Holy is not a word usually used to describe Mumbai. With its slums, Bollywood divas, Bombay mafia, and extremes of poverty and decadence, the city’s often made out to be one hot mess.
But Mumbai has a complex personality, and the former fishing village is also a traditional place that takes its spiritual paths seriously. Its high concentration of spectacular religious sites, tiny temples and magical shrines make it easy to make a little progress on the road to enlightenment.
Mumbai is named for the Hindu goddess Mumba, and today about 50% of Mumbaikers are Hindu. Pay a visit to the city’s patron goddess at the humble Mumba Devi Temple in the Bhuleshwar neighbourhood, about 1km north of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Among the deities in residence is Bahuchar Maa, goddess of the transgender hijras. Puja (prayer) is held several times a day.
In the city centre, the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue is still an active house of worship for Mumbai’s small Jewish population, which numbers around 5000. The tiny, old-fashioned 1884 temple is all charm on the inside and radiant sky blue on the outside.
Also downtown is St Thomas’ Cathedral, named for the saint who is thought to have come to India in AD 52. The pretty church, Mumbai’s oldest English building, was once a gateway to the East India Company’s fort ('Churchgate'). It’s in a leafy spot near Flora Fountain in the Fort neighbourhood; services are still held on Sundays.
Take the Western line a few stops north to Charni Rd or Grant Rd to see the spectacular Babu Amichand Panalal Adishwarji Jain Temple in Walkeshwar (in the Malabar Hill neighbourhood). Jain temples are known for their beauty, and this one is renowned even among Jain temples. Check out the ecstatically colourful zodiac dome ceiling: you’ve never seen anything like it.
At the Jain temple, you’re not too far away from the sprawling grounds of the Tower of Silence, where Parsis – those who follow the Zoroastrian faith – leave their deceased in a form of sky burial. Meditate on impermanence as you pass by the lush hill on which the towers are set (not open to visitors).
Before the next stop on your spiritual odyssey, take in another Hindu sight at Mahalaxmi station, two stops up on the Western Line. Mahalaxmi Temple, devoted to the goddess of wealth and good fortune, is right on the sea, and images of the goddesses Saraswati (goddess of knowledge and music) and Kali (time and death) reside inside. The temple goes wild during Navaratri (in September or October).
Just up the coast from Mahalaxmi and seeming to float offshore on the Arabian Sea is the 15th-century Dargah of Haji Ali. Legend has it that the saint died on his way to Mecca and his casket floated to this spot. The fantastical shrine and mosque is connected to the mainland by a small causeway that disappears at high tide. At other times, beggars line the route for alms, and Fridays see prayers, crowds, and sometimes qawwali (Sufi devotional music).
Set aside a full day to see the spectacular Global Vipassana Pagoda (www.globalpagoda.org), dedicated to the teachings of the Buddha (some of whose relics are encased within). The towering golden monument, modeled on Burma’s Shwedagon Pagoda, is made entirely of interlocking stone blocks and is the world's largest unsupported dome structure. It has a small museum and meditation centre on site: take a 10-day course or a one-hour teaser. The pagoda is at Mumbai’s northern end: take the Western Line to Borivali, then a rickshaw to the ferry, which will bring you to the Global Pagoda entrance on Gorai island.