The fishermen were here first. Before the East India Company built its the dawn of time, when Bombay was a dumbell shaped island tapering, at the center, to a narrow shining strand...when Mazgaon and Worli, Matunga and Mahim, Salsette and Colaba were islands, too -in short before reclamation...turned the Seven Isles into a long peninsula like an outstretched, grasping hand, eaching westwards into the Arabian Sea; in this primeval world before clocktowers, the fishermen - who were called Kolis - sailed in Arab dhows, spreading red sails against the setting sun. They caught pomfret and crabs, and made fish-lovers of us all...There were also coconuts and rice. And above it all, the benign presiding influence of the goddess Mumbadevi, whose name - Mumbadevi, Mumbabai, Mumbai - may well have become the city's. But then the Portugese named the place Bom Bahai for its harbour, and not for the godess of the pomfret folk...the Portugese were the first invaders, using the harbour to shelter their merchant ships and their men-of-war; but then, one East India Company Officer...saw a vision. This vision - a dream of a British Bombay, fortified, defending India's West against all comers - was a notion of such force that it set time in motion.
-- Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

Basic facts

Bombay is the financial capital of India with a population nearing 18 million (11 million in the Greater Mumbai municipal district). Bombay continues to grow at a fast clip, and will be the world's most populous city with 28.5 million inhabitants by 2020 (eclipsing Tokyo and Mexico City). The city is built on what was a string of 7 marshy islands off the western coast of India and now covers an area of over 600 sq km. The marshes have for the most part been reclaimed over the years and the city is now one large island with a few salt-water creeks criss-crossing it. It is the business hub of India, the Bombay Stock Exchange is the biggest stock market in India and Bombay has played host to the textile, film and shipping industries over the years. It is also the capital of the state of Maharashtra.

Close to 20% of the population (primarily the upper middle class) speaks some sort of English. Since English is a privilege of the wealthy in India, your experience in the city will be limited unless you speak Hindi/Urdu, Marathi or Gujarati. In day to day communication, Bombayites switch between languages, often employing a mish-mash of Hindi/Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati and English called Bambaiya. Bombay is largely an immigrant city, over the years various groups have arrived in waves from all over India. Due to the pattern of migration, there are linguistic clusters all over the city, so on a particular street Tamil might be as widely spoken as Hindi. Language is the best gauge of diversity in India, and by that measure Bombay is the most diverse of the four largest Indian cities (the other three are Calcutta, Delhi, Chennai/Madras). Most residents speak 2 or 3 languages, and all of India's 114 languages are spoken in Bombay.

The southern tip of the island (downtown or central Bombay) is largely commercial. Government and business offices line the streets of Fort and Nariman Point. Interspersed amongst them are colleges, hotels, restaurants and a few open fields and parks. The bazaars where most of Bombay's merchant community transacts business are a little further north, in what used to be the native quarter during British rule. In the 1990s a number of large wholesale markets (cloth, diamonds, gold) deserted their delapidated storefronts and warehouses in downtown Bombay for modern offices in the northern suburbs.

Most middle-class Bombayites live in apartments in the northern suburbs. As in most large cities, space is at a premium in Bombay and families of 5-6 can often be found living in a one or two bedroom flat. A substantial portion of the population lives in shanty-towns or slums, many of which are built on land illegally occupied. These settlements are host to a variety of construction, from sturdy brick or concrete one-storey houses, to precarious huts slapped together of tin sheets and slate tiles. Running water is at a premium in most slums, as is proper sanitation. The crowded 4-5 storey tenements called chawls are another persistent feature of housing in Bombay. Electricity and telephones can be found in virtually every home. Often not much better than slums, they provide cramped accommodation for the lower middle-class.

Middle-class families in Bombay often choose to have their children attend private schools where English is the medium of instruction. A large number of students attend the Hindi/Urdu/Marathi medium schools that are found all over the city. The free schools operated by the municipal corporation of Bombay use Marathi for most classes. Most classes in Bombay's colleges are conducted in English. Virtually all colleges are affiliated with Bombay University which sets standards for examinations and courses. 75% of Bombay's population in 2001 was found to be literate, as opposed to 64% for India.

Past and Present

Formerly known as Bombay, the city's name was changed in 1994 to Mumbai. The term Mumbai is what the local community of fishermen called the southern-most island. The city traces its origins to the Portugese foray into India. The seven islands that constitute Bombay were once a part of the Portugese capital at Vasai. In 1661, the Portugese King made Bombay part of Catharine of Braganza's dowry when she married the British king Charles II. All seven of the islands were transferred to the English in 1665. In 1668, the islands were handed over to the East India Company which prized them for the deep harbour and natural protection from armies on the mainland. The East India Company rapidly fortified the area and built a quay and warehouse. The original British fortified settlement (largely complete by 1715) is now the portion of downtown Bombay called Fort. Fort encompasses the Flora fountain (now called Hutatma chowk), the area around the stock exchange, the general post-office, and Apollo Bunder (now graced by the Gateway of India and a quay from where boats depart for the Elephanta island). There were three gates to the city, Apollo, Church (near Saint Thomas church) and Bazaar. The names are still used in various forms for the original locations. By 1686, the East India Company moved its headquarters from Surat to Bombay and the city grew along with the influence of the Company and Britain.

The British encouraged English and Indian traders to settle in Bombay, going to the extent of declaring that all persons born in Bombay were English subjects. Their efforts paid off and the city was soon a bustling port. Housing was largely segregated with the communities separated by language, culture and faith. Hindu restrictions on diet and social contact with the casteless British may well have contributed to the segregation. Most public areas, and markets were open to all.

Bombay continued to grow in the 18th and 19th century, along with British influence over the rest of India. During the Indian freedom movement in the 1930s and 40s, the trading community in Bombay financed the Congress party led by Gandhi. Liberation in 1947 was greeted with great enthusiasm in Bombay. The film studios functioning as a barometer of patriotic feeling produced a large number of patriotic films including Mela, Shaheed, Naya Daur, and Pyasaa.

In 1960, the state of Bombay was partitioned along linguistic lines into the largely Marathi-speaking Maharashtra and the predominantely Gujrati-speaking Gujarat. This partition came amidst a series of language riots between Marathi and Gujarati speakers which gave rise to the Shiv Sena (army of Shiva), a right-wing Marathi political party. The Shiv Sena moved on to demonizing immigrants from south India in the 70s, and formed an alliance with the Hindu-fundamentalist RSS in the 80s. The Sena led government changed the name to Mumbai soon after coming to power in the state. The city will remain Bombay in my mind because I left before it was renamed. It has rarely been called Mumbai, most Indians pronounce it Bum-baee or use the English Bombay. The East India Company gave its trading post the name Bombay, an anglicization of the Portugese Bom-Bahai (good harbour) used by the Portguese settlers.

In the 70s and 80s, widespread strikes affected the textile industry in Bombay as trade-unions protested the unsafe conditions in many of Bombay's mills. Some of the strikes lasted many years and the textile industry in Bombay never recovered fully from them. Most large mills moved to Surat since many of the owners were from Gujarat, and production of cloth in Bombay has been declining ever since. Bombay's economy is now almost completely dependent on services. Finance, insurance, airlines, entertainment, travel, and commercial trading form the back-bone of the city's wealth. Numerous industrial companies have headquarters in Bombay so they can maintain easy access to capital and management talent.

Throughout its history, Bombay has been largely sheltered from the caste riots that have engulfed India at various points. During the partition, Bombay remained largely free of violence, and its large Muslim community remained in Bombay with few opting to leave for Pakistan (one notable exception was Mohammed Ali Jinnah the founder of Pakistan). As a mercantile city, it enjoyed a reputation for tolerance and diversity. That calm was shattered in 1992. On December 6, 1992 activists from the Shiv Sena, VHP, BJP and RSS demolished the 16th century Babri masjid in Ayodhya after a protracted period of unrest. This was followed by isolated rioting in Bombay in December, and far more widespread riots in January of 1993. All told, the violent rioters murdered 900 people over a few days. The scale of the rioting shocked most Bombayites, who were caught unawares. On March 12, 1993 ten large bombs were detonated simultaneously in various parts of Bombay in an act of choreographed terrorism. The bombings claimed 257 lives and were organized by Muslim members of Bombay's criminal gangs. The city went through an intense period of self-evaluation after the riots and bombings. A number of local peace-committees which are politically active were set up after the riots, but in many ways Bombay's innocence in matters of hate was lost in 1992.

Despite its urban character, Bombay retains some charming elements of its rural past. The Koli (fishermen) community that originally inhabited the islands can still be found all along the shore. Boats set out ever day to fish in the Arabian Sea and the fresh produce forms part of Bombay's unique cuisine. Since pasteurized milk is not common, there are a number of dairies within the city, some of these house hundreds of Indian water buffalo in a thatched sheds. If you live close to one of these dairy farms, you can expect to wake up to the sound of cows and buffaloes mooing as they are milked by hand before dawn. Fresh milk is delivered door-to-door early in the morning by a milk-man who ladles fresh full-cream milk out of a large steel drum into plastic bags or steel pots held out by bleary-eyed customers. Bombay is famous for its chat, spicy fast-foods that are served by street vendors. You can find regional delicacies from other parts of India such as idli, vadaa, dosa, chana-puri and samosas along with Bombay's very own paani-puri, bhel-puri, bhaaji-pau, tandoori fish, frankie and increasingly Bombay style Chinese. The city has a fine assortment of upscale restaurants, but locals will generally opt for the taste-explosion of an evening spent wandering amongst the food stalls at a bazaar or beach.


Drama has always played a large role in Bombay's culture. The Marathi tradition of dramatic performances on secular and mythological subjects is one of the major reasons for this, as was the presence of Parsi drama companies. The Bombay film industry has long operated in a symbiotic relationship with the small drama troupes in the city. Many Hindi film stars started their careers on the stage in Bombay or Pune. Many of the better screen-writers dabble in drama, as do some of the better poets who write lyrics for Hindi films. Nevertheless, the market for live performances is limited, and it is film that is the center of Bombay's popular culture.

Bombay exercises a strange attraction for the rest of the country because it is the center of the Hindi Film industry, often called Bollywood. Over 200 films are churned out by the film-makers in Bombay every year, most in Hindi. Hindi pot-boilers are watched all over the country as Hindi is the most widely spoken language in India with 400 million native speakers, primarily in north India. Since many of these films are set in Bombay, millions of Indians who have never visited the city are familiar with its streetscape, peculiar language and culture. Films have contributed enormously to the pageantry that suffuses Indian politics. Political themes (largely leftist) were commonplace in Hindi films, and numerous movies from the 70s revolve around poverty and worker's rights. In the 90s, the focus moved to the conflict between traditional and modern habits/beliefs which is apparent in every town and village in India. Ideas and people move seamlessly between films and politics. In both north and south India, actors and actresses like Sunil Dutt, Shabana Azmi, NT Rama Rao have gone on to become politicians and participate in public life supported by their enormous fan-followings.

Films worth seeing (made in, about, or set in Bombay) include:

  • Bombay Boys: This beautiful low-budget film by Kaizad Gustad relates the story of three young men who are second-generation immigrants in Australia, the UK and the USA. They arrive in Bombay on the same day and jointly make an attempt to rediscover their roots. Don't bother with the version dubbed over in Hindi, ask for the original English soundtrack.
  • Coolie: The best of the Amitabh Bachhan 'angry man' period.
  • Salaam Bombay: Mira Nair's film-poem about homeless children and the red-light district in Bombay.
  • Bombay: A technically brilliant, well-executed romance set in Bombay during the 1992/1993 riots. The last in a long tradition of films promoting harmony amongst the several communities in India. Features a wonderful score by A.R. Rahman
  • Hero Hirala: A charming story about a rickshaw driver in the hinterland who follows a film star to Bombay. Stars the inimitable Naseeruddin Shah and the beguiling Sanjna Kapoor
  • Nayakan (Tamil, available with a Hindi soundtrack), Parinda (Hindi) and Satya (Hindi) are three of the best Indian films in the gangster genre. All three are set in Bombay and give a sense of some of the unsavoury side of business in Bombay. Nayakan has an excellent performance by Kamala Hassan. Many Bombay films are financed by producers operating on the fringe of the law and these films give expression to their rough and tumble world. See Bombay Boys for a humorous take on the gangster genre.
  • Amar Akbar Anthony a classic masala movie starring Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor. Worth watching if only for Amitabh's character, Anthony Gonsalves, who introduced Bambaiya Hindi to the rest of the country.

The Ganpati festival, also known as Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in a unique manner in Bombay. The festival commemorates the birth of Ganesha the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati. Numerous statues of the god Ganesh are built by artisans and sculptors in local handicraft shops during the summer and delivered to homes and local organizations in September, right after the monsoon. The idols range in size from miniatures that can fit into the palm of your hand, to collosal seven storey creations that have to be transported in trucks. The idols are the center of a series of a puja that lasts ten days. On the final day of the festival, they are carried to the shore in large processions and immersed in the water. Parades accompany the statues to the shores and virtually everyone in the city turns out to see the spectacle.

Bombay was not an indigenous Indian city. It was built by the British expressly for maintaining trade links with India and was perhaps never expected to become a large town. Bombay was therefore not a planned city but came into being with every step of its growth being impulsive and incremental - expressing in its forms the idea of the city as a field of human enterprise. Each new development in the city thus expressed in its physical form the needs and lifestyles of the people who created or occupied these areas.
--Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra, Bombay: The Cities Within


One of Bombay's claims to fame is that it has the largest community of Parsis in the world. The Parsis are followers of Zarathustra who fled Persia (modern-day Iran) in the 8th century after the Arab invasion and settled in Gujarat as a community of traders. Today, they can be found almost exclusively in Bombay, and in small communities spread all over the world. One of the most prominent early Parsis to move to Bombay was Lowjee Nusserwanjee who took the last name Wadia (ship-builder in Gujarati), and founded a ship-building firm which was world-renowned. Francis Scott Key was aboard one of their ships (the British vessel Minden, built in Bombay) when he composed The Star-Spangled Banner. The history of the Paris has been closely linked with Bombay since they followed the British to the bustling port of Bombay. The impact of the Parsi community is exceptional, largely due to the adaptability they demonstrated under British rule, and their interest in education. In many ways, the role of the Parsi community in India is not dissimilar to that of liberal Jews in New York.


Listed geographically from the southern center to the northern suburbs, I have used the names of the train-stations on the commuter lines, since those are the most well-known. There are various other names for neighborhoods both small and large, but that's one of the joys of living in a large, vibrant urban area. The West coast (facing the Arabian Sea) is the most desirable residential/office area. The eastern part of the island was largely industrial though this is changing as heavy industries move out of Bombay. The commuter line south of Bandra and the highway north of it are generally used to demarcate East and West.
  • Colaba is probably the most desirable residential neighborhood in Bombay, it occupies the southern-most end of the island. Colaba has some of the tallest residential high-rises in Bombay and some of the most venerable social and athletic clubs.
  • Fort is the center of the city. The major train stations Victoria Terminus (a gothic masterpiece that serves long-distance trains) and Churchgate (local trains) are in Fort. The Brabourne stadium served as Bombay's primary cricket ground until it was replaced by Wankhade stadium further north. Marine Drive is a broad road built in the 1930s along the shore with a promenade that is a popular evening stroll. It is sometimes called the Queen's Necklace since the triple rows of street lamps lining it as it curves gently around the bay look like a necklace at night. Bombay University, Elphinstone and St. Xaviers are all around Fort and have marvelous Victorian and gothic buildings.
  • Kalbadevi the neighborhood between the Chowpatty Beach and Victoria Terminus is the biggest market in Bombay. Storefronts occupied by merchant-traders of the old-school line the narrow streets. Virtually every consumer good imaginable is sold here, with various small streets specializing in gold jewelry, crockery, household appliances and books. Most of the city's textile traders (who increasingly source from the mills in Gujarat) have offices here. The neighborhood is served by the Marine Lines station.
  • Grant Road the neighborhood contains the Muslim ghetto called Bhendi Bazaar, the zoo and many small markets.
  • Malabar Hill has beautiful views of downtown Bombay, some of the finest old houses and palaces, the public Hanging Gardens, Walkeshwar Temple, Sophia college, and the Naaz cafe close to the peak, which has .
  • Mahalaxmi is immediately north of Malabar Hill. On the shoreline is Haji Ali's tomb in the bay, reached by a narrow causeway often covered at high tide. The Mahalaxmi racecourse, Heera Panna shopping complex and the Nehru Planetarium are in the area.
  • Parel is the largely industrial suburb north-east of Mahalaxmi. Bombay's textile mills were located in this neighborhood. Parel is now undergoing a construction boom as many of the old mills are converted in upscale residential buildings.
  • Dadar, Matunga and Mahim are the original suburbs of Bombay, since the 80s they have been considered part of the city center. Dharavi, an area often called the world's largest slum, lies along Mahim creek. Sanitation and urban planning are poor, there are a large number of shanties and most of the streets are too narrow for cars to pass. Nevertheless, Dharavi is a hub for small industry, with numerous handicraft factories within its confines. Dadar is home to Shivaji Park where numerous amateur cricket teams play every weekend, and the mayor's official residence.
  • Bandra is another trendy western suburb dominated by Pali hill.
  • Sion, Kurla and Chembur are eastern suburbs that are largely industrial. Chembur lies along one of the major roads leading to the mainland. Trombay on the eastern shoreline is the location of the Homi Bhabha atomic power plant and research center.
  • Khar, Santacruz and Vile-Parle are residential suburbs along the western shore.
  • Juhu is home to Juhu Beach, a suburban reflection of Chowpatty. Families come to the beach in hordes on most evenings to eat at the snack-stalls while kids ride horses, camels, ferris-wheels and merry-go-rounds on the beach. Together, Juhu Beach and Chowpatty are Bombay's unending carnivals. Most of Juhu was originally a sandy island called Juhu Tara, the rest of it was a marsh. If Jamshetji Tata would have had his way, Juhu would have been turned into an Indian Venice, criss-crossed with canals. My favourite theater in Bombay, the Prithvi, which seats less than 200 and stages experimental drama in English, Hindi and Gujarati is in Juhu.
  • Andheri (literally the 'darkness') is home to both of Bombay's commercial airports. The original airport is at Juhu and is not large enough for jets.
  • Jogeshwari, Goregaon, Malad, Kandivili and Borivili are residential suburbs to the west of Bombay's National Park. The three lakes which serve as reservoirs for Bombay, Tulsi, Vihar and Powai lie within the National Park, which is home to a variety of wild-life, including panthers and lions. The Bombay campus of the Indian Institute of Technology is along Powai lake.
  • Ghatkopar, Vihroli, Kanjumarg and Bhandup are residential suburbs to the east of the national park.
  • Mulund and Thane form the last outposts of the island city, close to the bridges leading to the mainland.
  • New Bombay lies on the mainland, home to people fleeing the increasingly high cost of housing in Bombay.
Bombay is a slum, for the rich and the poor.
--My cousin's pithy description of the city.


Bombay's public transport system consists of a surface rail network running north-south in two lines and an extensive system of buses. The trains and buses are clean and well-maintained, and service is regular. However, over-crowding is a persistent problem especially on the rail network. During rush-hour trains are bursting at their seams with commuters hanging off the doors precariously, and getting out at your stop is an exercise in dexterity. The trains have separate cars for women, though these are equally crowded.

Bombay's road network is terrible for a city of its size. It can often take 3 hours to travel 30 km from one of the northern suburbs to Fort, and most of the route is through two or three lanes trunks. There have been various plans to add north-south expressways, but none have been built, largely because acquiring the land would be prohibitively expensive. Building more roads is hardly the solution to Bombay's transportation problem, what the city needs is a large, efficient subway network to entice people off the roads. If you avoid the rush-hour, driving in Bombay can be fun, and provides the opportunity to match your combat driving skills with the best rickshaw and taxi drivers around.

Bombay was not originally an Indian city, that is perhaps why it is home to such a diverse set of communities. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsi, Jew, Christian, Bohrah, Irani and all the rest call Bombay home. The city has served all comers well, except perhaps those who were there first. Yet that is the nature of great cities, they must accept with open arms all who come to them. In his novel Delhi, Khushwant Singh narrates a journey through time that is spiced by meetings with his hijra (transvestite) mistress Bhagmati. Bombay has no dearth of hijras and the city often behaves like a promiscuous mistress, and sometimes turns into an angry young Turk. Yet it is completely unlike New Delhi and Chandigarh. It is not the master plan of a Frenchman or a Briton. Bombay evolved, and that is perhaps why the city reverberates with the pulse of its residents, and why it lies prostrate before their passions at times. From Kalbadevi road to Subzi Mandi opposite the Borivili railway station, Bombay is never still. The city remains, but it is never the same.

Books, articles on Bombay:

I lived in Bombay for the first 17 years of my life. I left in 1993 for New York and places near and far. I have not returned since, except for short visits. The city remains for me like a half-forgotten lover whose arms I yearn to return to with varying degrees of acuteness. Someday perhaps I shall return to my very own Bombay.

Sources include the 1991 census results for India, the books listed above, for some of the information on films, and my own memories.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.