It has just gone 3am on a sweltering Sunday in Mumbai. I’m on the road from the airport to the city’s centre and it is rammed. Think rush-hour on the M8, but rather than cars and lorries, my driver is swerving in between mopeds, tuk-tuks, goats and cows. Welcome to India.
I had been warned that the country’s traffic was knock-your-socks-off crazy, but I didn’t expect this at such an ungodly hour. Mumbai is a city of 24 million people and it never stops. An assault on the senses, the guide booked told me, is what you get in India. I didn’t think I’d get a midnight Mario-Kart-esque burl through the city upon arrival, but I’m not complaining. I get the feeling it’s just the beginning of a whirlwind tour.
India has been in my top five travel destinations for some time, so when the opportunity finally arose to visit, I needed no second invitation. Mumbai is my first stop, with a couple of days in this monstrosity of a city before jetting across the country to visit Chennai on the opposite coast.
I like flying with KLM. They have become my travel partner of choice recently, simply because their link-up with Scottish airports is so good. Edinburgh to Amsterdam is an easy, on-time service. From there it’s on to Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport on a spanking-new Dreamliner plane. I’m an aviation geek and it’s my first time on one of these birds. My word, it’s good. I have the luxury of business class, but economy is swanky too. The best thing about the Dreamliner is the comfort and the air quality and I disembark without the usual dry skin and time-induced hangover of a long-haul flight.
Mumbai is the sort of city that will instantly wake you up regardless of your fatigue. Known as Bombay until the Indian government renamed a host of cities in 1996, it’s the home of Bollywood and mixes glitz and glamour with tradition and diversity. Mumbai is a melting pot of culture and ethnicities, the business and economic hub of India.
I’m staying at one of the city’s iconic hotels, the Taj Mahal Palace. Some of the world’s most famous political leaders, actors and sportspeople have visited here. The building is beautiful – a delicate mix of Moorish, Oriental and Florentine styles. The rooms are lavish, the restaurants high-end and it sits right next to Mumbai’s leading monument, the Gateway to India, a sort of Arc de Triomphe that overlooks the Arabian Sea and is built to commemorate George V and Queen Mary’s visit in 1911.
Such is the scale of Mumbai, you really need a guide to take you around. I’ve gone with the best in town, No Footprints. They really get you under the city’s skin with a variety of bespoke tours. We start off with a saunter through the Kala Ghoda area on their Colonial Tour. As it’s a Sunday, the locals are out and about. What most of the men do is play cricket – they are mad for it. I’m fortunate enough to face a couple of overs on the maidans on which the great Indian cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, grew up. The friendly locals beam as they bowl me out again and again.
The best tour on offer though is Mumbai by Dawn. They get you up at 5am, but it’s worth it. My guides, Adi and Harsh, take me down to the Colaba region of the city to visit the fish market. It is teeming with people. A plethora of dainty trawlers are overflowing and it feels like the whole city is there, bartering for swordfish and grouper. From Colaba, it’s off to the Fort area, where I witness an astonishing sight – a thriving newspaper industry! Print media is huge in India – most people pick up a paper every day – and it’s like going back in time watching all the editions being sorted next to the railway station, which in itself is a remarkable building.
As the sun rises and the traffic starts to mount, it’s off to fruit, vegetable and flower markets full of vivid colours and smells. It’s the eve of Diwali, and the flower market in particular is thriving as the majority Hindu population get ready to celebrate the festival of light over darkness.
I like Mumbai and its immensity, but it’s time to head across to the Bay of Bengal to Chennai. My 90-minute flight with JetAirways, one of India’s leading carriers, is stress-free. Instantly I notice a big difference. While Mumbai is colossal, jam-packed and zooms along at 100mph, Chennai feels relaxed and has more of a Southeast Asian feel about it.
Chennai, formerly Madras, is a glorious city. I warm to it from the moment I arrive. It has a vast beachfront, although you wouldn’t swim in the choppy, threatening sea. There are more signs of Hindu culture, especially in the old quarter of Mylapore, where the city’s biggest temple, Kapaleeswarar, resides. I have never seen a building like it. It’s covered in Hindu gods, with the three main ones – Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva – taking centre stage.
I take a walking tour through Chennai’s oldest sector and try out some street food. There’s always a bit of wariness eating in India, but what I try is delicious and my stomach survives. The dosas, flavoured with red onion and spices, are exceptional. The small canteens in this area give you a big banana leaf rather than a plate and serve up sauces, dahls and vegetables to dine on. Good, old-fashioned Indian food.
Chennai’s colonial past has a Scottish tinge to it. Glaswegian Thomas Munro was the governor of Madras in the early 1800s and was celebrated for not taxing farmers during famine. John Binny, from Edinburgh, set up one of the first hotels in the city and also created khaki clothing. In a quirk of fate, the Taj Connemara – my home in Chennai – is on the site of his Hotel Imperial. Binny would be impressed with what has succeeded him, as the recently reopened Connemara is a fine establishment, with plush rooms and divine restaurants.
Chennai is in the Tamil Nadu region and therefore the food, unlike the variety of Mumbai, is quite bespoke. It is heavily influenced by tamarind and deep spices. It’s not ridiculously spicy, there’s more of a deep, warm heat. The seafood here is some of the best I have tasted – fresh and delicate, the prawns in particular.
Outside the city is one of the country’s best preserved temples at Mahabalipuram. The area is laden with old Hindu monuments, which many pilgrims visit to pay homage to the gods. The intricate sculptures are impressive, but one of the more bizarre sights is a 250-ton, six metre-high granite boulder perched perilously on a slope. Legend has it that the rock has been in the same place for centuries and will never move, despite scores of people trying to push it down the hill. I refrain from trying myself.
All too quickly, my visit ends. I’m glad that I took in two different places, Mumbai and Chennai, because the differences between the two are stark. One thing they have in common, though, is bright sights, amazing tastes, powerful smells and a hubbub of noise. I feel the word “assault” is too strong. For me, going to Mumbai and Chennai was an adventure for the senses, and one you should embrace.
• KLM flies to Mumbai from Edinburgh airport via its multi-award-winning hub, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, with three daily flights between Edinburgh and Amsterdam and four weekly flights between Amsterdam and Mumbai. From £476 return including taxes and charges. Business class fares start from £1,584. Tel: +44 20 76600293, www.klm.co.uk
• Jet Airways offers flights between Mumbai and Chennai starting at £55 one way. www.jetairways.com
• The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, opened in 1903 as IHCL’s first hotel, marking a new era in Indian hospitality. Palace wing rooms start from £213.
• The Taj Connemara, Chennai, reopened its doors in autumn after a year-long redesign that brings back the glamour of the colonial age. Colonial rooms start from £202. www.tajhotels.com