By Liz Summer, I Start Wondering Columnist
“I’ve got a pantheon of animals…
And a Buddha smile.”
from the song “Totem, ” written by Neil Peart of Rush
My last post saw me at the Newark Liberty International Airport, where I was catching the evening plane to Mumbai, the Gateway of India. As I waited, I documented my expectations, anticipations as well as some reservations. I also wondered whether I would find nature in Mumbai.
Now two months later, people often ask me what Mumbai was like? It was more – more than I expected or anticipated.
A Surprising City of Entrepreneurs
Mumbai is a busy, burgeoning city with millions of young people. Each person is staking their claims on the future by working hard today.
There were businesses everywhere. Many are housed in the miles after miles of shanty towns. Each shanty is the size of an average living room in a typical U.S. house and is without indoor plumbing or electricity at night. Many are built in vacant lots or on the sidewalks.
Some of these businesses make small sanctuaries that hold statues of the various Hindu gods. Others repair tires or bits of machinery. Many sell fruits and crispy snacks. People working. People getting to work, crammed into tiny tuk tuk cars packed on a busy highway.
What I did not encounter were beggars. Presumably with millions of people living in slums, there are probably just not enough handouts to go around. As a result, Mumbai is a city that favors those whose plan is to work hard at whatever they can. It’s a practical, innovative and resourceful place, spurred on no doubt by the ready evidence of what conditions are like for those who don’t succeed.
It is telling that one of the most grand and popular sites for Indian visitors to Mumbai is the stunning Shree Siddhivinayak Temple, dedicated to Ganesha, who is particularly meaningful when starting new ventures in life. With the promise of glamorous Bollywood stars and glimpses of the fabulous wealth for those who have proven successful in business, Mumbai is a destination for Indian travelers and wealthy businesspeople the world over.
Unexpected Nature in Mumbai
But would I find unspoiled stillness and nature tucked away in this teaming city, one of the most populous in the world? I did, in the most unexpected way. A short distance from our hotel was the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The entrance to the park is right on the main highway that cuts through Mumbai and it is surrounded by busy small tin-roofed shantytowns. Drive into the park and up the hill, and suddenly the people are gone and instead there is a protected forest filled with the exotic denizens of India’s mysterious past – deer and monkeys and parrots.
We were told that the basalt outcrop contained a series of caves decorated with carvings made between 100 BC and 1000 AD, when the area housed a Buddhist monastery, but that the carvings were nothing special. What we found, in fact, was a treasury of perfect Buddhas. Some were 50 feet tall while others had 11 heads. Some Buddhas had ancient Chinese lettering showing that the monastery had attracted devotees from far outside the immediate area.
On top of the hill, with the caves under foot and nothing but the sound of the wind in the trees, was a solitude of bushes strewn with tattering of prayer flags that flapped in the wind, sending homage to the eternally drifting clouds overhead. Yes, if you look, there is nature in Mumbai.