Being a large international hub, visitors who have been to India have most likely traversed through Mumbai, either staying for a couple of days or just a quick visit in between flights. Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra and the most populous city in the country, has been called the New York of its country for its cosmopolitan sprawl of museums, art galleries, upscale restaurants, luxury retail, and being the home of Bollywood films and progressive trends. While the city is charging ahead, the small old-world Koli fishing village holds on obstinately.
From where I stayed in Bandra, we crossed the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, a cable-stayed bridge over water that connects the Bandra suburbs to Mumbai’s main business district. It too was recently opened, in 2009, reducing travel time during peak hours by a mere 20 minutes drive from what used to be over an hour. As we exited the bridge, Harish pointed to a stone fort that stood on a peninsular landmass that jutted out from the main city, away from the tall shiny buildings. Surrounding it were densely packed small homes that could’ve been mistaken as a slum. That is the Koli fishing village he said, they live there now.
The Kolis are an ethnic group found throughout India, and one of the original inhabitants of Greater Mumbai. Mumbai was comprised of seven separate isles and records of the earlier settlements of Mumbai note Koli villages in all the seven islands. Along side the East Indians, the Koli settlers spread across Bombay city and suburbs. Over time, industrial & commercial zones and roads took over the lands, marginalizing the Koli communities to their villages.
We first visited the fishing docks. At 10am, the men were already back from their early morning voyage and were repairing their nets, relaxing and drinking beers. The colorful long boats were docked. Their day’s work was already complete. Further along, we stopped by a small temple dedicated to a goddess who is consulted on all major decisions made by the Kolis. There are also Christian Kolis in the community and they have a small church in the village as well. Peeking through the iron gates of the church, I spotted a small statue of Jesus on a fishing boat.
Then we stepped into the village, following a narrow dirt path lined by small shanties and old duplexes with brightly colored facades. Not all of the homes are occupied by the Kolis – some are rented out to those in the city looking for cheaper rent or different scenery. Renting out their homes allow for extra income which greatly helps out the family. Kolis are traditionally fishermen by trade, a lifestyle that is difficult to sustain in the modern world. More and more of the younger generations choose to pursue jobs in the tall buildings that loom in the backdrop beyond the village.
We started zig-zagging through the lanes which were built to intentionally confuse and disorient Arab and Maratha pirates back in the day. We passed by chickens, women hanging clothes on their verandahs, spicy whiffs of cooking food, goats grazing on trash, and dodged dungpies speckled on the ground.
The fish market is somewhere in the middle of the village, a large open tarp-covered space where women in colorful saris sat and sold the fish their husbands caught that morning. A variety of small gold, silver, and pink fish laid on plastic boards in the open air for sale. The fishy smell that hung in the air throughout the village intensified at the fish market – but don’t cover your nose, or you’ll get an earful from the merchant. In the Koli community, it is the women who literally bring home the money. Once the men haul their catch to shore, the women sort through the fish, keeping the best ones for her family and the rest into baskets to take to the market either in the village or to the city. She is the one who determines how much the fish cost and she is not shy to tell you off. Being economically productive members of their society, Koli women are more outspoken and not afraid to be seen.
Coming upon an open field, there was a local cricket match going on so we watched for a few minutes. Harish explained that the boys and men in the village created teams and played against each other in community tournaments. It doesn’t matter how old you are, as long as you can hit the ball. There was even an announcer’s area with wired speakers so the bystanders could keep score.
Finally at the end of the village stood the stone fort I had seen earlier – the Worli fort. Built by the British around 1675 when Mumbai was still seven separate islands, the fort protected the area and overlooked the Mahim Bay. It was used to spot pirate ships in the nearby sea. Nowadays, it is a sightseeing point which offers panoramic views of the Arabian Sea, the Sea Link, and the vast city. Harish notes that while the Sea Link has helped commuters in the city, it has actually negatively impacted the Kolis by forcing them to go further out into sea to find fish disturbed by the bridge’s vibrations.
On the way back, we took a different route through the Byzantine lanes and I started to notice things that looked out of place such as washing machines, satellite dishes, even a Great Dane puppy. The small fishing village had transported me away to simpler times, and yet I was reminded that the city was not that far away, just a stone’s throw, looming in the background over the Koli village. The Koli men have to travel farther to fish and the women travel even farther to sell their wares, they rent out their homes and they send their children to school in the city, but they do their best to make ends meet and endeavor to keep their customs alive for as long as they can. The next time you’re in town, make a stop at this ancient village for an idyllic break away from the city and to meet the charming Kolis, the indigenous people of Mumbai.