gateway to India, is a city of contrasts. On the one hand, the dazzling
interiors of its five star deluxe hotels; on the other the poverty and squalor
of its slums. The capital of Indian finance and films, it is a city of hope and
despair, evoking desire and promising a future, however illusory, to all who
come to its shores. The rags to riches stories that abound in Bombay films
recreate the myths of its dream world.
The European connection
Legend has it that Bombay, or "Mumbai," derives its name from Mumbadevi, the goddess worshipped by the Kolis, the earliest inhabitants of the archipelago on which the city is situated. It is probable, however, that the city derived its modern name from the Portuguese, to whom it was ceded in 1534 by the Sultan of Gujarat, and who called it "Bom Bahia," the beautiful bay In 1661, it was given as a marriage gift to Charles II, the king of England, by his queen, Catherine of Portugal. Its territories then consisted of seven islands, interspersed by swampy, low-lying areas, 18 kilometers long and seven wide, with Malabar Hill rising to sixty meters above the sea, and the island of Colaba as a narrow jutting headland. A 19th-century traveler wrote that, "Bombay harbor presents one of the most splendid landscapes imaginable," with "its gemlike islands reflected in the broad blue waters" of the Arabian Sea.
Evidence of human activity in the archipelago goes back a
long way The early Buddhist grottoes of Kanheri date from the second century
A.D. Hindu grottoes and the sixth-eighth-century caves of Elephanta testify to a
rich cultural heritage. However, the region owes its early economic development
to the coming of the Parsis, who arrived there from Iran in the eighth century.
Starting in the 17th century, European settlement on the west coast of India - the French in Cochin and Mahe, the Portuguese in Goa, Dieu and Daman, and the English in Bombay, Baroda and Surat - transformed the landscape, architecture, economy and lifestyle of the inhabitants. The English presence was the main catalyst of cultural and economic transition in the Bombay region. Rich merchant communities that had been settled for centuries in the hinterland moved to the ports, and Bombay became the focus of this movement of indigenous culture and wealth. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 greatly enhanced Bombay's status as a port on the Arabian Sea, and its rail links with the hinterland made it the hub of all India.
Since the 1860s the Bombay economy has been based on
cotton - its export and the manufacture of cloth With the outbreak of the
American Civil War in 1861, and the consequent cotton famine, Bombay suddenly
emerged with a virtual monopoly of the world cotton trade. Its merchants
acquired wealth, land and prosperity surpassing that possessed by the colonial
masters. Here in Bombay, amongst its culturally diverse merchant communities and
its modern cosmopolitan intelligentsia, was born the idea of freedom.
A blend of architectural styles
While the growth of indigenous business and finance made Bombay a hub of trade, the avant garde movement in nationalist ideas, films and architecture made it the cultural capital of India. In the course of the 19th century Bombay evolved a typically Indian style in architecture, and later in films and in the development of a composite culture that no other city of the British Empire could boast of. In architecture the Raj tried to impose its heavy Gothic style, as can be seen in the gigantic facades of the Victoria terminus and the city hall. The merchant communities, mainly the Parsis, tried to blend modern European and traditional forms.
The American historian of urbanism Norma Evenson has pointed out that a striking feature of 19th-century private building in Bombay was "its decorative carving, a quality that linked it with the traditional Gujarati architecture," while its five or six-storied buildings reproduced "the character and charm of older centers of population" such as Amritsar, Lahore or old Delhi. The creativity of this style is illustrated by "airy balconies enriched with graceful carvings and painted in all colors of the rainbow." The facade style of older houses, with traditional woodwork, has been "compared to that of the Ionian Greeks". This blending of architectural styles in 19th-century Bombay was a part of the modern movement and the city has continued to be an open window to the outside world.
For over a century, Bombay has attracted people from all
over India, from all walks of life to come to live and share the gentle soothing
winds of the Arabian Sea and the melodies of the Hindi film song. Bombay today
has a population of nearly 12 million inhabitants, but it has always been a city
of crowds, a mix of many communities, cultures and languages. Land was always
scarce, and as early as the 1890s the Back Bay reclamation was started; it still
continues today. Reclamation and the intermixture of socio-cultural groups may
sum up a century of Bombay's social history.
A pole of attraction
Each social group has brought to the city its richness and diversity, creating an environment of tolerance and sharing. A person may come from anywhere in India or the world, here he or she is a Bombaywala, and speaks a mixture of many languages. Whether people sleep on the pavement, live in the slums or reside in a Bungalow in Bandra, they all share the city, its dreamy films, its walks such as the Marine Drive, and its beaches - the Chaupati and Juhu. Over the years, however, differences of community, religion and social class have begun to plague Bombay, as much as they have other cities of northern India.
Nearly 70 per cent of the people of Bombay are Hindus of diverse castes, sects and beliefs. In recent years, however, the Maharathi speaking 45 per cent have begun to dominate the city's political life.
Nevertheless, the Gujarati, Sindhi, Punjabi or Marwari Hindu merchant communities play an important role in the city's economy. Nearly 15 per cent of the population is Muslim. The Bohras and Khojas are the more important business groups, and their leader, Prince Aga Khan, is an international figure. The Parsis, once Bombay's most important community, are now in decline, but still have a national presence in the Tatas, India's most powerful industrial financial group. There are large numbers of Christians, mainly Catholics, and there is also a small Jewish community. Although the Jains and Sikhs intermarry with the Hindus, they have a separate cultural identity and exercise considerable influence. Bombay's population also includes oil-rich Arab sheiks, Buddhists, Armenians, Chinese and Europeans, who have made the city their home and contribute to its cultural texture.
Bombay is not only a city of the rich or the middle
classes. It has attracted millions of aspiring young people from all over the
subcontinent. They speak different languages, Konkani, Tamil, Ekanard, Behari,
Punjabi and the beautiful tribal dialects. They all come to Bombay in search of
a livelihood, to live close to the sea, and be a part of the dance, drama and
color of its film world.
Each socio-cultural group has brought to the city its
place of worship, lifestyle, social customs and habits, and has left historical
monuments as a testimony of a composite culture. The Hindus - Marathi and
Gujarati merchants - gather at the ancient temple of Walkeshwar (god of sand) on
Malabar Hill, or the temple of Mahalakshmi (goddess of wealth), near which there
is a mosque built in the memory of Haji Ali, a Muslim saint. In Worli is a
Buddhist temple and the basilica of Mount Mary, one of Bombay's 20 Catholic
churches. On the Back Bay, near the Dhabi Hat, is the principal temple of the
Jains. In another part of Malabar Hill are the Dakhmas, "Towers of
Silence," the place of disposal of the dead of the Parsis. Bombay also has
many Sikh Gurudwaras.
Each community celebrates its religious festivals: the Hindu Diwali, the festival of light and Ganesh Chaturthi; the Muslim Muharram; the Catholics' annual festival of Mount May. For over a century these communities have lived a shared life of mutual respect for each other's religion and belief, but cracks have begun to appear in this tightly woven social fabric.
The partition of India in 1947 left wounds - riots, internecine killings of Hindus and Muslims which the passage of time has not healed. Communal tensions elsewhere in India, as in the case of the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992, have sparked off sectarian religious emotions and riots. But more alarming is the growth of a sectarian organization, the Shiv Sena, which has used political rhetoric - Bombay only for the Maharashtrians - to win votes. A narrow regionalism, coupled with sectarian religious sentiments, could destroy the healthy mix of cultures that Bombay has come to represent for the rest of India. Bombay, a recent Hindi film directed by Mani Ratnam, shows the predicament of this city of cultural intermixture. It depicts the love story of a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl, a saga of the reconciliation of cultures of which Bombay is a living symbol.
-Courtesy: UNESCO Courier
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