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. Shell 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
The Kolins 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
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
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.
(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 Womans 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
dont 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 dont
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