Take a trip back in time

Picnic in the shade of ancient statues, trek to Portuguese watchtowers or walk along winding lanes in an urban village as you explore the city’s caves, forts and gaothans.

Two months ago, Dadar resident Keerthi Azad decided to do something unusual on a Sunday morning. Instead of socialising with acquaintances over coffee or brunch, he met up with a friend, took a train to Borivli, walked to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and boarded a park bus that dropped him at the entrance of the Kanheri caves.

The spontaneous decision to explore a well-known part of the city that they hadn’t seen before led to three hours of exhilarating trekking, learning about rocks, sculpture and history and long moments of serenity.

Hidden in pockets across the city, the ancient cave complexes of Mumbai — including Kanheri, Elephanta, Mahakali and Jogeshwari — contain Hindu and Buddhist sculptures dating back 2,100 years. A day picnic at any one of these sites is a great way for children — and adults — to learn about the city’s heritage.

“This cave complex is believed to have served as a monastery, and a lot of labour and devotion obviously went into sculpting the huge Buddha statues within it,” says Azad, 28, an English language trainer. “I had no idea that many of the 109 basalt rock caves are more than 1,500 years old. Visiting Kanheri caves was an overwhelming experience.”

Mumbai’s forts may not be the best-protected or -maintained, but they form an integral part of the city’s colonial history. Exploring their ramparts, watchtowers, plaques and crevices with friends or family is a great way to appreciate these forgotten sentinels of the coast.

Every once in a while, Bandra resident Carol Lobo likes to escape the bustling chaos of the city. One Sunday evening, she took off with her camera towards the tip of Worli, on which stands the 350-year-old Worli Fort.

Standing on a hill above the Worli Koliwada or fishing village and a surge of slums, the fort comprises one large wall and a watchtower, and offers a wide view of the Mahim bay, complete with a jetty for fishing boats and the Bandra-Worli sea link.

“The Worli fort is quite well-maintained and, because it juts out into the sea, it provides great views for photography enthusiasts,” says Lobo, a freelance editor and writer.

On the way up to the fort is a little chapel and a few benches where visitors can sit and watch the waves crash onto the ancient rocks and the all-new sea link pillars.

“When you get to the fort, it’s a completely different world. You can easily spend hours there just contemplating this slice of almost-rural Mumbai, an atmosphere you rarely experience in the city.”

Gaothans are essentially urban villages, small settlements that have housed the original farmers and fisherfolk of Mumbai for centuries. In a rapidly urbanising city, walking through these fast-disappearing villages is a charming way to travel back in time.

Tucked away along bylanes hidden behind bustling streets and soaring malls, you have to seek them out, though, or hope to stumble upon them by accident. Kavita Gonsalves, for instance, first came across the Matharpacady gaothan, situated in the heart of Mazgaon, two months ago, when in the area to visit a friend.

Since then, the Mulund-based architect has returned to the gaothan several times, and included it in a cultural walk through Mazgaon that she hosted on May 12.

“With its Portuguese-style bungalows, wooden verandas and porticos, it reminds me of Goa,” she says. “The atmosphere of the gaothan is also very welcoming. The streets are narrow, devoid of traffic and perfect for walking.”

There are more than 180 gaothans across Mumbai, most of them home to the East Indian Catholics. Today, however, many East Indians find it difficult to maintain their large, ancestral bungalows and high-rises are slowly taking their place.

“This is why it is so important to visit, learn about and appreciate the heritage of gaothans like Matharpacady,” says Gonsalves. “There is a charm in these villages that you won’t find elsewhere in the city.”


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