Harbour, docks & lighthouses: Re-discovering Mumbai

It is only 9.30 am, but the sun is quite intense and if not for the sea breeze would have been quite unbearable. I am on the upper deck of a launch berthed at the Gateway of India in Mumbai trying to peer through a haze that has dulled the shimmer and sparkle of  sunlight on water. In front of me, and as far as the haze-driven visibility allows, are ferries, fishing boats, luxury yachts, launches, security vessels… The sea looks like one big parking lot. 🙂

Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Mumbai Harbour
The parking lot in the sea.

On board the launch, my co-passengers indulge in some gentle jostling for prime spots to photograph, discuss whether the haze would play spoil sport for photography, and generally chat about what is it that we are likely to see in the next couple of hours. As we wait for the launch to leave the jetty, anticipation for the upcoming trip grows. An anticipation for the first of its kind tour of Mumbai’s Port and Harbour organised by the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2014, in association with the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT).

Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Gateway of India, Taj Intercontinental, Taj Palace Hotel

Our tour guide is Dilip Vishwanathan from the MbPT and his narrative takes us through the pre-maritime history of Mumbai, its natural harbour, the seven original islands of Mumbai, the coming of the Portuguese, then the English and the East India Company, construction of the docks, and present day Mumbai Port and Harbour. Mumbai’s natural harbour and port was known to seafarers and traders from as early as eighth century BC or even before. Though it wouldn’t have looked like the view in the photo above to them !

Though I am familiar with some part of the history, it is always nice to hear it from someone else’s perspective. As the tour guide outlines the route for the trip, I am excited to find that we will be passing through areas that are out-of-bounds to the public.

Join me aboard the launch for this tour. I must confess that it is going to be a long one that will take you Mumbai’s maritime history and my own memories.

The earliest written reference that one can find of the original 7 islands that eventually became the island city of Bombay (and later renamed Mumbai) is by the Alexandrian, Ptolemy in 150 CE. He called them Heptanesia. Later, the English named them Colaba, Old Woman’s Island (also called Little Colaba), Bombay, Mazgaon, Worli, Matunga (also known as Parel in some other accounts) and Mahim. See the map below.

Source: The Port of Bombay (Author and Date of Publication unknown). Please click on the picture to go to the original site
Source: The Port of Bombay (Author and Date of Publication unknown). Please click on the picture to go to the original site

The islands were inhabited by fisher folk. Though coins from Egypt, Babylon, Persia and Arabia have been found in the region, Mumbai’s natural harbour and port was used more as a pit stop than for serious trading, which happened elsewhere at Surat, Bharuch, Sopara, Janjira, etc. It is the English, or rather the East India Company, who recognised the potential of Mumbai’s natural harbour and set about developing it. The development and growth of Mumbai into the city that it is today is intricately and intimately linked to the development of the port and growth of maritime trading.

If Augustus found Rome a city of bricks and transformed it into a city of marble, the English found Bombay a city of fisherfolk and turned it into a centre of trade and commerce, eventually raising it to the proud position of Urbs Prima in India… Gerald Aungier was the one who literally started the growth of Bombay, by planning the town, the fortifications, its trade, agriculture and land revenue systems.

~ M.V. Kamath, Tides of Time: History of Mumbai Port (2000)

As you leave the Gateway of India, the Naval Dockyard is on the left and a little further ahead is a tiny island called Middle Ground, which is now under the jurisdiction of the Indian Navy. We had barely gone some distance, before a coast guard vessel came zooming in to find out why we were straying so close to the docks. It left once it had ascertained that we were harmless. 😉

Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Mumbai Harbour, Naval Dockyard
The Naval Dockyard
Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Middle Ground, Mumbai Harbour, Indian Navy
Middle Ground. When I zoomed in with my camera, I saw the Navy’s anti-aircraft guns !

With the opening up of the Suez Canal in 1869, maritime trade got a big boost and Mumbai literally became the gateway to India. This led to the setting up of the MbPT in 1873, the construction of Sassoon Dock (India’s first wet dock) in 1875, followed by the Prince’s and Victoria Docks in 1880 and 1888 respectively. Alexandra Dock (later renamed as Indira Dock in 1972) was set up in 1914 at Ballard Pier and this is where the boat trains that came from Europe would dock. Passengers alighting here could directly board the Frontier Mail waiting for them at the Ballard Pier Railway Station and travel all the way up to Peshawar (in present day Pakistan) if they so wished to. Even today, a majority of all maritime trade in India happens at Mumbai port.

I had been looking forward to seeing Alexandra Dock for the longest time and ever since my mother recounted her tale of visiting it in 1948. The occasion was the goodwill visit of the USS Toledo to Mumbai, where it was stationed at Alexandra Dock. My mother was a 12-year old then and even after so many years has vivid memories of her visit that day: the blue sea stretching far into the horizon, of the ‘million’ ships she swears she saw that day,  of the yellow frock and brown sandals she wore, of running up and down the warship’s 3 decks, of being indulged by the US sailors on board with chocolates and candy…In other words, she had the time of her life 🙂

My earlier attempt at trying to enter or at least peek into Alexandra Dock had ended in disappointment. This was a little over two years back during a walk through the Ballard Estate area. After a lot of begging and whining and pleading, the security guard at the entrance of the Alexandra Dock, allowed me to look inside the gate for some 10 seconds! All I can say now is that it was worth the wait to finally see Alexandra Dock and that too from the sea.

Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Alexandra Dock, Indira Dock
The Alexandra / Indira Dock at Ballard Pier
Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Indira Dock, Ballard Pier
The ferry landing at Alexandra /Indira Dock
Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Ballard pier extension, Cross Island
A close up of the 244 m long Ballard Pier extension which will handle container ships. The brownish mound rising up in the background is Cross Island.

As our launch passed the Ballard Pier extension, we noticed a small motor boat making its way towards us at full speed. It was MbPt’s security boat with CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) personnel in it. They had come to investigate why a passenger launch was in restricted waters. I did mention that we were to travel through areas normally out-of-bounds to the public, didn’t I? 🙂 This time it was our tour guide who intervened and assured the CISF that we had the necessary approvals and were harmless.

Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Security Forces, CISF, Mumbai Port Trust
The CISF forces come to check if we are really who we claim to be.

The next landmark we pass is the Ferry Wharf, locally known as Bhaucha Dhakka. This seves as the port for local fishermen and also as the ferry station for services to other nearby ports like Uran, Rewa, JNPT, etc. Till the mid-90s, ferry services to Goa would also begin from here, as did the short-lived luxury catamaran services to Goa. I had boarded one such catamaran to Goa 20 years back in early hours of the morning.

Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Bhau cha Dhakka, Mazagaon Dock
Bhaucha Dhakka or Ferry Wharf. Even from this distance, it looked overwhelmingly crowded.
Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Mumbai Port Trust, Mazgaon Dock
Mumbai Port Trust’s Mazagon Dock

The first surprise of the trip was up next when our tour guide pointed at something and said rather casually, “That is Darukhana, Mumbai’s ship-breaking yard.” What? I didn’t even know Mumbai had a ship-breaking yard. Darukhana developed with the creation of the Mazagaon dockyard and became the place where ‘retired’ ships are broken down to iron rods, metal sheets and literally, nuts and bolts for scrap.

Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Darookhana, Mumbai's Shipbuilding yard
The real surprise and discovery of the tour – Darukhana, Mumbai’s own ship-breaking yard

Seagull, Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF,After Darukhana, the launch headed Southwest towards Mumbai’s 3 lighthouses. This was my second surprise. I mean, I knew that being a harbour and all that, Mumbai would have a lighthouse. But 3 lighthouses? Actually, there are 4, but we were only going to see 3 of them — Prongs, Sunk Rock and Dolphin Rock.

This was an enjoyable part of the journey with seagulls flying alongside us to give us company for the sake of tidbits thrown to them by my co-passengers. Some crows also tried to join in, but soon gave up; they simply did not have the stamina for flight like the gulls. This was also around the time that my camera gave up, so the next few photos are taken on my tablet or borrowed.

As we sailed towards the lighthouses, our tour guide told us about the Harbour Channel through which all ships coming into Mumbai entered. led and guided by a pilot vessel. He pointed out a shipwreck and spoke to us about tides and pirates and warning systems and what not. Soon we were in sight of the lighthouses.

Prongs Lighthouse is situated at the entrance to Mumbai’s harbour and derives its name from the reef on which it is situated. At 156 ft high, its light is visible in clear weather for 27 km. During low tide, a narrow stretch of rocks connects Prongs Lighthouse to Colaba (you can see that narrow strip of rocks to the right of the lighthouse in the photograph below). Though navigable, one requires permissions from 3-4 different authorities before visiting the Lighthouse this way.

Prongs Lighhouse, Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Mumbai Harbour
Prongs Lighthouse, built in 1874, is at the entrance to Mumbai Harbour

Sunk Rock Lighthouse was built in 1884 and is unmanned. It is 94 feet in height and is situated further inside the Mumbai Harbour. Our tour guide said that it had been raided by pirates and stripped of all the equipment it had.

Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Mumbai Port Trust, Sunk Rock Lighthouse
Sunk Rock Lighthouse

Dolphin Rock Lighthouse is the closest to the Gateway of India, the oldest (built in 1854) and smallest among the 3 lighthouses, and also the one most likely to be missed. Even at 58 feet height, it tends to get missed among all the different boats ‘parked’ in the harbour. I have been to the Gateway of India innumerable times, walked past the road you can see in the background in the photo below and yet, never noticed it (you can also spot it in the very first photo of the marine parking lot) In fact, if the guide had not pointed it out, I would have missed it completely.

Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Mumbai Port Trust, Dolphin Rock Lighthouse
Dolphin Rock Lighthouse. Photo: Anuradha Shankar

Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, KGAF, Mumbai Port Trust, Mumbai's eastern coastI was 4-years old when I first visited Gateway of India and saw the sea. Our family had just shifted from Bhopal to Mumbai and this was our first outing. I still remember that first sight of the sea as my oldest brother lifted me up to get a good view of the sea.

It was late afternoon and the sun, the sea, a boat ride and a strong breeze made for an unforgettable memory. That day, I think was the beginning of my fascination with this city of mine. It is a fascination that gets reinforced every time I’m at the Gateway of India watching the hypnotic rise and fall of the boats parked at sea, or take a boat ride. This tour did that too. But the tour was also extra special as it also helped me re-discover this city of mine and place it’s maritime history in context to the development of the city as such.

Over the years, and particularly in  recent years, discovering Mumbai has been an exciting adventure, as this city does not wear its history visibly for all to see, unlike say Delhi. Mumbai does not reveal itself to you easily and one has to be patient and learn to look beyond the obvious.

And I can attest to the fact that patience always pays – travelling 20 km at 6 am in the morning to join an indisciplined queue and wait for over an hour to collect a token for the boat ride definitely pays 😉


  1. Due to a malfunctioning audio system, I could not hear all that the tour guide said. So, I had to fall back on the Internet to fill the gaps. And what treasures the Internet revealed.
  2. I referred to two books that I found on the MbPT website: The Port of Mumbai and Tides of Time: History of Mumbai Port. Both the books are treasures and I highly recommend them.
  3. I always found it surprising that considering its maritime history, Mumbai does not have a museum on this theme. Actually, there is one that has been set up by the MbPT, but they need a proper space to exhibit and also trained personnel to curate and manage the collection. I hope this happens soon. Watch this space for more news.

40 thoughts on “Harbour, docks & lighthouses: Re-discovering Mumbai

  1. whoa! that was indeed a really long post for you, Sudha! loved reading it, though! and since I missed out on even more of the explanations during the tour (thanks to me trying to explain bits I did understand, to Samhith), I can now refer to yours as I desperately try to caption my images for the post I am still writing 🙂


    1. Thanks, Anu. Thanks to the goings on in the launch, we both heard different things and definitely saw different stuff as well 😉

      I am waiting for your post so that I can ‘complete’ the Port and Harbour tour properly.


    1. Thanks, Pradsword. I’m so happy that you enjoyed it. In spite of the many irritants, which I have written about in another post, this was a fantastic tour and one, I think must be conducted on a regular basis.


    1. Thanks, Puru, for such a lovely compliment. But nothing will compare to the fun of discovering this city yourself. So, I ask you, yet again, when are you coming to Mumbai? 🙂


      1. I am reading your blog for the first time and wish to tell you that i have been enchanted by the details here. I suppose I shall be spending the rest of my day reading your blog. Thanks for all the good efforts and information given.

        btw, could you also let me know who is Mr. Biswajit, as mentioned in the post above


  2. Wonderfully written…thanks for sharing this. It was truly a great experience on the boat ride and very fortunate to connect with you. Loved reading both your articles and have bookmarked your blog for further reading 🙂


    1. A very warm welcome to my blog, Ashutosh. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Very happy that you liked the Kala Ghoda posts and look forward to seeing you more on the blog. 🙂


  3. Learning so much from you, I am living in this city for nearly ten years and was not aware of the history of the city. Thanks as always for enlightening me with information


    1. You’re welcome, Asha. But there is no point in my enlightening you if you don’t go and see these places. I am waiting for the day you can come and tell me about something. And no, telling me about that blose shop in Chembur does not count ! 😛


  4. WOW. That’s a lot of information – T’was a good read .. Last time I was there was in 2009… Mumbai is always my favorite and its always lively and full of energy 🙂


    1. Thanks, Lavender. This was a very long post, wasn’t it? I tried shortening it, but just didn’t know what to cut out. Mumbai is a great city and I love it, but I am also the first to admit that it is a difficult city to navigate and get a sense of what lies beneath. Been here for 21 years now and still don’t know what makes the city tick.


    1. Actually, Darukhana is a relatively recent name. It was earlier known as Gunpowder street, thanks to a gunpowder factory there. But, I still don’t know how the name came about. Maybe there was a distillery or two? Need to find out.


      1. Gunpowder is also known as daru, as is some other thing most well known by that name. The name ‘gunpowder street’ literally translates to darukhana.


        1. Welcome to my blog, Manoj, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Thank you also for sharing the information on gunpowder also being known as daru. I was not aware of this.


  5. Simply saying that this post is informative would be an injustice to the obvious love you have for the city and its history/sights — it comes through in every word. I loved those parts about your mother’s ship adventure as a girl and your first glimpse of the city. We never forget some sights and sounds and the mesmerising sea must have sown the seeds of love for the city in you. Mumbai indeed is an enigma as far as it history goes, as you have rightly pointed out. And having lived in Delhi, I know it really wears its history on its sleeve, as it does everything else 😀

    Is Darukhana out of bounds for ordinary citizens? I remember reading a beautiful pictorial feature in the India Today (in days when it was worth a read) about the Alang ship-breaking yard in Gujarat. It was so poignant even melancholy, if one could say that about a ship-breaking yard! The reason I want to know is because these yards sell furniture that are stripped and restored from the ships — they are very sturdy, elegant and useful around the house. My friend’s house in Delhi is almost entirely furnished by these. What’s more, we can have another post on THAT from you 😀

    And hey, which is the fourth lighthouse? Does it still exist?


    1. It was tough to keep out information from this post, Alarmelvalli. As it is, the post is very long at 2200 words.

      I have no idea what Darukhana is like, never having been there. But it would be interesting to find out what the place is like. I have heard of walks being conducted in the Mazagaon area, but don’t know if the walk extends to Darukhana. I have read of the nuts and bolts and metal scrap being purchased by artists, who work with metal.

      The 4th lighthouse is the Kennersey or the Angre Lighthouse. It is an hour’s boatride from the Prongs Lighthouse. There is a heritage lighthouse tour being offered soon and once that is operational, then this lighthouse too will become part of the lighthouse tour.

      Wouldn’t that be great? 😀


  6. I remember the Elephant Rock lighthouse from the times we lived near the Gateway of India in Colaba after our marriage. My FIL was deputed with the Seamen’s Provident Fund and had got a quarters there. From the 10th floor apartment we could see the ‘parking lot’ of the sea and enjoyed the fireworks on New Year’s Eve too. But beyond that I don’t have any memories of actually visiting the dockyard or any such activity. And oh, I also remember the gooey dust that used to stick to everything including sofa cushions and make them look yucky within a week of washing them; and the stubborn grime that stuck to everything else, thanks to the smoke/oily air that permeated the whole atmosphere; and last but not the least the stench of fish that assaulted us during low tide, which coincided with lunch times 🙂

    Thanks for taking me back to those days with this post 🙂


    1. Elephant Rock? Do you mean, Dolphin Rock Ligthouse? It is rather cute, isn’t it?

      I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have a salty reminder all over the house. Not to mention the fishy smell that would appear on cue during lunch.

      I don’t live near the docks or even the sea, but have neighbours who have fish everyday. And the smell of fish fry signals lunch for them and us as well 😛


  7. I absolutely enjoyed reading your post and the photographs. I am going to ask Akshay to read it too, as I am sure he will enjoy reading about Bombay’s maritime history. Can’t wait for the museum to come up. I would love to see the lighthouses,too. I heard that they are going to make the Kanhoji Angre Lighthouse (formerly known as Kennery), located in Alibaug, a tourist attraction. I have seen this from a distance years ago.


    1. The Kanhoji Angre Lighthouse is going to be part of a heritage tour of lighthouses that is going to be launched very soon. I’m keeping my eyes and ears open for any news of this, so that we can go on one of the trips.

      It would have been really nice if Akshay had been around as we could have learnt a lot more about ships and shipping and docks from him.

      Another time, maybe 🙂


      1. hello, could you please point me out to the source of the information that a heritage tour of mumbai lighthouses would be launched soon?
        Also i did join the queue at KGAF 2014 however i was about 80th in the queue and missed the token. I really appreciate the fact that you managed to get there early enough for it to matter.
        Do you know of any other way to visit the harbour / lighthouses around mumbai? any public/trust/private tour that are existing?


        1. The meeting point before the start of the tour was Evelyn House, which is about a 100 or so metres from the Gateway of India towards Radio Club. While we had assembled there, I saw an office with a signboard stating Heritage Lighthuse Tours. The tour is not yet operational and is expected to start soon.

          As far as I’m aware, the Prongs Lighhouse can be visited from Colaba on foot during low tide but only after due permission from the Navy, the Mumbai Port Trust and the Office of Lighthouses.


  8. Brilliant post. I think a lot of India’s heritage, history, culture is wasted because even though it is around us, people just aren’t aware of it. So having tours like such is a great step towards informing people about what makes India so special. Something to look forward to, especially the light houses, whenever i visit Mumbai. Cheers


    1. I think that in India it is not just about people not being aware of it; it is also because for many it doesn’t make a difference to them.

      I hope that by the time you do visit Bombay, the Heritage Lighthouse Tour is a reality rather than being on paper as it is today.


  9. Reading this has really been worth Sudha. Are there any port/docks tour in Bombay apart from the Harbour Lighthouse Tour that can be visited to.


    1. Hello Marcel, welcome to my blog and thank you for stopping by and commenting. A Harbour Lighthouse Tour was supposed to begin in 2014, but for reasons best known to the people behind the venture it never took off. At least I’m not aware of one. And if there is such a tour, it is all hush hush. 😉


  10. Hi,
    Thanks for an excellently written post, and for the links to the two fantastic books by MbPT.

    By the way, just a little added information – the pilot boats do not really guide ships into Mumbai harbour. The carry a “Pilot” (a person, an ex sea Captain who has passed some amazingly tough qualifying exams to qualify as a pilot) to merchant ships that wish to enter Mumbai port. who boards ships outside Mumbai harbour, and helps their Captain bring the ship into Mumbai port and to dock them alongside berths (well, actually the pilot does most of the work, but in theory he “assists” the ships captain).

    And as for Darukhana, yes, it is an amazing place! I had visited it a few years ago for some work. It consists of miles of shops selling ships anchors (I kid you not!) of all shapes adn sizes adn weights, and otehr ships paraphernalia. You can enter it from a side gully near Reay road station, but it is easy to get lost in the gullies.

    I had stayed in a hostel close to it two decades ago (at LBS Nautical college) and we would watch small dhows and large ships tie in early morning, during our walks.

    Do keep writing such interesting posts 🙂


    1. A warm welcome to ‘My Favourite Things”, Sthitapragya. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

      I’m sure you would have guessed by now that nautical things aren’t really my strong suit. Thank you so much for clarifying about the pilot boat and also for the additional information on Darukhana. It is a place I have yet to visit. I have been to Reay Road a few times, particularly to hunt out for some amazing street art that covers its walls, but have not yet ventured towards Darukhana. I should make it a point to visit it sooner, rather than later.

      Thank you for the appreciation and the encouragement. 😉


  11. Hi can i reblog it on my website Boat Goa. Where i write about yachting places and yachting tips . Basically its meant for Goa. But will be writing for Mumbai as well.


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