Gothic, Victorian and Art Deco buildings soar over downtown Bombay with carved balconies, ornate grillwork, stone gargoyles -- and gigantic billboards hawking products from electronic gadgets to the latest fashions.
Now, preservationists here are wrangling with officials to save the smothered skyline, trying to get hundreds of billboards torn down in this historic city overlooking the Arabian Sea.
In May, they got help from the Bombay High Court, which ordered the city to remove all billboards from buildings in historic neighborhoods by June 2.
These neighborhoods -- designated "heritage sites" by the Maharashtra state government in 1995 -- include many of the 150-year-old buildings that are a legacy of India's British colonial days.
City officials say they have pulled down more than 80 billboards since the ruling. Preservation groups say at least 200 of the giant signs, some four stories tall, still need to go.
For now, though, the process is on hold. Billboard companies have appealed to India's Supreme Court, arguing that not all the ads mar buildings and that many they are being asked to remove are not in historic areas.
They are supported in part by residents who say the billboards provide vital funds to maintain the crumbling structures.
"It's all very well to talk of heritage structures, but it costs to maintain these buildings and most people in the buildings are old and retired, so it's difficult getting the cash," said an elderly resident who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Leasing billboard space can net landlords an average of about $900 per month -- good money here -- and part of it, in theory, goes to help preserve the buildings.
"It's in the interest of heritage enthusiasts to allow" the ads, said the head of one billboard company, Cyrus Elavia.
Preservationists, however, say it's not just a question of the buildings.
Nayana Kathpalia, an official with the citizens' group CitiSpace, said the billboards can also be dangerous, as in the case of playgrounds ringed with old buildings.
Billboards "jut onto sidewalks, and huge steel girders inside playgrounds make it unsafe," Kathpalia said.
Bombay's civic commissioner, Johnny Joseph, said the city council was awaiting the Supreme Court verdict.
But activists are demanding swift action.
Anahita Pundole, a physician with a passion for architectural preservation, recently filed a contempt of court complaint against the city council for not honoring the High Court's June 2 deadline.
"I was born and brought up in Bombay with its bright lights and neon signs," Pundole said. "But if [billboards] take over our city, we finally won't be able to see the sky."