My cousin Andrew, who frequently travels to India on business, was invited to a wedding in Bombay. In turn, Andrew invited me to accompany him. I jumped at the chance to see an Indian wedding and spend more time with my cousin.
This was my fourth trip to India. I had been to the northwest “tourist triangle” of New Delhi/Agra/Rajasthan; Tamil Nadu; and West Bengal/Sikkim. Although this was going to be a whirlwind one-week trip, we were not planning to leave the city, so it was going to be a very manageable trip.
Bombay is the capital of India’s Maharastra State and is India‘s economic center. It’s a bustling and sprawling urban center with 20 million people. It was originally a small settlement “given” to the Portuguese in the 1500s. Portugal then gave it to England’s King Charles II as a wedding gift. Bombay became the seat of the British Colonial government, which is very evident by the abundance of English architecture. As elsewhere in India, English is ubiquitous among the educated. Getting around is easy.
We visited tourist sites and the religious sites of Moslems, Hindus, and Jews. The Jewish synagogues were the high point of our visit. But what’s interesting about Bombay is the level that religion is downplayed. In Tamil Nadu sprawling temples religion dominate the cities, and every street corner has a large shrine. But in Bombay, the temples are small and conservatively decorated. Shrines are rare.
It’s impossible to talk about India without focusing on the extreme poverty of a huge number of the residents. We drove past slums that redefine squalor. Every traffic intersection has its beggars, deformed and suffering. Women holding tiny babies were pleading for pennies for food. The ones with English language skills met guests outside their deluxe hotels and asked for money, milk, rice – or anything. And one of the most profound sights was to see the poor lined up at the fences surrounding the opulent weddings. The gut wrenching poverty of India cannot help but affect the visitor. At the same time, one realizes that for every poor person we see begging, there are tens of thousands who desperately need help. Is giving a few rupees to one beggar a futile gesture? Perhaps, but not for that one beggar and his/her family.
Just as India has an overwhelming number of poor people, they also have more middle class than any other country. In fact, with 1.1 billion people, India has more of everything.
The Attractions of Bombay
Bombay may be low on tourist sights but it’s high on shopping and interaction with the people. We stayed at the opulent Taj Hotel (adjacent to the India gate). This area of town, known as Colaba, is one of the market centers. The Taj is a perfect choice for a base while visiting the city. In the mornings, while my cousin visited his suppliers, I struck out on my own to view the sites, shop, and explore the city.
India Gate: This huge archway is at the very front of the Taj Hotel. It’s the ceremonial arch was built in 1927 to Commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary. More significantly, the last of the British troops left India by sea, marching through its portals. The arch is always alive with activity: it’s the point at which the boats to Elephanta Island depart, it’s also Bombay’s #1 photo opportunity for Indians and tourists alike. In the evening light, the colors of the arch change to deep tones of gold and orange.
Elephanta Island: Just one hour away by boat, this 6th century temple complex would be an engineering feat even today. The island was named Elephanta by the Portuguese, after the statue of an elephant near the landing area of the island. These rock cut temples are dedicated to the god Shiva. The temples were carving out of solid granite, creating columns, internal spaces and statues. Many of the more delicate statues were damaged; we were told that the Portuguese used them for target practice. Before you travel to Elephanta, it’s best to learn a bit about Hinduism. Understanding who the gods are, their consorts, vehicles, and the gist of the Ramayana and Mahabharata will greatly increase your appreciation of this complex.
Haji Ali Mosque: Situated at the end of a long causeway poking into the Arabian Sea, is a whitewashed fairytale mosque containing the tomb of the Muslim saint Haji Ali. The saint was a wealthy local businessman who renounced the material world and meditated on a nearby headland following a pilgrimage to Mecca. The mosque and tomb were built by devotees in the early 19th century. I read that during high tide, the connecting causeway is submerged in water giving the impression that the mosque and tomb are floating out at sea. However, we visited at low tide, which overpowered the visitor with the smell of rotting raw sewage. The causeway is lined with beggars suffering every imaginable affliction and deformity.
Mahalaxmi Temple: Goddesses Mahalaxmi, Mahakali and Maha Saraswathi are the presiding deities in this famous temple, which is constructed on the seashores attracting large number of devotees everyday. While not as ornate as the temples of the southeast, this temple welcomes non-Hindu guests.
Chowpatty Beach: Don’t even think of swimming at Chowpatty Beach; the pollution is perhaps the worst you’ll ever see. But there is an oceanfront carnival atmosphere, complete with food stalls, masseuses, magicians, and vendors hawking an interesting of odd objects. We got a full body massage for $2 each. If you’re a masochist, DO get a massage. It’s very rough – and at one point, he cracked my EARS. I had bruises on my thighs for days. But he did give me the best-darned arm/hand rub I’ve ever had – which kept away my arthritis for days. The food was great – I tried the Bhel-puri (but left out the tomatoes).
The Architecture of the Fort area: Bombay University and the “Fort Area” of Bombay will make you feel that you are in England, and a few hours walking around the area is great. The design is England, but the Indian elements epitomize the Indo-Saracenic style dominant in Bombay. Be sure to see Victoria Terminus, Flora Fountain, the Oval Maidan, the High Court and the Railway Headquarters. On University Rd is a fantastic book market that offers millions of English books – both technical and casual books – at great prices. Brand new Lonely Planet books are 50% off cover price. I bought two cookbooks for about 50 cents each.
The Central Markets: Like many places in India, the central markets are segregated into different areas, each selling different commodities. A stray turn will lead you from the silk/textile market into the flashing light market. It’s so massive that we took advantage of a tout who accompanied us on our foray. I’ve listed a GREAT silk merchant at the end of this travelogue. If you try to find this merchant, you MUST use the services of a tout. In the central markets is the silver market, jewelry market, kids clothing market, and so on. Be careful: we stumbled onto what we called the fish-guts market. This was not a high point.
Cinema: When you’re in India, be sure to go to the movies. Don’t worry about subtitles – the plotlines are usually straightforward. If you think that “Monsoon Wedding” is a typical Bollywood film, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. See a comedy and ask around how many dances there are. Don’t bother to see anything with less than 5 songs.
There are two main Jewish communities in Bombay: the Bene Yisroel and the Baghdadis. The Baghdadi Jews came in the mid-1700s fleeing a wave of anti-Semitism by the Ottomans. Most of the Baghdadis have since moved to Israel. The Bene Yisroel community has many hundred members and many active congregations.
The Bene Yisroel descended from Galilee oil-pressers shipwrecked pre-diaspora – over 2,000 years ago – across the creek from Bombay. The seven couples said to have survived settled around the village of Navgaon and became farmers and coconut-oil pressers-shanwar telli (literally, “Saturday oil men” because they did not work on Shabbat). Since they had lost everything, the Bene Israel had no written guidelines for practicing Judaism. They lived peacefully in the villages that dotted the coast and kept the rituals they remembered: certain laws of kashrut, circumcision, Shabbat and reciting the Shema, which became an all-purpose prayer. With the advent of educational and employment opportunities introduced when the British began to develop Bombay in the eighteenth century, many Bene Israel moved to the city. They found employment in government service and distinguished themselves in the armed forces. In 1796 the first synagogue, Sha’ar Harahamim, was built by Samuel Ezekiel Divekar, who vowed to erect a house of worship if he survived as a prisoner-of-war of the Muslim sultan of Mysore. (from Hadassah Magazine)
The Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue (address below) was built in 1883. It’s now a mixed Baghdadi-Bene Yisroel shul – a beautiful pastel-blue two story building just a hundred yards from Bombay’s main museum. The well-preserved colonial interior is reminiscent of European shuls, with rustic wooden balustrades, lots of wooden pillars, opulent chandeliers and some electrical fans burring away overhead. The maintenance of the building is largely financed by Jewish donations from ORT and the JDC.
We attended Shabbos morning services at Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue (see information below) where we were immediately welcomed as family. Both Andrew and I were honored for an aliyah. Although were completely lost (their Sephardic service is very unlike ours), the Chazzan and congregants did all they could to include us. Knesset Eliyahoo doesn’t have a Rabbi. The shul does have a Chazzan (see below). Although we were told that the shul often had trouble making a minyan, they had no difficulty this morning. Between the regulars and a few visitors, we had close to 20 men by the end of the morning Torah service.
I cannot say enough to convey the warm welcome we received. I’ve been to shuls in many parts of the world. While I am always welcomed, the exuberance and sense of family was genuine.
The Chazzan invited us to attend a congregant’s wedding – and take us on a personal tour of Bombay’s shuls. We eagerly accepted! Later that day – after a brief havdallah, we toured a number of shuls in the area. Each synagogue was meticulously maintained and proudly shown by the shammas.
The wedding was similar to an American/European Jewish wedding. The service was short and included the well-known symbols: signing the ketubah on the bimah, breaking the glass (but in the middle of the ceremony), and the bride circling the groom. The food at the reception was traditional Indian fare. The celebration was led by an enthusiastic entertainer who grabbed the foreigners and danced with us. Overall, there must have been 400+ people at the celebration.
Visiting Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue for Shabbat morning will be an uplifting experience. Be prepared to spend a few hours – perhaps longer. There may also be Friday evening services and Havdallah. There are kipot and talitim – and they also have an array of siddurim in English. These may or may not help you follow the service; their service is quite different from American Ashkenazi services.
Do make a donation to the shul. Knesset Eliyahoo exists due to the generosity of JDC and ORT. Your added rupees will help preserve Judaism in India.
Knesseth Eliyahoo Synagogue
55 VB Ghandi Marg
Near Rhythm House
Opp. Madras Coffee House
Other resources for information:
Hadassah Magazine – Am Yisroel – Haruth
The Indian Wedding
January is wedding “high season” in India – and the clubs that line Marine Drive are the places where the larger ones are held. The wedding that we were invited to was elegant and extravagant – yet the family went to great lengths to make sure that we felt at home. A wedding begins with the bride’s henna ceremony. Later, a boisterous procession led by a brass band marches up the block to the site. The band is followed by the wedding party’s family, dancing madly to the beat. The ceremony at the gate (which is essentially the game of “got yer nose”) is a series of actions and symbols, but performed with gaiety fitting the occasion. All the time, musicians sign the praises of the wedding party and – I presume – sutras fitting the occasion. The groom is dressed regally – and the bride wears jewels and a slightly westernized wedding gown. The actual ceremony involves a priest (this was Jain wedding, btw). The entire ceremony was no more than a half hour. Of course, immediately after the ceremony, the celebratory feast began.
This trip to India was wonderful – made so by the people we met. The warmth and generosity of the people of India is unparalleled.
Buying Pharmaceuticals: India’s prices for common drugs are often less than 10% of what you would pay in the USA. (For example – Vioxx in the USA: $2.28 each, in India 8 cents each.) Despite allegations by American drug manufacturers, Indian drugs are not plagued with counterfeits – in fact many Indian drugs are made by CIBA/Geigy and other well-know international firms. Go to any reputable “chemist”, like the one in the Oberoi. The prices are fixed, although some brands are slightly less expensive than others. The import laws are vague. If you have a prescription for any pharmaceutical, you can legally import 3 months supply. I brought back a tad more (wink-wink). If the chemist doesn’t have the drug in stock, don’t worry about prepaying; they’ll reliably deliver the drugs to your hotel. You MUST know the generic name of the drug and the dosage. Use drugstore.com to look up the generic name. (And just a note for the terminally stupid: don’t even think of importing Class-A controlled drugs.)
Eyeglasses: Prescription eyeglasses in India cost about $12-$15 per pair. I usually buy a few pair with each visit. If you have an astigmatism of 1.00 or less, either learn how to translate your prescription or ask the optician to do this for you. Astigmatic correction is usually quite irrelevant for midrange and reading glasses. For my glasses on this trip, I used a Colaba optician: I have not bought bifocals; perhaps on my next visit.
MB OPTICIANS, 93 Colaba Causeway; Mumbai
tel: 283 6049
Silk and Cotton: Finding quality silk scarves was difficult. A tout found this one for us. It turns out that he was a major exporter of quality scarves and silks.
Mr. Desai Shivlal Lalchand
Shop B-340, 5th Lane Coner Near STD Booth, Mangaldas Market
Best Restaurant: While this place isn’t worth a special trip, it’s not too far outside the Fort area – and definitely outside the tourist area. Their service and quality are phenomenal, and the prices are very low.
BALWAS – Maker Bhavan 3, 19 New Marine Lines, Mumbai
Tel: 2058569 or 2051108
Internet Connection: There are two internet joints on the block by the Taj. Both are good – with fast cable connections. I never had trouble finding a fast connection. If you find a place that’s slow, leave and go to another.
Wedding Invitations: India makes the most beautiful artistic invitations you could possibly imagine. There’s an entire invitation market area on Khadilkar Road. We went to Multi Creations at No. 37.