Trivial pursuit: In search of god, gold and pieces of history at Mumbai's old markets

Trivial pursuit: In search of god, gold and pieces of history at Mumbai's old markets

We take a tour of the city's pulse centers -- the by-lanes of old bazaars -- and discover five things we never knew about this beguiling city
Mumbai guided tours
Tiny tiffin: The most effective dieting technique in Mumbai.
Deepa Krishnan, the founder of Mumbai Magic, began tailoring tours of Mumbai five years ago, and there's a reason she focused on markets instead of monuments.

"Mumbai is not about monuments; it has never been about monuments. Its pulse lies in its bazaars and walking through them is the best way to get to know and experience the real Mumbai. I think the markets are the most interesting part of the city where you see culture and customs that have endured since the 19th century. There is an authenticity to it from the flower markets to the streets that sell clothes for deities in Buleshwar."

It is true. Mumbai’s bazaars are a sensory overload. From one lane to the next you can get your future told, a blessing from a fertility goddess, a hundred different kinds of fabric, a good old stainless steel tiffin box, chai glasses, spiced raw mango pickle (consume at your own risk), gold, kitchenware, toys, bags, books and aluminum trunks to put them all in. There is really nothing you won’t be able to cross out from your shopping list if you look hard enough.

Crawford Market, Zaveri Bazaar and Buleshwar

The original epicenter of commercial life in the city, Crawford Market, Zaveri Bazaar and Buleshwar are like living museums. Mumbai Magic knows these interconnected markets in a way that gives you a glimpse of a time past, which you would easily miss trying to navigate through the crowds on your own.

Here are five of the many great things you didn’t know about your city, that you can learn from its markets.

1. Where the city gets its name.

Mumbai gets its name from the Mumba Devi temple, built in 1753, on a crowded street in Buleshwar. The deity Mumba Devi is the patron goddess of the local fisher folk. The name changed from Bombay to Mumbai in 1995 which was originally the anglicized version of the old Portuguese name for Bom Baim which literally meant 'good bay'. 

2. How green chili became a core ingredient in Indian food.

If Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory is the dream destination of candy lovers, Mirchi Galli, a narrow lane in Crawford Market is the spice equivalent for a local gourmand. Here you will learn about the variety of peppers and chilies that make Indian food burn your stomach like hydrochloric acid. What most people don’t know is that the Portuguese introduced the green chili as an ingredient in Indian food. Before Vasco da Gama we used long pepper and pippali. Chilies however proved to have a similar taste but were cheaper and easier to grow. Today, long peppers are mostly used only in old pickle recipes.

3. Ten out of 11 diamonds in the world pass through Mumbai.

Zaveri Bazaar is Mumbai's headquarters for gold, silver and diamond merchants. Gold prices set here are a benchmark for jewelry prices across the country. You can even buy stones from street vendors that test the quality of the gold when rubbed against them. Founded in the 1860's by migrant Gujarati and Marwari businessmen, today 92 percent of the world's diamonds are carved, cut and polished in Surat 250 kilometers away, and much of that bulk passes through Mumbai. Local angadias (a traditional courier) deliver the uncut diamonds in ordinary buses and trains facilitating transactions based entirely on trust.

4. What are a hundred cows and pigeons doing in the city centre?

Panjra Pole is an animal shelter established in Buleshwar market over a hundred years ago by a Parsi man with a soft spot for cows. Over time pigeons with damaged wings have also found refuge here. This place is really hard to imagine; you have to see it for yourself.

5. Who is the Hindu goddess who rides a rooster, and where is she hidden?

Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning sits on a swan, Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth has a lotus, Durga rides a tiger or a lion but Bahuchar Maa, a popular goddess in Gujarat gets a rooster. Bahuchar Maa, said to bless men with virility, is also the Goddess of the eunuch hijras of India. This is a deity detail easily missed, if not pointed out, because it is carved on one of the doors in the Mumba Devi temple.

Even if you are over zealous about trivia and already knew everything just mentioned you would still find these bazaars worthy of exploration. On my tour, my guide Sandhya and I stumbled upon a temple that even she didn’t know existed.

Take the tour to learn something new or simply shop for trinkets. You are sure of everything here short of a magic lamp.

Mumbai Magic bazaar tours costs Rs 1,500 per head and last about 2 hours.

Raised in several cities across India, Tarini's constant search for new homes forms the basis of her desire to explore incessantly.
Read more about Tarini Awatramani