Story & photos by Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero
Mumbai’s recent victory inspired me to write about India. It is, therefore, fitting to dedicate my last article to Maharashtra, the state that captivated me with its caves, natural terrains, train rides and picturesque cities.
Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensemble of Mumbai
This year historic Mumbai secured its rightful place among other Unesco World Heritage Sites, earning it the same prestige that the Taj Mahal enjoys. The city boasts the most magnificent Victorian structures in Asia, as well as one of the largest collections of Art Deco buildings in the world. This exceptional synergy between these two architectural movements created the highest expression of monumental colonial urban developments in British India.
Wandering from the Fort precinct to the Oval Maidan reveals the face of the city that looks like it was taken directly out of London. What makes it distinct, though, are its Indo-Saracenic textures. In 2017 Mumbai’s four Victorian edifices garnered several recognitions in the Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. Much earlier, in 2014, the neo-Gothic Saint Thomas Cathedral was also awarded.
The most impressive building, however, is the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), formerly Victoria Terminus. It is also a World Heritage Site on its own right since 2004, representing the highest expression of the Victorian Gothic revival in the Orient. Considered as the most beautiful railway station, this timeless monument is also the ultimate symbol of Mumbai as the British-built city in the subcontinent that evolved into a major global trading port in the late-19th century up to this day.
Reaching Mumbai via the CST was indeed meaningful, and it took me three years to finally claim to have done something special: that I visited a World Heritage Site by arriving at another, entirely separate one.
Mountains and the Matheran Toy Train
Not far from Mumbai is a hill station that afforded then the British an easy escape from the warm Indian climate. To this day, many locals still patronize this charming site. Matheran is in the Western Ghats, a mountain range that almost runs throughout western India. A declared biodiversity hot spot, this landform is older than the Himalayas.
Going up aboard the heritage toy train was a truly unique experience. The two-hour journey offered scenic views of the landscape below. Despite being the shortest mountain railway in India at 20-kilometer long, this 1907-opened two-foot narrow gauge line prides itself in having the most number of curves (221) and the steepest gradients among the only 20 similar railways of its kind in the world still in operation. At 804-meter high, Matheran sports a cooler temperature, evergreen forests and tranquil lakes, several viewpoints such as Echo and Alexander Points, and many endemic bonnet macaques.
Caves of Maharashtra
Aurangabad, an overnight train ride away from Mumbai, is a city held dearly by Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb, Shah Jahan’s son. It is in the Deccan Plateau, a region littered with volcanic features called Deccan traps. Hidden in some of these soaring hardened flood basalts are two engineering marvels that have no parallel elsewhere: the ancient Ellora caves and Ajanta caves.
I have already seen quite a few world wonders, but only a handful has genuinely impressed and intrigued me the way Ellora did. While Ajanta focuses attention on its well-preserved Buddhist paintings, Ellora, on the other hand, has been described as being capable in dwarfing Petra easily, both in scale and in the level of artistry employed. Composed of 34 rock-hewn cave temples of three religions—Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism—the site illustrates the harmonious coexistence of these faiths between the fifth to the 10th century.
The highlight of Ellora is the Kailasa temple, the largest monolithic structure in the world, which was meticulously carved from the top to the bottom. This complex comprises the two-story main temple, monks’ cells, corridors, animal statues and two monumental pillars. Inside the temple, I was assisted by an Archaeological Survey of India personnel who kindly pointed to me, using a torch, traces of ceiling frescoes and a dozen of erotic carvings that are often left unnoticed in the dark. During the Deccan conquest of Aurangazeb, these caves were ordered to be demolished. Efforts to do so, nevertheless, were futile and the order was abandoned shortly. The Kailasa temple’s construction is so mind-blowing that it has been a favorite theory posited by many that it was made using alien technology.
Back in Mumbai, a boat ride crossing the waters of the Sea of Oman brought me to Elephanta Island. The island is celebrated for its five rock-cut caves that house what are considered as the zenith of the artistic achievements associated with the cult of Shiva. The 7-meter Trimurti Sadashiva statue in Cave 1, which represents the three aspects of Shiva, is regarded as a masterpiece of Indian art. Constructed during India’s “Golden Age” [fourth to sixth century], little is known as to who created them and as to why they had to be so far away from the mainland.
The City and India to the World
As the return ferry drew closer to the iconic Gateway of India in Mumbai, I could not help then but wonder how Queen Mary must have felt in 1911 when she finally saw first-hand what city her Empire had built in the East, a city that resembled so much those back in Britain, one that was even more beautiful than most she had set foot on before.
Without a doubt, India was a real prize to the British in the past, as it did to the Mughals and other western powers that sought to seize it. Today, it still remains as a trophy, but this time to the whole of humanity.