Archit “Ace” Rege’s fascination with abandoned places kicked off in 2015, back when he was a bored engineering student. He’d skip classes to explore what the city of Mumbai in India, where he lives, had to offer. He’d go to all the places listed on the tourist trail – from Instagrammable cafes and crowded monuments to colonial-era buildings and art galleries. But he soon grew bored of marvelling at the same sites that almost everyone was shitposting on Instagram. That’s when the now 26-year-old marketing professional and photographer decided to take things to the next level.
Driven by his passion for exploring the unknown and a keen eye for spotting details, Rege decided that instead of going back to the same old done-to-death tourist spots, he would get off at random railway stations in and around the city and wander about until he stumbled upon a sight that interested him. “I began exploring the Dockyard Road railway station near the Mazgaon docks, an abandoned space where some scenes from the Netflix series Sacred Games were shot, and Ballard Estate in Fort, where I found graffiti, abandoned cars and remnants of old British-era train power units and pumps hidden amid heritage bank buildings,” Rege told VICE about his early explorations.
The more he stumbled onto fascinating relics of bygone eras or eerie objects left behind in dilapidated buildings, the more his thirst to capture them grew. Five years ago, he decided to launch an Instagram account called @urbexindia, where he could show people a side of the country that wasn’t just restricted to monuments, over-processed street photography or images that glorified the city’s poverty.
Today, this Instagram account has evolved into one of India’s biggest communities for urban exploration (urbex for short), a subculture of people who make their way into abandoned or off-limits sites, often documenting their travels through striking and evocative photographs. For most urbexers, the joy of stumbling upon a space characterised by its decay and dark history is what makes each exploration worth it. The Urbex India team also regularly collaborates with rappers, graffiti artists and advertising agencies to find cool locations where they can shoot music videos or ad campaigns.
“Urban exploration is the romance of what is gone and what can be remembered,” said Rege. “For most urbexers, the romance begins with abandoned railway stations, then slowly moves to abandoned architecture and dilapidated buildings where no one goes.”
To gain entry to otherwise inaccessible areas, urbexers often jump through many hoops. Sometimes, quite literally, by jumping over fences, locked gates and even barbed wires. Rege explained that they often pose as college students working on a project or journalists who have permission to cover that area in a bid to convince security guards stationed outside these spaces to let them through. Other times, they either try to befriend or negotiate with these guards, which also allows them to learn more about the history of the place, and hear stories of what the guards have seen.
“We go to these places to find an untold story, or simply to capture them before they are demolished and gone completely. The risk factor associated with it also adds to the thrill.”
Given that urban exploration often involves navigating through buildings on the verge of collapse or abandoned locations frequented by criminals or drug addicts, scouting can quickly turn into a life-threatening experience. In fact, this world is not without scary stories of urbexers getting seriously injured, sometimes even fatally, on their way to get that photo or simply bragging rights.
For some, the danger and adrenaline rush are actually part of the appeal. One of them is Aadesh Silimkar, a 23-year-old photographer and designer who leads the community alongside Rege.
“Once, we found a 21-storey building in ruins near a temple in Dadar, and I wanted to sit on its highest floor and see the view below,” he told VICE. “As I sat up there, I had about 3-4 guys holding me so I wouldn’t fall off. We also have some people who start doing parkour (the sport of traversing environmental obstacles by running, climbing, or leaping rapidly and efficiently). One time, our friend tried a very dangerous stunt where he walked on a foot-long surface sandwiched between two buildings which were 7-storeys high. We were all watching with fear, but he made it.”
Rege and Silimkar also recollected an exploration in the suburban area of Thakurli. “About a kilometre away from the Thakurli station, we reached a muddy road which had a small lake next to it, and a giant waffle-like structure,” said Rege. “As we tried to navigate through this structure, which was slippery and covered with green slime, we saw that the holes in the structure were a five-floor drop. But when we finally crossed it, we found the most insane warehouse that looked like a nuclear reactor because it had all these analogs from the 60s.”
Though urbex attracts adrenaline junkies who take high risks to capture the perfect shot, Rege stressed that such behaviour is strongly discouraged on explorations since it can lead to serious accidents.
However, it’s the dangers that lurk in the sidelines and remain out of the individual or community’s control that can make urbex particularly perilous.
“There’s a dark side of urbex as well,” explained Rege. “Once, we were almost jumped by a member of a gang.” He recollected an exploration near the Reay Road station on the Harbour line of Mumbai’s rail network. “We were exploring an empty, abandoned tunnel-like space when we suddenly smelled alcohol, like a brandy smell, and saw rows of barrels. Suddenly, we realised we were being followed by a well-dressed man in a formal shirt and fancy shoes. We tried to ignore him and decided to walk the other way. When we came to the end of the tunnel, we met a cop who asked us what we were doing there. We tried to explain what we do. That’s when he asked us whether we knew we were being followed by a gang member of Dawood Ibrahim (India’s most wanted terrorist and mafia kingfin).”
Another time, the Urbex India team was scouting a location near Shahad, a railway station on the central line of Mumbai’s rail network, when they were surrounded by a group of women. “We jumped off at the railway and could see a group of aunties staring at us,” said Rege. “They thought we were from some workers’ union and asked us to leave. We then befriended the watchman and got access to a giant complex, which was an abandoned chemical-processing plant. Through the watchman, we learnt that we were in an area run by the ‘lokhand ki rani,’ a mafia queen who became the local leader after stealing iron from this complex. It turns out, the women who approached us were from her gang.”
Another time, when the team was scouting a location in India’s capital city of New Delhi, they came face-to-face with a gun-toting gang of drug addicts. “We were scouting this abandoned location to see if we could shoot a rap music video when we saw about 3-4 people over there smoking crack (a form of cocaine). We had gone with a friend who told us to keep our phones away and not look in their direction because otherwise we become high-value targets for them.”
However, some expeditions can be quite anticlimactic.
Silimkar recollected a recce done at Mumbai’s once-booming cotton mills that Rege could not go for. “We saw a red cloth covering something that looked like a dead body, and got shit scared,” he said. However, when they lifted the cloth they realised it was just a bunch of boxes.
“Urbexing can be scary because we never know when we can get mugged, kidnapped, blamed for a crime or murder, or arrested,” said Rege, adding that he has been pulled up by the cops at least three times for trespassing.
“The only law we have broken until now is one that states we cannot loiter in railway stations after 2 AM,” said Rege. He narrated how he and an urbexer from Delhi, were once arrested by a cop. “We were trying to talk our way out of getting arrested by saying we had just come for a walk, but this other guy started freaking out and insisting he didn’t know us. This pissed off the police officer, and we had to spend the night in jail.” Other times, Rege added, cops either confiscate their memory card or camera. “We’ve now learnt to just carry an empty memory card and quickly swap out the one with the pictures so the cops only find the empty one if we do get caught.”
In fact, despite the risks and dangers involved in urbexing, Rege and SiIimkar have picked up a few tricks to get away.
“Always tell your parents or someone you trust where you are, and explore in groups,” said Rege.
“We also encourage urbexers to play music on a speaker when they are walking around abandoned places so that it alerts someone who might be there rather than catching them by surprise. You also need to be careful that the ruins don’t cave under you. Throw a stone in the direction you want to head to make sure it’s sturdy. You need to be able to run fast, walk silently, and traverse through some very bad paths where anyone can jump on you. Basically as an urbexer, you should be able to survive the zombie apocalypse.”