Some call it the city of dreams, some call it the millennium city, but most agree that Mumbai is certainly the financial capital of the city. That makes it a popular destination for travellers from across the world, many of them visiting the city for work, and for them Mumbai is often the gateway to India. There are loads of conventional things to do and that list is long and certainly worth trying out. However, if you are looking for some unusual experiences in Mumbai, you have come to the right place. I am always on the look-out of places in a city which guide-books don’t often talk about it, and this list is for people like, and also for others who have done the usual stuff and are now looking to do something new :)
Located right in the heart of Mumbai, Dharavi once had the ignominy of being the largest slum in Asia. It’s lost out of that title to Karachi in Pakistan, yet it remains one of the most interesting areas to explore in Mumbai. What started as a small village for the fishermen in the 19th century, is now home to industries with a value of over 1 billion USD. From plastic waste segregation to leather-work, to stitching, cooking and more, a walk in the huge slum will give you a completely new perspective of how life works in Mumbai.
You can walk all by yourself as well, but then there is much less to learn and you will also be an unwanted and introducing outsider for the locals. I would suggest taking a walk with one of the locals who run an organisation called ‘Be the local tours’. The company was started by a bunch of youngsters who wanted to change the perception of Dharavi from a dirty and unsafe slum to a place which actually makes Mumbai run. The tour costs upwards of Rs 500, and if you want a tour alone, it would cost Rs 1000. To me it was a very small fee for an experience which is not just unique, but also so humbling.
Once a suburb of Mumbai, Bandra is now one of the most posh and happiest parts of the city. Originally occupied by the Portuguese, this part of Mumbai was later acquired by the East India Company. It’s now full of cafes and hang-out joints, and that attracts loads of travellers to Mumbai.
However, Bandra is not all about food and if you walk into the lanes where the actual locals live, you will discover completely new things about the neighbourhood. The small area even has it’s local newspaper and there is a lot to be discovered there. However, my favourite part of Bandra is it’s sprawling culture of street art. Walking in the lanes and by-lanes of old lanes and bylines of Bandra splattered with some gorgeous street art makes you realise how even something new can also add beauty to an already beautiful, yet old neighbourhood.
An akhara is a space where the traditional Indian wrestling, Kushti, is practiced. This form of wrestling came to India from Iran where it was called Koshti. In Maharashtra an Akhara is called Talim, and surprisingly even in a metropolis like Mumbai, a few talims exist where young boys and men still come and practice this ancient sport.
Mumbai used to have about 50 such Talims, but now only a few exist. The most prominent and popular one among those is called Shree Laxminarayan Vyayam Shala and it’s located at the end of Arthur Road next to the railway line. It’s a closed akhara where about 7-8 boys live full-time, but on many days upto 20 men come and play.
Witnessing a match of Kushti is surely a unique experience and these pehalwans are actually very friendly and do not mind getting clicked at all. However, it’s best to reach a little early and ask for permission and do interact with them to learn about their lives and aspirations.
Mahalaxmi is more famous for the Race Course and it’s derby races, but there is something else also which makes the locality unique. Mahalaxmi is also home to world’s largest launderette, simply called the Dhobi Ghat.
The place is buzzing with activity early in the morning and it’s perhaps the best time for a visit. Laundry from hotels, hospitals and homes is cleaned in tons every single day. With time, the washermen have also evolved and added some equipments like dryers, yet the place remains quite authentic to a dhobi ghat from the bygone era.
Access to Dhobi Ghat is completely free of cost, but often local boys can come and demand a fee. I was asked to shell out Rs 300 as I was an Indian and the running rate for foreigners is Rs 500. I negotiated and paid Rs 100 even though I knew it was simply extortion. However, I wanted to click pictures and this allowed be unhindered access to the entire area.
Now this one is totally bizarre! :)Not many people know that Mumbai is also home to a national park, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, located within the city limits. Extremely well connected by public transport, the park is a perfect weekend getaway and allows you to spend time in the lap of nature. The park is also home to Kanheri caves which are a series of Buddhist caves.
There are about 250,000 people who live within the park, along with about 20 leopards. Due to the close proximity, man-animal conflict is not unusual and these big cats have often been spotted in the slums as well as the nearby campus of IIT Mumbai. There was a time when Mumbai also had a sizeable population of tigers, but only leopards survived.
Leopard spotting is really not something that you can plan, and will most certainly depend on your luck. Leopards don’t often attack humans, but such attacks have become more frequent now because of human encroachment in the park. Be careful if you see one…
For further reading, I recommend another lovely article on Mumbai: Be Seduced by Mumbai on a Weekend Visit