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Kolis - A Fishy People

The Kolis-fisherfolk-of Mumbai are a distinct community. In Their dress, their language, their food and their lifestyle they are easily distinguishable. Especially the economically independent Koli women who are aggressive to the point of being quarrelsome.

Blocking the exit of the ladies compartment in the local train, dressed traditionally in their bright patterned sarees, noisily exchanging greetings, are the fisherwomen who squat on the floor of the train with their huge baskets of the fish. Working women hold their neatly pleated, flowing sarees well above their ankles as they gingerly tip-toe around them to avoid any close encounter with the fishy kind. If you hold your nose close to the offensive smell, the fisherwomen range in annoyance and God help you if you dare to object to the presence of her stinking fish in the commuters compartment. She’ll not merely threaten to douche you with fish water but I have been witness to a wrathful fisherwoman fling a fish rather accurately at a very well dressed young woman reducing her to tears!

Kolis, as the fisherfolk are known in Mumbai, are known to be easily excitable. Even an ordinary conversation between them often leads to a noisy quarrel in which abuses are easily exchanged. An exaggeration it may be but the statement is not inaccurate, that ‘a Koli sentence never begins without a vulgar epithet.’ Rather pleased with her aggressive image is the kolin and in the regional Marathi language kolin has become a synonym for an ‘abusive quarrelsome woman’. The kolis speak a local variation of Konkani which is a dialect of Marathi.

The Kolin’s entire position in society, her freedom of speech and action it a result of her economic power and independence arising from her kurga (her daily earnings). Dealing, as she has to, with all sorts of customers at the bazaar or during her door to door sales, she learns to quickly shed all coyness and freely interact with the men. She provides tremendous economic stability to the family and hence will not tolerate a bullying or wayward husband. Her financial position makes her more than welcome with her parents.

In return for her economic power she pays rather heavily by way of hard work. Her day begins at the break of dawn. After cooking for the family she takes off to the wharf to buy her fish and returns home only after the heavy load on her head is sold. At home, innumerous chores like mending fishing nets, fish baskets and drying to fish await her attention.

The Kolis are divided into two main occupational classes: the Dolkars and states. The Dolkars do the actual fishing while the latter purchase the haul wholesale. They usually set forth in boats to meet the returning Dolkars and buy the fish. Their popular folk song Dolkar dariyacha Raja (Dolkar, the king of the sea) underlines his supremacy.

The name Dolkar is derived from dol or dhola the large funnel shaped net. The smaller nets are known as jal. Every Koli house comprises an oti (verandah) which is reserved for weaving and repairing nets. Though house patterns differ, every house has a chool (kitchen), vathan (room) and a devghar (the worship room). Even in the poorest of families, living in one room tenements one corner of the house is reserved for the God. Deeply religious, even the Christian converts, follow their original Hindu beliefs as well. The annual pilgrimage to the shrine of Ekvira, at the Karla caves in Pune district in undertaken by both the Hindus and the Christian Kolis. The chief Hindu religious festivals are ‘Gauru Shimga’ and ‘Narial Poornima’. No. Koli whatever his faith, will recommence fishing after the rainy season without offering a coconut to the sea on Narial Poornima day.

The Hindu Kolis worship Mahadev, Hanuman and Khandoba and the Christian Kolis worship these and images of Christ and Virgin Mary. A few worship ancestors (Vir) and are known in the community as Virkar in opposition to the Devkars who worship only God. The oldest members of the family both male and female are also worshipped.

Songs from an important part of the Kolis culture. Almost every ceremony of restival has its special song without which the ceremony does not commence. At the beginning of every such song a stanza is devoted to the deities. The deities are invoked andinvited to the ceremony.

‘Gondan’ (tattooing) to is given religious significance as it is considered a mark of recognition by God. They believe that after death at the gates of heaven a woman is asked Godhun aali ki choruni? (Do you bear the mark of God or are you sneaking in?).

The name Mumbai is derived from the goddess, ‘Mumba’, the patron deity of the pre-Christian Kolis, the earliest inhabitants of the island. In the present day the shrine of Mumbadevi, situated at the south-west corner of the Mumbadevi tank in the very heart of the city is accorded more reverence than perhaps any other shrine.

Various records reveal that Kolis have been found in Mumbai from early times. Dr. Gerson da Cunha in the book ‘Origin of Mumbai’ describes old Mumbai as ‘the desolate islet of the Mumbai Koli fishermen. The Kolis are reported to have occupied the land in A.D. 1138.

Mumbai-Heptanesia as it was once known, comprised seven separate and amorphous isles namely Kolaba, Old Woman’s Island, Mumbai, Mazagaon, Sion, Worli and Mahim (all of which have now been joined by bridges and reclamations). Records of the earlier settlements of Mumbai speak of Koli villages in all the seven islands. Though they are completely dwarfed by the highrise, congested apartments, Koli villages exist all along the sea coast of Mumbai even today. Mazagaon, it is believed, owes its name to fish, Machchagaun meaning fish-village, Kolaba means the Koli estate.

In the matter of dress too, Kolis possess an individuality. Standing out distinctly, even in the sea of humanity that is Mumbai, is the koli who has not given up his or her traditional attire. The dress of a Koli woman consists of two or three garments namely a lugat(sari), a choli (blouse) and a parkhi (a shoulder scarf). The Christian Kolis don’t use a parkhi and wear a typical red-checked saree with a tiny border and use the palla of the saree to cover their shoulders. Lugat is really the lower garment, nine yards in length in bright floral designs. It is worn in a peculiar way so that when draped at the waist it reaches just below the knees and is drawn up tightly between the legs.

The men generally wear a surkha (a loin cloth). It is a square piece of cloth, thrown diagonally in front on a string tied round the waist. The lower end of the cloth is tightly drawn through the legs and knotted at the back so as to cover the divided of the buttocks. A waist-coat and close fitting cap complete the attire. When not at sea the modern Koli wears a pair of pants and shirts.

Fond o jewellery, even their men wear armlets, bangles and earnings. The women don’t believe in bank accounts and invest almost all their savings in gold. They wear traditional chunky typically Koli jewellery like the earnings patterned like the Pisces symbol (fish swimming in opposite directions) worn by almost all of them.

Otherwise the Kolis live a very simple life. The ordinary Koli meal consists of curry (ambat), rice, and fried fish. When at sea the men eat dried fish and rice gruel. They make a lot of sweet dishes at the Koli women are extremely fond of them. You only wish it would give them a sweet-tongue!