusting needles through their tongues at Chowpatty Beach.

No, far better to give yourself a day in the old wing of the Taj Mahal Hotel to let the initial shock wear off. The Taj (Tel: 243 366) is set on the rim of the Arabian Sea at Apollo Bunder, across the drive from the Gateway Arch. A local rumor persists that the British architect for­got to specify the building's orientation, so it was built facing the wrong way. (Indeed, when I stayed there with my boss during the late 1960s, his deluxe suite overlooked warehouses and kitchen rooftops while my humble single room boasted a sweeping view of the bay.) Despite this, the Taj remains‑even with a recent, incongruous skyscraping extension‑one of the best hotels in Asia, with food that is elegant, varied and clean.


500B-203-004
The venerable Taj Hotel and the Gateway Arch stand guard at Bombay Harbour

From India Gate just outside the Taj, tour boats set off amid fishing fleets for Bombay's own excavated temples, the caverns of Elephanta, where the walls are studded with seventh-century Shaivite sculpture.

If your tastes are more imperial, venture into the city to gape at "VT," the Victoria Terminus‑one of the truly heart‑stopping monstrosities of the empire. Along its facade, bas‑relief iconography depicting the imperial age of steam looms over the masses of railway passengers who still press through its iron gates. Another possibility is to spend an afternoon at the old Royal Opera House watching one of the 200 films ‑all masterpieces of kitsch ‑churned out in Bombay each year.

My favorite haunt, though, is the New and Secondhand Bookshop on Kalbadevi Road, where the libraries left behind by the British still await buyers five stacks deep (and where, in my boyhood, books were sold by weight). During a visit in the 1960s, I bought a century‑old photographic album from the hill station of Ootacamund for just $5, and a year ago I managed to purchase the classic nineteenth‑century Rulers of India series for $2 a volume.

I also urge you to brave the heat and take a taxi to Char Bazaar, the old thieves' market‑one of the world's great antique bazaars, where shops such as A.1. Corner and Newly Decorators of Mutton Street peddle Mutiny medals, Victorian music boxes, studded chests, lacquered bridal swings, silver services, oils, crystal chandeliers and grizzled hunting trophies rescued from the crumbling palaces of princely India.

END