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Mumbai

gateway of india The first thing everyone wants to see when they visit Mumbai is the Gateway of India, an ornate arch built to celebrate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to what was then Bombay in December 1911. It opened in 1924 and used to be the first monument seen by visitors arriving in Bombay. The last British troops to leave India passed through the Gateway on February 28, 1948.

Although the arch is such a big attraction, it is dwarfed by the Taj Mahal hotel across the road. It opened in 1903 and is an attraction in its own right, as everyone wants their picture taken with the bearded doorkeepers in their white uniforms and turbans. More recently it gained notoriety as the site of the terrorist attacks on the city in November 2008.

Your sightseeing should include a drive along Marine Drive, Mumbai's seaside boulevard, past Chowpatty Beach and to Malabar Hill, which is the Beverly Hills of Mumbai. Look out for the Parsi Tower of Silence, where people of the Parsi faith who die are laid out to be eaten by birds of prey and their bones left to disintegrate so they wash into the sea.

Mani Bhavan, known as the Gandhi Museum, is on Laburnam Road and is a shrine to the man who won independence for India. It is packed with books and photos from his life, along with a glassed-off reproduction of the room in which he lived (during visits from 1917 to 1934). Especially don't miss the dioramas of his life's events; the exhibit is haunting and illustrative.

The Jain Temple in Malabar, considered the prettiest temple in Mumbai, is worth a look (Jainism is one of the many religions in Mumbai and related to Hinduism). Two stone elephants adorn the entrance; inside there's an ornate domed ceiling painted with signs of the zodiac. The last stop while in Malabar should be the Hanging Gardens. I never did find out how they got their name, but they offer great views over the city.

Be sure to visit Crawford Market, which is packed with stalls selling fruits, vegetables and spices. While you're there, spare a glance or two at the building, completed in 1869, with its beautiful Victorian carvings, and Victoria Terminus, another Victorian masterpiece with a strong resemblance to St. Pancras station in London. These days it's actually called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vaastu Sangrahalaya, but luckily taxi drivers understand "Victoria Terminus."

Other highlights include the Mahalakshmi Temple, dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty, and Shree Siddhivinayak Temple, dedicated to Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed god (one of Hinduism's most popular).mumbai laundry

You definitely must also visit the Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai's central laundry. Some 4,500 people work here, washing laundry from all over the city, whether from private residents, hotels or restaurants. The laundry has been here 350 years, and I can promise you that their whites, which have been scrubbed and beaten by hand, are whiter than anything my washing machine can achieve.

No matter how interesting a museum might be, I always think it's a shame to spend time in one on a first visit to a city like Mumbai. It's so different to what Westerners are used to that you need to spend time on the streets soaking up its atmosphere and excitement. However, if you're back in Mumbai for a second or third time, a little historical digging would not go amiss. In particular, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Sastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum), opened in 1923, houses a huge collection of artifacts, from weapons from the Mughal Empire to Indian paintings and Greek-influenced figures.

The Elephanta Caves, on an island about six miles off the east coast of the city, are definitely worth a visit. The caves, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, form a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Shiva and are believed to have been carved between the 9th and 13th centuries. The complex is full of huge sculpted images of Hindu deities carved in the hard rock, including a colossal 20-foot-high, three-headed image of Lord Shiva depicting his three facets -- creator, destroyer and protector. You can reach the caves by motorboat from the pier at the rear of the Gateway of India. Boats leave roughly every 30 minutes; journey time is about one hour. You'll need to climb 120 steps to get to the entrance to the caves.
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