Unusual monsoon getaways within Mumbai
The streets turn into lines of filth as clogged drains regurgitate waste. Walking through ankle deep water becomes a blind sport in a city devoid of intact pavements. Is there an open manhole awaiting my next step? Oh there goes my rubber flip flop down the dirty stream. What's this slime sticking onto my leg? Will I get leptospirosis?
But a short train ride away, the filthy, water-clogged city becomes a distant memory. My two favorite monsoon getaways within city limits are Bassein Fort at Vasai and the Kanheri Caves in the National Park.
Bassein Fort: Portuguese remains of once glorious days
One monsoon Sunday when stormy clouds took a breather, we headed to Bassein Fort at Vasai, a suburb of Bombay, for a picnic. A few wrong turns off the highway took us past some fluorescent hued houses and strange takes on modern architecture, as we reached the classically proportioned, ruinous arched entrance to the Bassein Fort.
As we looked for a suitable spot to settle for the day, a sight we hadn't bargained for took us by surprise. By the old Jesuit church with its barrel vaulted roof and an intact cloister off the side, were nine altar boys each holding a cross and by them streamed a congregation of Koli fisherwomen in colorful characteristic nine yard saris with their heads covered in white veils. What a sight. We had chanced upon a commemoration mass of the 400th anniversary of the martyrdom of six Franciscan and three Jesuit priests in Nagasaki in 1597, and this particular vernacular flavor made it memorable forever. One of the priests, Gonsalo Garcia, was from Bassein, now known as Vasai where this fort is located.
Originally built by Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat between 1526 and 1537, the fort soon fell into Portuguese hands and remained so till 1739 when the British strategically looked away as the Marathas first held siege, then overran the fort. From being prosperous and the stronghold of power for two centuries it soon fell into disrepair and was already being described as "beautiful ruins" by English travelers in the 1780s. Today facades of three chapels remain, within partly intact rampart walls. This marvelously atmospheric location loans its charms to many a Bollywood film shoot.
In the monsoon the combination of fresh green and old stone ruins is magical. Pick a spot. Park for the day. Walk around the various ruins of different orders of the church. And ascend the rampart walls overlooking the beach from high up with a clear view of the bay. Be Vasco da Gama and master of all you survey. Just for one day.
Kanheri Caves: Buddhist rock caves in the National Park
Touted as the only National Park in the country within city limits, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park formerly known as the Borivili National Park at Borivili has not only wildlife within its boundaries but the Kanheri Caves. The park is constantly in the news for panthers wandering into the slums that encroach its boundaries, but is worth a visit for the monsoon lushness and the caves.
These Buddhist rock-cut caves, believed to be the largest on the Konkan coast, were chiseled out of basaltic rock between the first and ninth centuries AD. Tiny spartan cells with only a plinth as the sleeping area are embedded into the rock face. There is a main congregation hall with the stupa but unlike the more touristy Elephanta caves, there are no majestic artistic sculptures to be found here. A sweep of stairs take you up to the cave entrance. Take advantage of the benches cut into the rock outside the caves and linger a little longer in your thoughts. Above the caves are remains of water cisterns which indicate the previous existence of an ancient water drainage system.Mario Pfeiffer, a German artist working in the city these last four months, shot bits of his film here and brought memories of monsoon picnics gone by. He shot during the heat of April and May and even then the green cover is substantial. It is a big draw for city weary Mumbaikars too tired to travel further into the Sahyadris for treks, especially after the first showers of the rainy season when all gleams fresh and washed. Add to that a bit of climbing to some monastic centuries-old history and you have a day suitably fulfilled.
Both Bassein Fort in Vasai and the Kanheri Caves in Borivili are a suburban train ride away from the heart of the city and Mumbai's main train terminals. Catch a train to Borivili or Vasai from Churchgate or Dadar or Bandra stations, both destination stations are on the Western line. Pack a picnic and escape to sacred sites an hour and a half away from the city's ever increasing woes.