Walking around the Fort and Colaba areas of Mumbai reminds me at times of Britain’s capital, London. There’s a museum with a resemblance to London’s British Museum, the Victoria Terminus train station is modelled on St Pancras and then there are countless fenced off gardens in the centre of roundabouts with fountains. And all the grand public buildings have remarkable similarities to many of the financial buildings in Britain’s capital.
Given Mumbai’s recent history none of this is at all surprising. By its previous name of Bombay, this was Britain’s first colony proper in India (previously Britain had just had trading posts and small factories.) Bombay would different. The British took possession in 1665 of the seven islands which today make up the city. Just a few years later they were leased to the East India Company for £10 per year. Bombay flourished as a trading port and such was the strategic importance for the Company that a fort was built in the 1700s. From the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, Bombay became the principal gateway to the subcontinent.
Nowadays, the defence walls that surrounded the city survive only in the district name Fort. The actual fort was pulled down as the grand city that greets visitors today was built in the second half of the 1800s. It’s as well-constructed as any of the great Victorian cities in places like Manchester and London. And it’s also a real pleasure to walk around, so unlike many cities in India.
St Thomas Cathedral is the oldest British building (construction took place from 1672 to 1718), in Mumbai. Walking inside the white-washed building, you read memorial after memorial commemorating those Britons that worked for the East India Company. It doesn’t make comfortable reading for post-colonial India as the language used talks about individuals ‘brave’ work in the ‘Conquest’ of the subcontinent. You also read had lives were so intertwined with Britain, with people living their lives in places like Birmingham and Bristol, then coming out to India.
I also love the extravagance of aforementioned Victoria Terminus, today Asia’s busiest railway station. The cathedral-like Gothic building features an array of towers, turrets and spires. It has to be one of the grandest stations in the world. Opened in 1887, it is now a World Heritage site and is undergoing much needed renovation work.
Then there’s the Oval Maiden, which is surrounded by more grand Victorian buildings like the High Court and the University. For the best of the action look to the green grass of the Oval itself, it’s here where impromptu cricket matches crop up. The British brought cricket to India and today it’s the country’s national sport. IPL cricket matches are big events and wherever you go, people ask you if you like cricket.
For Mumbai’s buildings and monuments from the period of British rule, perhaps the most popular is the Gateway to India. Built to commemorate the visit to India of King George V in 1911, it was completed in 1924. It’s a place today where tourists and local alike tend to congregate. Security is therefore tight and you are frisked as you get up close to it. This was the place where the last British troops left India after independence in 1948. What a fitting link between Mumbai’s colonial past and its independent future.