This is one great Mumbai landmark that really flies under the radar. This is one of the coolest places in Mumbai, but no one seems to visit it, talk about it or even know about it. The Mahalaxmi racecourse - headquarters of the RWITC - the Royal Western India Turf club - located on a humongous 225 acres of land in one of most expensive and desirable areas of South Mumbai.
Just the sheer size of this property makes this a Mumbai marvel - because the city is so crowded, so chockfull, so cramped, so gummed up - that even sardines in their cans feel relaxed and spread out as compared to Mumbaikars. The property prices are high enough to make even Doland Trump bhai suck in a breath and shout ‘We are winning so much that we will one day buy a plot in Mumbai! Agli baar, trump sarkar!’. Even Sheikh Chilli of Arabia thinks twice before investing in land here and the Sultan of Brunei shook his head and went back on his gold-plated private jet.
And in the midst of all this, we have 225 acres of beautifully maintained greenery which is used for races only for a few days in a year! Isn’t that amazing?
I don't think people in Mumbai really appreciate the historical significance of the place - but this racecourse is more than 150 years old, and is a wonderful heritage structure with a lot of historical value. It was built in 1883!
Horse racing was always a big thing with the British, and the first thing they built once they had taken over a town and pacified the natives was to build a...no, not a racecourse silly! The first thing was a fort, then a court and gallows to hang all those who opposed them, then a port for their ships to haul away their loot, a bank to store the money they stole from the locals...and once they were good and rich and safe - a racecourse!
The first racecourse was built in India in Guindy, Madras - in 1777! The East India Company had won the battle of Plassey in 1757 and conquered Bengal. The EIC further established its hold in India by defeating the Mughal armies in the Battle of Buxar in 1764 and had the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II by the balls and squeezed out huge monies and the ‘Diwani’ or ‘right to collect land tax’ of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa from him - making them the de facto owners and rulers of North and East India.
We are used to it, so it doesn't really register...but we have the most amazing anomaly in the world right here under our noses.
Mumbai metropolis is one of the largest and most densely packed cities in the world - so chock full of people that you can’t swing a cat without braining a bunch of people - and breaking a few shop windows as well. Seriously, there are people living on top of people living on top of people.
The cost of land and building is also ridiculous - enough to make even Onassis and Donald Trump suck in their breath with a startled ‘what ho!’. You could probably buy a huge ranch in Texas - along with horses - for the price of a 3 BHK in South Bombay.
The traffic is so bad - so legendarily bad - that it is said that a courting couple can set out from office and get married, have a kid, get a divorce and then get back together in the time it would take to drive from office in South Bombay to home in Borivali.
And - in the midst of all this rampant and crazy metropolitan madness - we have a full-fledged forest in the middle of the city!
Not a garden - not a zoo - not a botanical park...but a proper forest - an ancient forest, still full of apex predators like leopards and prey like deer and wild pigs and monkeys, and complex an diverse tree and plant population and all sorts of Avifauna.
And this is not in some far away wilderness - but in that same Borivali suburb that our imaginary couple lives in. They could be living right on the edge of a forest and risk having their bananas stolen by monkeys and their dog to be eaten by a leopard!
How incredible is that!
No - not Nehru Science Centre… this is only ‘Nehru centre’, no science!
The Nehru centre building is something that had always intrigued me - it looks very fancy indeed. It is a pure white cylinder with scalloping all over it - sort of like some fancy origami design expanded to monstrous proportions.
It looks like the only brief given to the architect was ‘Make something different - anything you like! Money is no object! It doesn’t have to be practical at all!’
A practical design for a building is always a right-angled shape - so that you can use all of the area. When you make a circular building, a good 22% of the space is unusable!
‘Don’t worry about all that…’ I could just hear the architect saying. ‘Don’t be so prosaic! Make art! Leave a mark! It’s all government money, anyway!’
And he succeeded too! This is a very cool building - as unworldly and impractical as possible, and it really stands out amongst the blocky concrete building blocks of Mumbai. It was designed by a dude called IM Kadri. (Sounds like the answer to a philosophical question, doesnt it? ‘Who are you?’ ‘IM Kadri!’
‘The white churning tower stands apart from the regular rectangular blocks that aim for the sky. But when you are in front of the tower, it exudes a compelling sense of wonder. The ascending slope of green meets the building at 42 feet. Three terraced levels at the base of the structure form a podium for the tower that’s nearly 260 ft high. “The challenge was in allowing the design to reflect the essence of man,” says architect IM Kadri, who designed it in 1981.’
So, What is this giant edifice anyway?
It is a memorial to Prime Minister Jawharlal Nehru - ideated by his friend and freedom struggle comrade, a lawyer called Rajni Patel. Patel had been active in the freedom struggle and had supported Gandhi by picketing liquor shops! (wonder if he considered the point that the liquor was made in India, and therefore was technically ‘swadeshi’?)
I had taken up this project of discovering Mumbai. It started with my taking up cycling as an exercise...but just going round and round in circles was boring, so I started going to specific places on cycle. I would look up interesting places and then ride out on Sunday morning to go and check it out - exercise, adventure and exploration… all in one!
But there was no need to be so strict about the cycling thing - not all places are open early on Sunday morning - and definitely not all places wanted to see a fat, sweaty and mud-splattered cyclist in tight clothes clump around their premises! These places would have to be explored in the traditional manner!
And with my usual urge to kill multiple birds with one stone - I decided to take the brat along to some of the kid-friendly places in Mumbai - some of which I remembered fondly due to my having visited them as a kid myself! The kid will have an outing, we will have some father-daughter bonding - and I will get to continue my Mumbai exploration project!
The first destination on my kid list was the Nehru Science Centre in Worli.
This is a very cool place - it is situated in a nice little campus of its own, with some small gardens and a building full of very cool scientific exhibits.
I looked it up - and found that the Nehru Science Centre was inaugurated in 1977, with a ‘Light and Sight’ section. Fascinating!
And why is that fascinating? Because ...just think of what was happening in 1977! Complete political turmoil! The country had been under two years of ‘Emergency’!
Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter - Indira Gandhi - had declared ‘a state of Emergency’ across the country in 1975 because "there is an imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbances", and this gave her the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be cancelled and civil liberties to be suspended.
Today is the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, lovingly addressed in India as 'Mahatma' (the great soul), or 'Bapu' (Daddy). His birthday is celebrated as 'Gandhi Jayanti' and is a national holiday in India - all schools, government offices and even banks are closed today.
But who was Gandhi - and why is his birthday anything to celebrate? The only thing most people know about this day is that it is a 'Dry day' - so if you want a tipple, you have to stock up!
Now more than ever we should be remembering Gandhi and his message of non-violence and peace and tolerance. In an age where institutional violence is being propagated against minorities and women and students and political opponents and anyone who is perceived to be against you.
The Amigos visited Porbunder, the birthplace of MKG during their ride of Gujarat - and I had written this about our visit there. I was fascinated that two very different people were born just hundred kilometers apart and they influenced India is such different ways - Mahatma Gandhi and Dhirubhai Ambani!
Check out this excerpt from 'Three Men Ride West - The Amigos ride to Gujarat and Diu'
May 1st is celebrated for many reasons… it is internationally famous as ‘International Labour day’ to commemorate various movements all over the world for worker’s rights. It is also ‘May Day’ - officially the ‘first day of summer’ for western countries since antiquity. It used to be celebrated as ‘Floralia’ by the ancient Greeks where they used to celebrate the goddess of love - Aphrodite and the god of wine - Dionysus - and I assume the festival involved a lot of drinking and lovemaking. Nowadays they have Mayday parades and dancing around Maypoles and May queens.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson even wrote a poem about it - ‘The May queen’ -
‘You must wake and call me early, call me early, mother dear;
To-morrow ’ill be the happiest time of all the glad New-year;
Of all the glad New-year, mother, the maddest merriest day,
For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.’
In India, we are already well into the hot summer by May, and our version of Floralia - Holi - is already over. We no longer celebrate wine or lovemaking - both are rather frowned upon officially! You need a license for one, and closed doors for the other.
But in Maharashtra we do have another reason to celebrate the 1st of May - It is celebrated as ‘Maharashtra day’ - the day that the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat were carved out from the erstwhile Bombay state.
Nipposan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist temple
Mumbai is full of small wonders, and the only thing that stops us - well...stopped me...from stopping to check them out is that we are busily going from one place to another and have no time to stop and explore them.
One such thing for me was the enigmatic temple with a very Japanese name - I had seen it a zillion times while travelling on that road, but had never stopped to actually check it out. But now I said that I will make a point of it - and cycled there to check it out.
The Nipposan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist temple turned out to be a little wonderland! An oasis of peace in busy Mumbai.
(This is an old ride - pre Corona :) )
Another Sunday, another day of exploring Mumbai by cycle. I was totally into this project - combining physical exercise with the zen of cycling and exploring the city.
Inspite of having lived in Mumbai all my life, and having seen it a zillion times - I had never actually been to Haji Ali dargah - one of the icons of Mumbai. So today was the day - I left early morning to tick that off my list.
I set out from Chembur and made my way first to Worli sea face - it was a really fun experience to ride the empty Mumbai roads and go up and down a number of flyovers to reach Worli and it is always fun to cycle on the sea face. The place is so full of positive vibes in the early morning - filled with walkers, joggers, cyclists and exercises of every description. The BMC (or whoever) has done a great job of putting up a number of interesting things out there - statues of R K Laxman’s ‘Common man’, benches...
I was doing a project of exploring Mumbai - it had started by me starting cycling! I started cycling as a new project for the year - it started by being a fitness thing, but I got bored of going around in circles and started going further and further and exploring and discovering unknown parts of Mumbai (well...unknown to me at least) on cycle. By this time I had gone and explored various ancient forts of Mumbai - Sion, Sewri, Mahim, Worli, Bandra, Dharavi - by cycle. (You can check out the blogs by clicking on the links)
After doing this, the exploration bug kicked in a little more, and I started exploring even without a cycle. While going over the lists of tourist attractions in Mumbai - I saw that one of the main attractions was Mani Bhavan - Mahatma Gandhi's memorial in Mumbai. It was on the lists of all the Mumbai tour operators trips - and every firang visitor to the city seems to have seen it ... but I had never done so. It had never been in my mindspace at all - I had not known of it, not wanted to see it.
Well - this is 'diya tale andhera' stuff, and so I decided to check it out.
My friend Vijay claimed to know it well - as it was just behind his college - the Wilson college, Marine drive - and so we agreed to check it out together. I took an Uber and reached the place - and there was no sign of Vijay! He was late as usual.
The building was in a fancy neighborhood - Laburnum road, just off Marine drive. I thought rather cynically that Gandhi seemed to have chosen to live with this rich seth in a fancy location, rather than in a poor and humble place.
As per the Wikipedia entry - 'Mani Bhavan was Gandhi's Mumbai headquarters for about 17 years, from 1917 to 1934. The mansion belonged to Revashankar Jagjeevan Jhaveri, Gandhi's friend and host in Mumbai during this period. It was from Mani Bhavan that Gandhi initiated the Non-Cooperation, Satyagraha, Swadeshi, Khadi and Khilafat Movements. Gandhi's association with the charkha began in 1917, while he was staying at Mani Bhavan. Mani Bhavan is also closely associated with Gandhi's involvement in the Home Rule Movement, as well as his decision to abstain from drinking cow's milk in order to protest the cruel and inhuman practice of phookan meted out to milch cattle common during that period.'
In 1955, the building was taken over by the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi in order to maintain it as a memorial to Gandhi - and I wonder if they paid the family anything for this prime piece of real estate? It would be worth many hundreds of crores today!
I wonder what the family of Jhaveri seth feel about it now :)
Finally it was the day! We were off to the Kumbh Mela!
This would be my 4th Kumbh experience, and the second time that I would be going to the Allahabad - now Prayagraj - kumbh. The first time I went to the Allahabad was a truly life-changing experience for me, and I had very fond memories of the experience.
This time we would be going by train from Varanasi to Allahabad and staying in the Kumbh area itself. The UP government had invited hoteliers to create tented accommodation camps at the Kumbh venue itself, and had created a very spiffy Kumbh website as well. The individual tents were a bit expensive, so I had booked dorm beds for us for 4 nights.
Bharathi was very apprehensive about the whole idea - she thought the trains might be overrun by rampant crowds and the dorms would be a flea bitten mess. And she was not the one who had booked the tickets! Oh the humanity! She was professionally insulted!
'How dare you book tickets, you witless oaf?' she growled at me 'You are but a gnat or a cockroach compared to my glory!'
'But you only said that you will only book international tickets henceforth and India tickets are not worth your time!'
'Arre! Why should I book India tickets eh? I have seen all of India when you were still mewling and puking in your nurses arms! But how dare you book tickets? BE A MAN! Travel unreserved! Reservations are for wimps!'
Be that as it may - I should first put it on record that the Government machinery in UP has done an awesome job! Whether it's the bureaucracy or IAS or Yogi or Modi or BJP - kudos to all of them! I take my hat off.
Varanasi town and ghats were sparkling, the Ganga was clean and beautiful, and the Varanasi station was spotless! There wasn't even much shit on the railway tracks! The Indian railways is slowly but surely upgrading its train toilets from a hole in the floor to these fancy bio toilets which don't let the crap plop straight down on the tracks, but stores it away and treats it - and this has made a huge change to the stations. The train compartment was also clean and spic and span!
The train was late though. Oh well - I suppose you cannot have everything.
We took a rickshaw to the tent site, and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the camp and the dormitory. It was quite a large camp, with umpteen tents and at least 10 dorms. Each dorm had 2 toilet+bath in it, and they were clean and functional and completely non-stinky. The beds and bedding were also fine - comfortable mattress, warm quilts and completely bedbug free! And they were (comparitively) cheap. The camp had its own restaurant where they served ala carte and buffet food - a fancy buffet and a cheap functional buffet!
The next morning we were woken up noisy fellow guests playing loud devotional music and giving no fucks whatsoever for their fellow man. Indians can be real assholes. But never mind - we were at the Kumbh!
We quickly freshened up and went exploring. We were close to the sangam point where the Ganga met the Jamuna (and the mythical Saraswati) and we decided to walk it - but when we were approached by a boatman who offered to ferry us there, we thought - why not? A boat ride would be fun!
And it was! The waters of the Jamuna and the Ganga were extremely clean and looked really inviting - but too cold! Brrr. We decided to postpone the bath to the afternoon and just took a joy ride and got off at the Allahabad fort, where there is an ancient banyan tree. The legend is that in ancient times, pilgrims used to climb up this tree and jump down to commit suicide so that they would attain moksha! Akbar put an end to this by building a fort around it, and now its a Hanuman temple. I wanted to see it, but was scared off by the lines - it would take 3-4 hours in that line!
We walked all over the Kumbh area, looking for the famed Naga babas - but was disappointed to see that we were late and most of them had left already. The organisation of the Kumbh was really remarkable - full marks again to the government. Modi/ Yogi had really pulled out all the stops to make this a showcase event. It was so organised, that the real complaint was that it was over-organised! There were food, water and lodging facilities for pilgrims and loads and loads and loads of public toilets, which were regularly cleaned and maintained!
I cannot stress the hygiene of the place enough. It was a spectacular effort. There were enough toilets to cater to the millions and millions of people shitting and pissing out there. I remember the sad state of the Ujjain Kumbh when me and Bharathi had visited in 2005 - it was a huge mess. This was amazing.
I don't know why our news channels are not talking about this more - to have crores and crores of people visit a place - that too uneducated villagers with no sense of hygiene - and create an experience with no trash, no shit and piss, no outbreaks of illness, no stampedes and no security issues inspite of all the high profile VIPs visiting - is a most remarkable achievement. Great job! Well done!
The Kumbh area was so huge that we were all fagged out by the time we came back to the dorm. We chilled for sometime and then went back to the sangam for the holy dip - by boat. Boatmen had come from all over with their boats - our boatman was from Chitrakoot - 250 km away - and his group had rowed all the way! It was extraordinarily pleasant to sit in that boat and see the river, and the fort, and the bridge over the Jamuna, the hordes of beautiful white birds on the rive and the people lined up for the baths.
The bath itself was also amazing! The Ganga water was so clean! In spite of all the hordes of people around, the water was wonderful. I don't know how they did it - but I hope they keep on doing it. We were so refreshed by the dip that we decided to do several more dips.
This was the pattern of our stay there - we used to go in the morning for a boat ride and dip, explore the kumbh, come back and chill till late afternoon, go for a evening boat ride and dip, come back to the dorm to take a hot bath, have heavy evening snacks instead of dinner and then go and sit by the Jamuna river side when it got dark.
The main snaan day for us was Magh Poornima, when it was an auspicious day to take a bath. We had missed the major snaans - the Makar Sankrant and the two Shahi snaans - which was a great pity. That would have been a spectacle worth seeing! Chalo - next time!
We discovered that there were a few naga babas still around at the Juna Akhara, but it was their last day there. So we went hunting for them, and finally found them! So that was done too!
On our last day, we had a late night train from Allahabad station, so we took advantage of the day to take a look around the city.
I was again impressed by how clean the city was! The place was spotless, disinfected with boric powder, beautified by wall paintings, and was not at all crowded!
UP govt - take a bow.
We checked out the Allahabad museum - one of the oldest museums in India - and the Allahabad cathedral - huge and impressive, but unfortunately open only on Sunday and Anand Bhavan - the ancestral home of the Nehrus. There was a really nice photo exhibit on the life of Indira Gandhi, with superb B&W pics. Those old time newspaper photographers were real masters!
We still had time to kill, so we asked an autowala what to do, and he deposited us in the wonderful Chandrashekhar Azad park (formerly Company gardens) which is a real gem - one of the finest public parks in India!
Finally, we went to the station area and had some chicken after a long vegetarian stint. Delzad was tempted by some roadside rabdi - and this had some unfortunate effects...but I anticipate!
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!