Mumbai and the Festival of Lights

I have visited the city of Mumbai on 12 separate adventures and I can confidently declare that nowhere in the world is one so consistently surprised by the life and soul of a city so deeply spiritual that it breathes vivid calm in maddening chaos.

Mumbai, the commercial and show business capital of India, has evolved enormously since the seven small islands of Bombay (the name most non-Marathi speakers still use) were handed over by Portugal to England in 1661 as part of the dowry of Catherine de Braganza when she married Charles II of England. The monarch wasn’t much taken with the islands and in turn leased them to the British East India Company for £10 a year in 1668.

Three and a half centuries of trade and migration later translated into a success story built through wealth accumulation; and the cosmopolitan metropolis of Mumbai, one of the largest and most vibrant cities in the world, now hosts over 20 million people.

The last few days of October mark the biggest and most auspicious of the countless Hindu festivals. Diwali or Deepavali (literally meaning row of lights in Sanskrit) is when light and good triumph dark and evil before a new financial year begins, and is known across the world as the Festival of Lights.

As a celebration Diwali is much like Christmas and New Year in one joyous go – a time of year when families take a break from work and come together, offering each other lavish gifts, sweets and well-wishing cards. As with the festive season at the calendar year end in much of the west, Diwali is also shared to a great extent by members of other faiths who also enjoy time with their families and spending their hardearned salary bonuses. It is a time for universal brotherhood and inter-religious
harmony when folk are kind even to their enemies.

Diwali is a spectacular destination festival that has been visited by those such as Pope John Paul II and US President Barack Obama, and its timing marks the beginning of the peak tourist season in India. Long after the monsoon has abated, the months from October till February are marked by cool, dry weather and are the best time to visit these rich shores.

Dhanteras marks the beginning of Diwali and is the day when families and friends purchase expensive silver, gold and other luxuries before the Lakshmi Puja, when they pray in temples, homes and offices to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, light, prosperity and wisdom, and to Lord Ganesha, the “Lord of Beginnings”, for a prosperous new financial year. Melas (fairs) groan with shoppers countrywide and jewellery markets burst at the seams as the population’s insatiable appetite for precious metals is satisfied from morning till night.

Diwali happens when the sun passes through the Libra constellation and an Amavasya night sees the moon at the smallest stage of its cycle. To combat the darkness, diyas or lamps are lit up right across the country and bright lights are left on in shops and houses, doorways are decorated with mango leaves and marigolds and interiors are brightened up by rangoli (colourful powders).

Firecrackers are omnipresent, lighting up the night sky with thousands of free-to-all firework displays through the night, marking the death of demon Naraksura by Lord Krishna.

At times one could be forgiven for mistaking the scene for a terrifying war zone, but a glance up to the multicoloured sky will soon dispel such fears. Extravagant parties ensue as gifts and sweets are exchanged by family members who are dressed up to the
nines, and men sit up through the night playing cards in valiant attempts to begin the year with blessed and substantial financial gain.

In Mumbai, Hindus seeking blessings from the gods flock to the numerous temples, many to the Mahalaxmi Temple in central Mumbai, which is the oldest temple in the city and is dedicated primarily to the goddess of wealth and power. A visit to the temple during Diwali is bound to overwhelm any visitor as several thousand brightly-dressed worshippers throng in praise of Lakshmi.

Devotional music moves many to trancelike meditations, while others weep and lay flowers before the goddess. Incense burns intensely through the warm coastal air as devotees make emotional pujas all around you and powerful energies well up among all those present while Vishnu followers feed large numbers of the poor.

The attractive beaches of Chowpatty in the city and Juhu near the airport teem with revellers who are on holiday from work and light lamps and fireworks, shop, eat and make merry. Of course, there is always time for some cricket as well – hundreds of simultaneous games keep the boys busy as a heavy orange sun sets over the shoreline and the bright lights of the coastline take over to illuminate the night. This Diwali millions of families will be glued to the India versus England revenge matches that will be played in Kolkata during the holiday.

The majority of India’s billion-strong population are followers of the Hindu faith, one of the world’s oldest and most widely practised religions. As the great Hindu sage Sri Ramakrishna said: “There can be as many spiritual paths as there are spiritual aspirants, and as many gods as there are devotees.” And this is the time when Goddess Lakshmi steals the show in a people’s appreciation of trade, commerce and prosperity. In the Indian culture, wealth is not viewed as a corruptive power. Instead, a wealthy person is considered to have been rewarded for good deeds in a past life through karma.

Fortunately, Diwali is not a crowded time of year in Mumbai. As most Indians are at home with their families there is no shortage of space in the city’s array of hotel options that vary widely from the opulent old world charm of the Taj Mahal Palace (from US$500 a room) to the backpacker-budget lodgings of Colaba (from US$10 a room) just 30 m up the road. Ferries take visitors from the Gateway of India in front of the Taj Hotel, which, incidentally, is a fine place for afternoon tea if staying there is beyond your budget, to nearby Elephanta Island. The UNESCO World Heritage Site houses religious sculptures and paintings from the sixth to the eighth century.

Mumbai is an exceptionally safe place to visit for a city of its size. It may be relatively commonplace to hear of tourists who pay over the odds for trinkets, but Mumbaikers are a very peaceful and hospitable people who on the whole are extraordinarily fair when it comes to doing business. Warm smiles and head-wobbles greet foreigners on the crowded local trains (much the best way to get up and down the overcrowded city) and it is not unusual for locals to spontaneously invite tourists to their houses for a meal.

English is widely spoken; transport, food and most other things are ridiculously cheap and the quiet night streets are every bit as intriguing as the bustling daytime commotion. The city is an ideal gateway from South Africa to other parts of Asia by air or land.

One can survive gladly on the streets, visiting artisans like barbers and tailors (for luxurious cut-throat shaves that cost US$0.20) and enjoying street snacks and coconut juices. Interacting with shopkeepers is a great pleasure as they are invariably polite, helpful and friendly. Tedious bureaucracy and paperwork are relics of the British Raj and can become onerous, but seeing the lighter side of this is worth doing.

Mumbai boasts unique architecture ranging from the enormous Anglo-Indian neo-Gothic structures of the city centre to a collection of art deco buildings along the beachfront that is second in number of buildings only to Miami.

The glitz and glamour of Bollywood and its parties never stop, while abundant art galleries, theatres, cinemas, libraries, museums, mosques, churches and temples add further to the cultural richness and diversity of the city.

This article appeared in the October 2011 edition of Sawubona – SAA’s in-flight magazine.