The buzzing financial capital of Maharashtra as well as the heart of the Bollywood film industry, Mumbai is home to 24m people. It’s hard to get your head around but, like any big city worth its salt, Mumbai is a mass of contradictions and conflicting realities, the city of dreams that India’s most wealthy citizens call home, but also home to Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia. But it’s also a place of great physical beauty – looking out over the Bay of Bengal – and old fashioned charm.
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai embodies that old world grandeur in every brick and marble slab. I got there on Dutch airline KLM’s new direct route from Amsterdam to Mumbai, which not only knocks an hour off the flight but probably an hour off your life once you’ve had a few Heinekens in the lounge. In business, the salt and pepper comes in tiny plastic clogs and, in what can only be construed as a challenge to the world’s baggage handlers, you’re given a collectable china house to take with you.
Mine arrived shockingly intact at the Taj Palace Hotel, a building as palatial as its name that’s owned by the Tata Group. The story goes that when the industrialist Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata went to stay in Watson’s Hotel, at the time the grandest hotel in the city under the British Raj, he was refused entry and directed to a sign on the door that read ‘No dogs, no Indians’. Outraged, he opened the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel around the corner and built it as a celebration of his city’s multiculturalism. In an example of perfect karma, Watson’s is nothing but a crumbling relic now and its ballroom is used as a rubbish dump.
The Taj Mahal Palace, on the other hand, is thriving, despite being bombed “as a symbol of Indian wealth and progress” by a terrorist group in 2008. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have visited it since, calling it “a symbol of strength and resilience of the Indian people.” Pictures of royalty and foreign heads of state line its corridors and its restaurants exemplify its defiantly inclusive hospitality, ranging from the health-focused traditional Indian cuisine at Masala Kraft, Lebanese food at Souk to Cantonese food at Golden Dragon.
Getting to grips with such an enormous city in a few days is nigh on impossible, but you can cut right to the underbelly by getting up at 5am for a tour with No Footprints, set up by Mumbaikars Adi and Harsh who met as engineering students. It dives right into the deep end starting at the fish market, an intense olfactory experience, where koli – the matriarchal fishing community – stride purposefully carrying huge baskets of fish on their heads.
Of all the varieties that come in, pomfret were particularly popular with the British who tried to send them back home in the Bombay Mail or Bombay Daak in Hindi. Even now Indians say their friends ‘smell like the Bombay duck’ if they need a shower, after the train with all the rotting fish on it.
Luckily, the smells improve as the tour goes on, working through the world’s largest outdoor laundry, the newspapermen cycling off with tottering stacks of The Hindu strapped to their bikes, the incredibly efficient dabbawalas off to deliver lunch to the office workers, then finishing at the flower market, a riot of colour and pungent aromas.
For some serious grub and a look at the trendier side of Mumbai, head to Lower Parel, a run-down cotton mill district turned fashionable neighbourhood. Bombay Canteen, designed to look like an old colonial bungalow, serves up sharing plates of modern regional cuisine with a side dish of pumping music and craft Indian ales on draft. If you picked it up and dropped it in Soho, no one would notice (well, apart from Mumbaikars, obviously).
The thing is, Mumbai’s quite far to go on a city break, so you’re probably looking for peace and quiet at some point during the trip. If the proliferating resorts in Goa and Kerala are anything to go by, the southern coast is a popular alternative. If you’re not a beach person though, Chennai in Tamil Nadu is a real cultural and manufacturing hub, known as the Detroit of India for its car industry. My base was a sister hotel of the Taj Mahal Palace called the Taj Connemara. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a picturesque coastal region in western Ireland.
The five star hotel, thought to be the oldest in Chennai, is named after the Irish Governor of (what was then) Madras, Robert Bourke. Word is, he was a bit of cad so Lady Connemara moved out of their house and lived in the hotel until the next boat to Europe arrived. In another example of perfect karma, Lady Connemara remarried the doctor who treated her for a venereal disease on her return.
Chennai is less populated than Mumbai – only 10m people! – and is known for music and dance. Every year from mid-November to January, thousands of Indian classical music fans – specifically, fans of a sub-category called Carnatic music found in South India and Sri Lanka – descend on Chennai from all over the world. An astonishing 350 albums a day are released in the Tamil region and over 3,000 performances are given over the festival, many of them for free and easily booked through a hotel concierge. Storytrails, another fantastic tour company, is a great way to learn local traditions on foot, while sampling street food from cafes.
If you’re up for a bit of road trip, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mahabalipuram is an hour and a half away down a hair-raising motorway. Once there, though, all is serenity. It was Diwali so the temples were full of worshippers in their best clothes with flowers in their hair; this vibrant display threatened to upstage the seventh and eighth century temples, over 400 of them depicting the Hindu gods, mainly Shiva, the destroyer and creator carved mid-dance.
It’s also the site of the Descent of the Ganges, one of the largest open-air rock reliefs in the world and Krishna’s Butter Ball (a shaky translation, I suspect), a naturally balancing rock that looks as though it should tip over, but importantly, doesn’t. Like the Abbey Road of Chennai, there’s a whole afternoon’s entertainment to be had just watching bold children and insecure men try to push it over.
And based on what I saw, it’ll be there for centuries to come.
Palace wing rooms at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai start from £213. Colonial rooms at The Taj Connemara, Chennai start from £202. Visit tajhotels.com. KLM operates 10 daily flights between London Heathrow and Amsterdam and 4 flights a week between Amsterdam and Mumbai. Return economy fares from London Heathrow airport start from £610 including taxes and charges. Business class fares start from £1,509. Passengers can book online at klm.com or by calling reservations on +44 20 76600293. Jet Airways offers flights between Mumbai and Chennai starting at £55 one way in economy class. Visit jetairways.com