From a resplendent past to a wobbly present & an uncertain future, know about the Koli community of Mumbai.
The Mumbai skyline today boasts of high rise buildings amid an urban setting but the erstwhile image of the sprawling region stands in a colossally different contrast. An archipelago of 7 islands, Mumbai was inhabited by fishermen communities in the 16th-century and even then, the Kolis came here first. Known as the original residents of Bombay, this community is about 500 years old!
A legacy that has survived through the centuries despite being largely forgotten, the Koli fishermen community lives on to occupy small, hidden pockets across Mumbai, from Worli and Dongri to Vasai. Named after them, these wards of the Koli residents are called Koliwadas, which literally mean 'home that opens to the sea.'
The cultural, historical & ethnic legacy of Mumbai
Pegged to the oldest fishermen community living in Mumbai, the Kolis have richly contributed to the cultural quotient of the city. Even the name of the region, 'Mumbai', comes from a Koli Temple deity by the name of Mumba Devi. Besides, several prominent localities are also named after these aboriginal residents, including the Worli Koliwada, Sion Koliwada, Vasai Koliwada and Colaba Koliwada.
This close-knit community boasts of vibrant culture, with their distinct Agri language, seasonal festivals, classical food and even dance! Their heritage transcends from a core-Marathi identity and allegiance to Christianity- blending in a hybrid culture that hides in plain sight in the ever-bustling Mumbai city.
Mumbai development confines Kolis to city fringes
Be it the colonisation of the past or the present-day urbanisation, the Kolis have been limited to the city periphery. Claimed to be the 'men of the sea', the Kolis have been confined to the harbours and docks, stereotyping their identity as nothing more than fishermen who thrive off the fortunes of the sea.
And while the community has been hustling each day since the 1800s at the Sasson Dock with the break of dawn, their future stands in jeopardy- a dilemma between traditional life and urban dreams. The Mumbai development authorities have been reclaiming coastal land for rampant urbanisation, pushing the Kolis to the very fringes of the island city. This situation and the cutting of Mangroves, which is essential for Koli's crab culture, is also affecting their day-to-day work.
Kolis are faced with the hurdles of marginalisation and a lack of growth, that has shaped their harsh outlook as a community and this now reflects as their perturbed identity. However, you can still spot the Koli fishermen stirring up the colours of the Mumbai fish markets because c'est la vie (that is life)!