10 boat rides in 10 years

It’s now 10 years that I have been doing serious traveling (on work and on pleasure) and capturing those moments on digital cameras for posterity. I recall 10 memorable boat rides in these 10 years. Some rides are quasi commuting / public transport rides, going from one place to another in the quickest way. The others are more relaxed holiday joyrides.

1. Murud Janjira, January 2006

Janjira, January 2007 These are dhows, relics of the maritime history of the Indian Ocean. Ever since civilisation grew roots in the Indian Ocean rim – from East Africa, Arabia, Persia and the Indian sub-continent and the islands that dot the ocean – there have been various versions and forms of this simple craft. The Janjira island was an impregnable realm inhabited by Habisis – Abyssinians. These Habisis would have come to India in these very boats, brought in as slave soldiers purchased by the various sultanates in the Deccan. Those who were able to secure their freedom settled here controlling the Arabian Sea and protecting their allies, the same sultanates, from pirates and later the Europeans. Today, descendents of those Habisis operate these boats ferrying tourists from the main land to the fort – doubling up as guides and showing people their lost world.

2. Hogenakkal, September 2010 On the Kaveri River, Hogenakkal, September 2010

The Cauvery turns into Tamil Nadu from Karnataka. The river breaks into multiple streams and rapids as the waters weave around the rocky terrain. The coracles operated by boatmen here takes one right into the zone. There is a loop that the boatman takes which includes a bit of rock climbing (with boat hanging over the back), jungle trekking and lots  of white water paddling.

3. Bangkok, March 2011

Wat Arun, Bangkok, March 2011 The Chao Praya river traffic is heavy as the traffic on the tar roads of the city. But with a lot of the city’s fine sights lined up on either side of the river, taking the water buses makes for a good joy ride as well as commuting option to go from one location to another.

4. Luang Prabang, Laos, March 2011

View from the boatman's seat, on the Mekong, March 2011

The mighty Mekong winds through the mountains of northern Laos and flows through Luang Prabang, former capital of French occupied Laos. All along the river, there are a number of tourist hops and these long tail boats ferry the tourists upriver and back. Early morning mist covers the mountains and the cool weather of the high altitude zone makes it a very refreshing ride.

5. Kong Lor, Laos, April 2011

On-coming boat traffic, inside Kong Lor, Laos, April 2011 This underground river Hinboun takes one deep into the dark rectum of a Kong Lor mountain. Tiny spots of lights from mobile phone torches and miner helmet lamps give glimpses of gargoyle like limestone formations on the walls. The entire boat ride – upstream and downstream – lasts a good 1 hour. There is no navigation, just follow the water. If you hit a rock, you go around and keep going. April is in the middle of the dry season and the water levels was low. This meant occasionally getting off the boat, wading in ankle deep water tugging the boat over the shoals till it became deeper.

6. Si Phan Don, Laos, April 2011

Mekong river bank, southern Laos, April 2011

On the border of Laos and Cambodia, the Mekong spreads out into an area of over 14km in breadth. In the Ganges delta, the land appears and disappears with the tides. Here in Laos, the land appears and disappears with the flooding of the river. Hence, the name Si Phan Don or 4000 Islands. Here, approximately in the middle of the river, where the depth is sufficiently immense, roam the remaining few Irrawaddy Dolphins. From Don Det, the largest of the 4000 islands, one can take a long tail boat and go down to what the locals call the Dolphin stadium. Along the way, you see these trees bent over from the force of the flooded river over the years.

7. Pichavaram, August 2014

Pichavaram, August 2014 The mangrove forests of Pichavaram have some rare species of trees as well as a range of birds, permanent and migratory. The boat weaves around stands of these trees and visits the inner nooks and corners of the estuary. There’s fish to catch and eat.

8. Kochi, April 2015

Kochi Harbour, April 2015

Ports on the western coast of India have a long saga of maritime history. The ports of Kerala have seen trade ships from all parts of the globe for millennia. The various structures, water craft and random paraphernalia show evidence of all those influences in their design. The Fort Kochi – Ernakulam ferry at 4 bucks is the cheapest way to explore all that history.

9. Hue, Vietnam, November 2015

Hue District, November 2015 Just outside Hue, separated from the China Sea by large sand bars, lagoons provide fertile water plots for shrimp farming. The skyline is dotted with godowns, watch towers and restaurants (for tourists) built on stilts. Vietnam outside the cities, now that there is no war, is probably one of the most laid back and sleepy parts of the world

10. Tonle Sap, Cambodia, November 2015

Tonle Sap, November 2015

The Tonle Sap or Great Lake was the primary water source for the Angkor people back in the day. After all the upheaval that the land and its people have gone through, the lake today supports a diverse set of species living in or on it. This includes humans – refugees of all kinds. Homeless people who have lost their lands during the wars; ethnic minority communities chased out by the ruling regimes in Cambodia and Vietnam; migrants who cannot find any shelter in the already impoverished nation; and many others. The floating settlement – houses on stilts, traffic in jolly rowing boats – has taken care of itself with churches, schools, basketball courts, hospitals and their own houses, all floating in the water.

Bonus: Mumbai Harbour, all the time

Mumbai, December 2015

A boat ride in Mumbai harbour, whether for pleasure or for going across to Elephanta Island, is an experience that rivals rush hour commuting. There’s a million people out there getting into those boats. Boatmen have their safety norms and will not allow more than a certain number. So there is a fight on to take the next boat and be on one’s way. All this is of course great for the sea gulls. Kids and adults throw out pop corn, chips or biscuits for the birds to catch as they are flying. Thus this site of a plume of white seagulls rising around these harbour boats.


Exploring Mumbai – 2015

This year, like in the previous years, I continued my explorations of this Urbs Prima in Mundis.

There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia. Urbs Prima in Indis reads the plaque outside the Gateway of India. It is also the Urbs Prima in Mundis, at least in one area, the first test of the vitality of a city: the number of people living in it. With 14 million people, Bombay is the biggest city on the planet of a race of city dwellers. Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us.

(Maximum City, Suketu Mehta)

All these people in the city means that when exploring the city with the camera, it is very difficult to get a chaos-less frame. Every direction, if one tries compose a shot, is filled with millions of photobombs – hanging wires, traffic, people walking by, hawkers looking for custom, dogs, cows and the ubiquitous black & yellow taxis and BEST buses.

Below are a selection of 25 photographs out of the many I took this year of different places in Mumbai.

February 2015

Mahakali Caves Road, Mumbai, February 2014
1. Mahakali Caves Road, Andheri East

The Mahakali Caves are part of the series of Buddhist caves in and around Mumbai. The series include Kanheri, Karla and Bhaja as the big ones with Jogeshwari, Mandapeshwar and Mahakali being the smaller groups. The latter three are now buried under slums with the enclosed area used as a public shit house. This picture of a mass producing statue workshop – of Dr Ambedkar holding a copy of the Constitution and pointing to Parliament (to be imagined I am sure) – provides some element of artistic gravitas to the other wise dump that this archaeological site has become.

March 2015

2. Gol Deool, Null Bazaar

The area starting with Byculla all the way south to Kalbadevi has, for the last 200 years, financed the city. This centre of trade – cloth, diamond, precious metals, steel, paper, machinery and human flesh trade – has given the city many billionaires and millionaires through organised industry – legal and illegal. Today, the wealth creation has become more spread out and these old parts of the city like Null Bazaar look considerably rundown and decayed. But the stream of population remains.

3. Mumbadevi Temple, Kalbadevi

The city’s eponymous temple is hidden by shops in a crowded lane of Kalbadevi. The vimana of the temple can be seen through the gaps from a distance. But upfront, the entrance is lost amongst the cloth and jewelry shops in the street.

4. Madhavbaug, CP Tank

Mahatma Gandhi’s first few days back in India were spent in Girgaum in places like Madhavbaug where he attended many felicitation programs as well as delivered lectures and talks on his works. Behind Madhavbaug is an old animal shelter which was renovated and kept ready for the rush of old animals following the ban on cow slaughter in Maharashtra.

April 2015


5. Alfred Talkies, Maulana Shaukat Ali Road

The area around Bombay Central & Grant Road railway stations was a hub of the Bombay film industry till the 1950s. Cinema halls like Alfred Talkies were destinations for the cinema afficianados. Many like Minerva and Naaz which ran movies like Sholay for years are now demolished and are obliterated from the map. Those still standing cater to the local shopkeepers, taxi drivers and customers visiting the red light quarters on Maulana Shaukat Ali Road.

6. The Royal Opera House, Girgaum

The Royal Opera House of Mumbai is likely to reopen in 2016. Five years of painstaking restoration to its original 1911 design is heading into its last leg. Purely for its touristy value, a re-opened operational Opera House will be some achievement for a city which is losing all its heritage establishments one after another.

7. Taraporevala Aquarim, Marine Drive

The Art Deco structures of Mumbai have been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. The Taraporevala Aquarium has got itself a new look with twinkling dancing lights on its facade. The Art Deco style has been preserved but for some reason, one feels the visual appearance has a strong Govinda meets MF Hussain feel.

8. Marine Drive

Ah! Marine Drive. These days photographing across Marine Drive, a line of sight measuring 2 km, is difficult because of the pollution filled haze casting a veil on all the buildings. But Mumbai, even if it is choking in the crush of all things, finds itself magnetically drawn to Marine Drive and the seafront promenade every evening.

May 2015

9. Theosophical Society, Gamdevi

A small road bridge over the Western Railway tracks, sandwiched between the more busier bridges on Sardar Patel Road and Nana Chowk Road, is the French Bridge, named after Col PT French, one of the founders of the BBCI Railway Company (became the Western Railway after independence). The traffic is non-existent even though one end of the bridge comes out into the busy Opera House junction. At the other end is The Theosophical Society building which has a hall in it called Blavatsky Lodge. This structure hosted many personalities over the years including Mahatma Gandhi. Some significant events, declarations and meetings during the freedom struggle happened here.

10. Gamdevi

Girgaum or Gamdevi (literally, the “village goddess”) developed from the small village in the foot of the Malabar Hill. This is reflected in its name – Giri + Gaum i.e. hill village. This is feature of all parts of Mumbai which have grown from small villages like these. The local word for such villages is “gaothan” and the cross-hairs of many builders and developers are on these prime locations. The narrow zig-zag streets, small courtyards outside homes, chickens fluttering around – some of the typical “gauthi” elements still remain under the shadow of skyscrapers.

11. August Kranti Maidan, Gamdevi

Bombay has been a significant centre for political events which were part of the freedom struggle. The Quit India movement which was launched here by Aruna Asaf Ali who led the Congress session since everyone including Mahatma Gandhi were arrested or detained by the British. The maidan is just five minutes walk from Mani Bhuvan, Gandhi’s residence in Mumbai for many years.

12. Kalbadevi Road

Kalbadevi is a fascinating place to explore – trading, old bookshops, art deco cinema halls, communes called wadis, shady bars, restaurants and a variety of small temples, mosques, agiaries and churches sprinkled all over. Each of these establishments have their own history and associated legends. If you can brave the teeming crowds, there are many a Saturdays which you can spend walking here.

July 2015

13. Oval Maidan, Fort

I do my city explorations on Saturday afternoons. I get out of office early, pick a neighbourhood to explore and catch a bus or train going there. The Fort area on Saturday afternoons goes into a limbo state – there are half-day workers are rushing to Churchgate or CST to catch their trains home and there are some hardworking delivery people who settle down for a siesta in the edges of the maidans watching whatever game of cricket is going on – even kids doing net practice.

14. Mumbai University, Fort Campus

The Fort campus of Mumbai University always makes one pause and look up when passing by.

15. Kalaghoda

Kalaghoda lost two major addresses this year – Samovar and Rhythm House. What will come in their place?

September 2015

16. Eastern Freeway Tunnel, Chembur exit

My house is less than a kilometre from the Chembur exit of the Eastern Freeway. It has made Cafe Mondegar in Colaba my “will be right there” place. And in the monsoon, the tunnels have a touch of the Western Ghats aesthetic.

17. Horniman Circle, Fort

I have been to Horniman Circle so many times but till recently, I never noticed these Grecian faces on the columns of the buildings. One of the buildings is called Hermes House. So, in the absence of any expert reference, let’s assume these are Hermes busts. This year, there were not too many open air events in Horniman Circle.

18. St Thomas Cathedral, Fort

One of the first churches in Western India and Mumbai, Constructed in the 17th century, the St Thomas Cathedral was the first Anglican Church in Mumbai and served the British community in the original Fort. There are memorials and tombstones of British officers, their wives and their children since 1718. One can see the number of young Britishers perishing to tropical diseases before they reached the age of 25. There’s also a number of memorials for various crews of ships lost at sea off the coast.

19. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus

With the UNESCO World Heritage Site status secured, whoever is in charge decided it would be a good idea to bathe the iconic structure with disco lights. Not many citizens are impressed by it. The simple sodium vapour lights were far more elegant.

20. Lower Parel Skyline

Lower Parel was known as “Girangaon” – the village of spinning mills. The skyline was made up of tall chimneys. The chimneys have been replaced by residential and commercial blocks. Ever since they relaxed the maximum height of buildings, all the major construction companies were out there creating a race to the sky. Looking out of the 17th floor of one such building, one can still see a few pixels of ground. In another five years, I am not sure that the will be visible.

October 2015

21. Bandra Railway Station

Apart from CST, some of the suburban railway stations have some very eye catching designs. The beautiful Bandra railway station is one. Though, with all the cables and skywalks and autorickshaws jammed on the roads, I am not sure how many people stop to appreciate the structure.

22. Sachin Tendulkar Dedication, Carter Road, Bandra

There is this random bat installed on Carter Road. It’s a dedication to the greatest batsman in cricket ever. I found it quite clunky and ugly.

November 2015

23. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya

Visiting the CSMVS (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum), one notices that the disco lights bug has hit them as well.

December 2015

24. The Taj Mahal Hotel, Colaba

December was a busy month and the only bit of exploration one could do was to take a day trip to the Elephanta Caves. A photograph of the Taj Mahal hotel peeping out of the trees came by habit as did the next one – the three headed sculpture of Shiva.

25. The Three-Headed Maheshamurti in Elephanta

2016 beckons in a few hours and there should be some new places in Mumbai that I hope to explore soon.

The History of Mumbai in 10 Photographs: From The Ramayana to the Modern Age

At any given point in time, in Mumbai, there are multiple eras / generations / timelines existing simultaneously in the city, in a form that DD Kosambi called the “living prehistory”. Here are ten pictures from different parts of the city (and to be fair, one has to include a few areas outside the present day municipal limits).


1. The Mauryan era (Kanheri Caves, 2nd century BCE onwards)

Buddhism demanded detachment of all material pleasure. This meant settlements in natural environs like caves suitably modified to house thousands of monks. The infrastructural needs for monks were limited – a large prayer hall, various platforms for discourse, dormitories for sleeping, a common assembly area for meals and cisterns of water for all the usual ablutions. Having a river or any water body nearby was an added advantage.

Kanheri Caves has all of these. Over 120 caves are scattered over the entire hill in the middle of what is now the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Various inscriptions on the walls of the caves date the caves from 2nd Century BC right up to the 10th or 11th century CE. The caves are located on an ancient trade route heading towards the port town of Sopara, a prosperous centre during the Mauryan era.

The well chiseled dormitories for the Buddhist monks and travelers at Kanheri



2. The Rashtrakuta Era ( Elephanta Caves / Island , 6th – 8th century CE)

The Elephanta Caves as a tourist landmark is quite a cliche. It’s quite boring beyond a point. I have been there three times now in the last ten years and I think I have had enough. But that is because of overkill. The sculptures themselves are magnificent. They recall very vividly Cave 29 in Ellora, also built around the same time under the Rashtrakuta kings.

The Five Faced Shiva, three faces sculpted here, the fourth face is imagined to be the one at the back and the fifth one is the invisible face
The original Elephant statue from the island of Gharapuri which took its name from this. The British tried to ship it to England but the crane tilted over, unable to handle the weight of the stone elephant. It was moved to the Bhaudaji Lad Museum (earlier known as Victoria and Albert Museum) in Byculla.



3. The Shilhara era (Banganga / Walkeshwar , 12th Century)

A tourist inscription at the Banganga tank retells a story from the Ramayana. Our three protagonists, having wandered here, were resting on the hill in Bombay island. Sea water is salty. So for looking for fresh water to drink, Lakshman did the old trick – he fired an arrow into the ground. And a spring erupted with fresh water. Since the only source of fresh water known to man at that time was the Ganga, it was believed that this spring was connected to the Himalayan river, thousands of miles away. Hence,  the spring was named Banganga. The tank structure per se dates back to the 12th century during the reign of the Silhara kings. They were the ones who brought in settlers from the interiors and soon, apart from the fisherfolk, there were all kinds of people from all the four castes doing their respective duties. The descendants of those early settlers – the Pathare Prabhus, the GSBs, etc. – are still amongst the key influencers of the city.

Today, Banganga continues to house some of those ancient structures in the form of gates, pillars, the occasional memorials and inscriptions. There does not seem to be much change in the routines of the various temples. Of course, modernity has allowed for loud speakers and musical accompaniments made up of mobile phone ring tones.

In this picture, like in any archaeological excavation, one can see the layers of time in the different structures – from very ancient steps to the more modern high rises.

Banganga Tank in the evening: Literally the local watering hole



4. Sultanates of Gujarat & Deccan era (Mahim – Worli, 15th century)

The island of Mahim, along with the other islands, came under Islamic rule for about 200 years. In the 14th century, the Sultan of Gujarat defeated the Shilharas and took over the island of Mahim. All the islands that made up the Bombay archipelago were ideal for shipping and all those involved in the west coast maritime activities tried to gain a foothold in one or more of these islands. The Sultan of Gujarat was one contender. The Bahmani sultanate was another. There was the famous Ahmad Shah (Gujarat / Ahmadabad) versus Ahmad Shah (Bahmani / Ahmadnagar) battle over Mahim in the 15th century. The Gujarat side won. In joy, Ahmad Shah of Gujarat built a number of mosques on land and on sea.

View of Haji Ali dargah, built 15th century by the Sultan of Gujarat



5. Portuguese era (Bandra Fort, 17th century)

Castella de Aguada was built in the 17th century by the Portuguese as a watering hole for ships (there were a number of fresh water springs here) and later as a bastion against the British who, apart from territorial victories through local battles, had taken over the other islands of Bombay following the marriage of Charles II. The Portuguese had earlier, in 1517, taken over the Mahim fort from the Sultan of Gujarat. The St Michael’s Church in Mahim dates to this period. As the seven islands of Bombay were handed over to the British, the Portuguese retreated northwards to Bandra, Malad and Bassein (Vasai) where it continued to reign for another century or so.

From Dadar right up to Vasai, one can trace a whole line of extant churches built in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Portuguese. Of course, their legacy also lives in the ubiquitous vada-pav where both the potato and the bread were introduced by them.

The Bandra Fort Auditorium where there are couples trying to find corner seats everywhere



6. British era (St Thomas Cathedral, 18th century)

When a power establishes themselves in any place, they show their supremacy by building a religious institution. The Hindu empires built all those temples in South India; the Mughals built all kinds of mosques at various places after victories in battles or the like. The British did the same in every city they took over. St Thomas Cathedral in 1716 was the first Anglican church in India and it capped the complete control of Bombay that British now secured for themselves.

The first church, a monumental one, obviously becomes a landmark. And so it lends itself to Churchgate, the railway station complex that stood outside the fort gate facing the church.

St Thomas Cathedral, much renovated and repaired, is now hidden amongst the taller structures like the BSE.



7. Gandhi & Freedom Struggle (Mani Bhavan, early 20th century)

The two storey house originally belonging to Revashankar Jhaveri is now part of a network of Gandhi memorials across the country which includes the Sabarmati Ashram and places outside India as well.

The room in which Gandhi stayed in, like all the other memorials, is arranged in the same way – mattress or rug on the floor, a writing table with paper, quills, blotting paper, etc, a spinning wheel on the side and other small stationery items. You will find this arrangement in Sabarmati, at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, in fact anywhere and everywhere that Gandhi stayed in.

Gandhi’s room on the second floor of Mani Bhavan, preserved with air conditioning.



8. The Marathi Manoos era (Shivaji Park, 20th century)

Open spaces are rare in Mumbai. So the existing open spaces have high emotional value.  Shivaji Park, like similar features in other major cities, has been the hub of both social and political movements in Mumbai. While the maidans of South Mumbai are associated with the British, Shivaji Park, even though it dates back to 1920s, was always associated with, first, the local nationalist movement and later, the Maharashtra movement. Back in the 1950s, this ground was the venue of meetings and demonstrations related to the creation of the Marathi speaking state. Because of that legacy, the May 1st (Maharashtra Day) parades and celebrations are held in Shivaji Park and not anywhere else.

Apart from cricket, Shivaji Park also hosts other sports



9. The Bombay Talkies Era (Maratha Mandir, 20th century)

The cinema halls of south and central Mumbai reflect the many evolutions in the city – the movement of people to the northern suburbs leading to lesser patronage, the rising inflation leading the asynchronous economics where the extant pre-independence era monthly rentals from these old properties don’t even cover the cost of a single show, the flux of soft core regional language movies which keeps ever increasing migrant population made up of taxi drivers and restaurant waiters happy. Some of these cinema halls have, of course, made their sorry state into a tourist attraction.

Maratha Mandir where people used to come in elephants for premieres now becomes a tourist spot for showing the same film for almost 20 years now.



10. Vertical Era (Mumbai Skyline, 21st Century)

The recent freeing up of FSI means builders can go higher and higher. Not just buildings, even roads and transportation services are going above ground.

The Eastern Freeway is an elevated road bypassing all the slums below. A monorail runs above the Freeway and there are high rises on either side. The faux Shanghaification of Mumbai is on

I will update this post with new pictures from further explorations of Mumbai one year later

Who Makes All These Lists?

Who makes all these lists?

We need more useful lists about Mumbai like:

10 places to halt for a bio break on a road trip from Mumbai to anywhere: Ok, the men can do it behind the trees. What about the women? In a bus trip to Goa, late at night, in the middle of a jungle, some ladies in the bus needed a break. The driver told them to hold on till they reach some town. The ladies said they couldn’t. So the bus driver had to stop. Off the women went behind the bushes.

10 places that don’t look like VT station in rush hour: The problem with many places around Mumbai is that all of Mumbai lands up there on weekends and holidays. The same crowd you want to avoid is there, ordering pav bhaji, listening to Munni, creating a traffic jam, etc. Really, one needs some escape.

10 places where you can just land up: Ok, I may be the only subscriber to the list for the simple reason I hate doing advance reservations and bookings and like. It kind of “restricts” me. I like to just land up and size up the place and then decide. The economics of the travel business are such that this “landing up” strategy becomes quite expensive. Of course, one has kind of become adept at finding out the cheap places and the last few trips I made on similar lines, one did come back with the wallet well preserved. Of course air travel (and possibly rail travel) become nonviable in such strategies. I shall share some of them in due course.