Article by Ty McCormick, an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
Historian J. Gerson da Cunha, writing in 1900, called Bombay "the Alexandria of India." Like the fashionable colonial outpost near the Suez Canal -- the so-called "highway to India" -- Bombay entered the 20th century as a particularly bright jewel in the crown of the British Empire.
Under the stewardship of the British East India Company, the transformation of Bombay (now Mumbai) from an archipelago of island fishing villages to commercial center was swift; roads and railways sprang up to connect the city to the rest of the subcontinent, and a massive engineering project to backfill the area between the city's seven constituent islands was completed in 1845. Almost entirely a British colonial creation, Bombay had become one of the most important seaports on the Arabian Sea by 1900.
Today, Mumbai is again in a period of flux. Besides being one of the world's most heavily populated cities and India's financial hub, the metropolis has seen its skyline transformed mightily in the last half-century. Its elegant Indo-Gothic and Victorian spires (seen above, circa 1930) are now dwarfed by massive colorless high-rises; and new architectural projects like the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link bridge, connecting Mumbai with a northern suburb, have remade the city as a cluttered urban jumble that da Cunha would hardly recognize.
Above, attendees at a Bombay party relax in style in 1910. The period of British rule known as the Raj (1858-1947) was a time of great decadence in Bombay. The iconic Taj Mahal hotel, attacked by Pakistani terrorists in 2008, is perhaps the greatest surviving relic of this era.
But then, as now, inequality was a fact of life in the city. And beyond rapid population growth, not much has changed in the interceding century for the city's urban poor. According to the 2001 census, 6.5 million Mumbai residents live in slums, mostly along the sea, in national parks, and on salt pans. Most still live without running water or functioning toilets; even the tarpaulin and sheet-metal slums bear a striking resemblance to the mud huts of yore.
In 1900, much of Bombay's population was transient, and the city was home to less than 1 million people. As James Douglas, then the sheriff of Bombay, recounted in his 1900 portrait, Glimpses of Old Bombay and Western India: "To the native and the European, but chiefly to the latter, Bombay is a city of temporary habitation."
Today's Mumbai is a final destination. A symbol of opportunity for Indians, its population has exploded in recent years to more than 20 million.
Lacking the classic minarets on display in, say, Cairo or Istanbul, this mosque (captured here in a photo from the 1910s) nonetheless captures Bombay's cultural efflorescence around the turn of the 20th century. A thriving modernist Islamic movement inspired by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College (today the Aligarh Muslim University) in Aligarh, allowed for a tremendous outflow of art and ideas during this period. By the time George Curzon, viceroy to India, visited Aligarh (in North India) in 1901, science, philosophy, and Islamic culture were all a part of the English-language curriculum.
Since then, a rising tide of Hindu nationalism has attempted to homogenize the once cosmopolitan city. This has manifested itself most obviously in discrimination -- and often violence -- against India's Muslim population, which at more than 138 million is the world's third-largest Muslim population. Another facet of the nationalist movement has been the systematic redubbing of villages, streets, and buildings in the Marathi language. The official renaming of Bombay as Mumbai in 1995 is one result of this campaign.
Young boys pose in front of Bombay's Victoria Terminus railway station, circa 1910. Designed by Frederick William Stevens in the style of Gothic Revival, the station was completed in 1887. It continues to greet travelers to Mumbai under its new name, "Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus." Today, Mumbai's notoriously rickety trains transport more than 7 million passengers daily.
Above, Henry Staveley Lawrence, acting governor of Bombay from 1926 to 1928, and his wife Phyllis do some swashbuckling with an amateur theater company in a photo taken circa 1910.
Today, Mumbai is home to India's "Bollywood," a vibrant Hindi film industry that brings in billions of dollars every year. In 2008, Bollywood produced roughly 800 feature films, outstripping Hollywood, which turned out only 630.
Cars compete with horse-drawn carriages in a Bombay intersection in 1929. Traffic has since grown rather more hectic in the city: Today, Mumbai tops India's vehicular emissions list for cities, despite having less than half as many cars as New Delhi. It also boasts India's longest average commute time at 47.26 minutes.
A barge bearing the British naval flag carries King George V and Mary of Teck, the queen consort, to the shore in Bombay in 1911. India gained its independence from Britain in 1947. It has been the world's largest democracy ever since.
LWDLIK- How lovely to see these great old pics of Bombay. Often when we travel it is hard to envisage what these grand old buildings were like in their heyday. There is an elegance and serenity in these pics that I think has been lost in the hustle, bustle and grim of Mumbai of today. Except, of course, at the 5* hotels like the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel, which is like staying in a museum and transports you to another era.