The sign said, “Caution, peacocks crossing road” – not the instruction you usually see on a street in Mumbai. But then, this wasn’t a regular thoroughfare, but a road deep inside the city’s magnificent Raj Bhavan, the official residence of the Governor of Maharashtra. It was about 6.45a.m. and the first light of day was piercing through the cloudy, smog-filled skies.
I was in one of Mumbai’s most secure areas with three of my friends to see the sun rise, an exclusive sight that has been available for public viewing since June this year. The complex sits on the left arm of the landmass that forms Mumbai’s famous Queen’s Necklace and arguably has the best vistas in the city. Anyone can register for a two-hour morning visit to the enormous complex, with views of its own beach, acres of gnarly, knotty trees, delicate flowers and mind-numbingly beautiful sea views on three sides.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more polite and patient group of public relations officers in a government establishment. Five minutes before I was scheduled to reach the entry point this morning, an officer rang me up, saying, “Good morning. Happy Diwali! You are registered today for a visit, right?” My friends and I walked through a quick security check at 6a.m., before being guided to the gates of the Governor’s residence. It was hard to believe we were still in Mumbai. The gardens, the architecture, and the silence were surprisingly calming. With sunrise scheduled for 6.43 this morning, we were keen to head to the sunrise deck that also has mats laid out for anyone inclined to practise yoga. We entered a little gate across from the property’s greenhouse and followed our guide down stairs hedged in on both sides by vines, creepers, flowering shrubs and trees. The deck opened up on our left, overlooking the sea. We skipped the surya namaskars and chose to just plonk down on the mats instead, waiting for the sun to put on a show. Unfortunately, the smog didn’t let up, so all we got was a blurry yellow dollop shining through a cloud-speckled sky.
Next up was a visit to the temple of the Unknown Goddess, just a little way ahead of the deck. There are no official records of the resident devi’s origins or name, hence the name. But local monikers include Sagar Mata, Sakalai Devi and Sri Gundi. On the way to the temple, we were shown a rock – the foundation for the magnificent state guesthouse above – that surveyors claimed was a million years old. It was covered with four plaques commemorating the dogs of various governors past. My favourite message was “Her tail still wags in our hearts”. We were then ushered down a path to a dead end, only to be told that on the other side of the wall were bunker offices from the World Wars that had been built to protect the governor in case of an attack.
Over a short break of chai, coffee and biscuits, Umesh Kashikar, the Public Relations Officer to the Governor of Maharashtra, filled us in on the history of the governor’s role in shaping Mumbai and of his official residence. As we wound our way around the property, walking along the seaside path, admiring the custard apple, tamarind, almond and banana trees, and reminding ourselves that we were still in Mumbai, we spotted a peacock in the bushes. And just up ahead, the Governor, C Vidyasagar Rao, was wrapping up his morning stroll around this stunning place he calls home.
I can’t recommend the experience enough. Yes, you have to be up at the crack of dawn, but it is definitely worth it. You get to see a part of Mumbai that has long been hidden from public view, and come away knowing a little more about the city.
On the 10th of every month, visitors can register online to visit Raj Bhavan the following month; the fee is ₹25 per person. Registrations fill up really fast, so make sure you book as soon as they open. Mobile phones aren’t allowed inside, but you are provided with a locker to leave your belongings.
Published on National Geographic Traveller India – November 2015
Photo courtesy Raj Bhavan