Entering the gateway of India

The ‘city of dreams,’ Mumbai remains India’s most cosmopolitan location, but it’s also full of magnificent history.

June 29, 2013 22:35
Suzanne Singer and her husband at the Taj Mahal.

india mumbai travel 311. (photo credit: Suzanne Singer)

I’ve driven a car in Times Square, New York. I’ve driven in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But I wouldn’t dare drive a car in Mumbai, India. Ever. Actually, I often wonder how the city doesn’t crumble under the weight of horrific traffic jams that plague Greater Mumbai with its 20 million residents, almost as many people as in all of Australia (23 million).

Mumbai is the ultimate urban mass, including the squalor, congestion and sometimes utter hopelessness. Imagine, about 2,000 persons a day pour into sprawling Mumbai to find work. Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s taxes are raised in populous Mumbai.

Mumbai remains India’s most cosmopolitan city, and is a “city of dreams,” where one can become rich. Considered the first city of India, Mumbai, formerly called Bombay, boasts that 22 official languages and 200 dialects are spoken it it every day.

This metro area is the nation’s transportation hub, business and financial capital and the economic powerhouse of India. A city of temples, bazaars and restaurants, the metropolis is also infamous for its poor, who live in acres upon acres of slums. And yet, frequent visitors to this huge city say that the number of beggars, sidewalk squatters and slums is coming down.

And much of that reduction is attributable to India’s economic boom, which is ongoing despite a world-wide recession.

The country’s economic growth rate slowed to about five percent for the 2012- 13 fiscal year compared with 6.2% the previous year, but still, wherever you go in Mumbai today, you observe high-rise towers and hi-tech parks host to the headquarters of global corporations.

You only have to stand at the formidable stone archway of the Gateway of India in this hyper-city, and you, too, will feel the history of incredible India. URBS PRIMA IN INDIS (First City of India) reads the plaque outside this huge archway at the water’s edge, built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India and was officially opened in 1924. It became redundant just 24 years later, however, when the last British regiment left India through it, ending England’s rule over the British Empire’s “crown jewel.”

Every day, thousands of Indias and tourists flock to and pass through Mumbai’s Gateway of India. Africans, Asians, Arabs, Europeans and Indians are all here, maintaining the city’s cosmopolitan aura.

Near the Gateway of India stands the famous Taj Mahal Hotel with its red-carpeted floors, marble staircases and elaborate dining rooms. This was one of the spots hit by the brazen terrorist attack of November, 2008, which shook India, the world and the Indian Jewish community, which had experienced hardly a drop of anti-Semitism throughout its long history.

Also attacked were the Oberoi-Trident Hotel and the Victoria Terminus. Shootouts occurred at the popular Leopold Café and Nariman House, a five-story building in south Mumbai that hosted a Chabad Center. The attacks claimed the lives of 174 persons, including nine gunmen. Chabad Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his wife, Rivka, and four other Jews were murdered. The Chabad Center is still closed, though the organization’s rabbis carry out their work in other locations throughout the city.

The original Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was almost completely gutted by fire in the aftermath of the terrorist blasts, which saw guests and staff of the hotel taken hostage and several killed. The Taj and the Oberoi have been renovated and reopened.

For sheer majesty of architectural design, tourists should stop at Victoria Terminus, Mumbai’s largest public building and probably the world’s finest railway station.

By the way, the area around the Taj Mahal is chock-full of magnificent restaurants and boutiques, and is a popular meeting spot surrounded by postcards vendors and snake charmers.

Also located nearby are the famous Sassoon Docks, named after Sir David Sassoon, (1792-1864) whose businesses were so successful it became known throughout Jewish Asia that any Jew in need of employment could find it in Sassoon’s mills. Sassoon’s eight sons established the Sassoon business empire, not only in Bombay and Calcutta, but also in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kobe, Nagasaki, Yokohama, the Moluccas, Baghdad, Saigon, Amsterdam, London and New York. Sassoon and his house are known as Baghdadis, one of the three groups that comprise Indian Jewry, all of whom maintain different traditions and customs. The other two are the Bene Israel and the Cochinis, the latter residing in the city of Kochi.

If one is sightseeing in the Gateway of India area, take in Elephanta Island for the rock-cut temples, now a UNESCO World Heritage site and worth crossing the waters to the middle of Mumbai Harbor to see.

High up on the list of “must sees” is the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum, which is housed in the two-story building where Mahatma Ghandi once lived.

‘AS LONG as Bombay exists, there will be Jews in town,” goes an old adage. In the 21st century, Mumbai is the heart of an active Jewish community. Of 5,000 Jews in India, approximately 4,000 live in Greater Mumbai, including nearby Thane. There are nine Sephardic Orthodox synagogues in Mumbai, including one in Thane. Two houses of worship are non-functional. At the synagogues, there are no rabbis; cantors conduct the services, according to Elijah Jacob, country manager of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

To observe this Jewish community, visit the Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center at D.G. Ruparel College, Bal Govindas Marg, near Ruby Mills Gate, off Tulsi Pipe road, Matunga. The center boasts a functioning Sunday school, a respectable Jewish library, a youth corner, a computer room with three Internet stations, a classroom and activity rooms, a conference hall and a huge community hall for socializing.

The JCC is sponsored by the JDC.

After years of emigration, starting in the late 1940s and early 1950s when nearly 30,000 Jews left the country, mostly for Israel, Mumbai’s Jews are staying put today, despite the terrorist attacks.

According to Elijah Jacob, “a few” Indian Jews are making aliyah. Reportedly, about 2,000 Bnei Menashe have emigrated to Israel. The Bnei Menashe are tribal people who live on both sides of the Indo- Burmese border and who claim to be descendants of the ancient Israelite tribe of Menashe, displaced by Assyrian conquerors in 722 BC.

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, author, scholar and expert on the Oriental Diaspora, who frequently travels to India, says the Jews of Mumbai today are “more affluent, more stable and more secure” than ever. He added that it is not unusual for an Indian Jew living in Israel to fly to Mumbai to marry a Jewish city-resident, or for an Indian Jew to fly to Israel to marry a co-religionist.

Kosher meat and wine, ritual objects, books and Indian Jewish calendars appear in Jewish homes. Other Judaica products are available in Mumbai. There are no kosher restaurants in Mumbai, although one recently opened in Thane, known as Bittyavon.

ORT India sells wine and challah and persons can contact Chabad for kosher products. A chain known as “Moshe’s” exists in Mumbai and Delhi, but is “not strictly kosher,” reported Elijah Jacob.

A Reform Jewish movement also functions in Mumbai and is known as the JRU (Jewish Religious Union).

They lost their place of worship when the building in which they rented space in 1992-1993 was firebombed as part of religious unrest between Hindus and Muslims; the attack was definitely not anti-Semitic in nature. Since that time, the JRU meets for services at the JCC, ORT and other locations.

Yes, Mumbai is an essential part of a trip to India. It can be a beginning of a journey or the end of a trip to this wonderful subcontinent. In the final analysis, India, with all its infinite charm, long history, mixed culture, vast plains, huge mountains, mighty rivers and great forests, awaits you. As has been said, “whatever happens, India will go on” – and so will its Jewish community.

The writer is a journalist, travel writer and the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel, (Marion Street Press) and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press).

www.bengfrank.blogspot.com twitter @bengfrank

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