Wednesday, September 12, 2012

“The Fishermen Were Here First”

A Koli woman from India
(Photo: Meena Kadri)

By Supriya Savkoor

That famous line about India’s legendary city of Mumbai was written by one its most famous sons, author Salman Rushdie, in his Booker Prize-winning novel, Midnight’s Children. His book is fiction, of course, but he bases his rich story lines on the country's equally rich history, including in this reference about what is now India’s most populous city and the world’s fourth largest.

Before the colonists ever set foot in the area now known as Mumbai, it was made up of seven islands, each taking the name of families of the native tribe known as Kolis, its original residents. Even the present-day names of the city’s neighborhoods are mutations of those original names. And on one of those islands, Dongri, the Kolis still houses the temple dedicated to their goddess, Mumba Devi. Sound familiar? The city’s pre-colonial name, Mumbai, hails from this Koli goddess (devi means goddess, in fact).

The islands eventually came together, much of it through land reclamation, and formed the modern city that came to be known as Bombay in the 20th century and back to Mumbai in this one. As the city grew up, the natives were pushed out, to the fringes of the city, where they were marginalized into low-paying laborer jobs, mostly fishing. (Note, the word "Koli" is likely the derivative of the English word “coolie,” which refers to any sort of unskilled, menial laborer.)

In the 1960s, Bombay’s Kolis went to court to save what they could of their remaining settlements, mostly those at the edges of the city, along the sea and other waterways. They won, and today, those little communities, a small handful of them, are known as Koliwadas, as in “Koli neighborhoods.” The Koli fisherpeople, and the women folk, in particular, are a fixture of the Mumbai landscape. They squat at train exits and on the footpaths (sidewalks), with large baskets full of fresh catch in front of them. The women are dressed colorfully and wear tattoos, which have a religious significance. They’re lively, exuberant, and, well, known for their salty language but not for biting their tongues when annoyed. Koli folk music, mostly about the fishing way of life, has become popular among the mainstream, even sung by a few Bollywood singers of yesteryear. The Koli festival, Narali Punaw, commemorates the beginning of the wind’s changing strength and direction, in favor of their main livelihood of fishing.  

Numerous Kolis have carved successful careers outside of fishing, but here are a few surprises in their midst: before the Buddha sought enlightenment, and though he was previously a prince, his princess-wife was said to have hailed from the Koli community. The poet-saint Kabir (“Slowly slowly O mind, everything in its own pace happens/The gardener may water with a hundred buckets, fruit arrives only in its season”) may have been a Koli. The Mafatlal family of industrialists, presiding over the successful Indian textile empire, Mafatlal Industries Ltd., also hails from a Koli weaver family. And on and on.

But wait, back to Salman Rushdie, whose command of history and poetic prose in Midnight’s Children perhaps explains the Koli community’s legacy best.
“The fishermen were here first. Before the East India Company built its the dawn of time, when Bombay was a dumbbell-shaped island tapering, at the center, to a narrow shining strand...when Mazgaon and Worli, Matunga and Mahim, Salsette and Colaba were islands, too—in short before reclamation...turned the Seven Isles into a long peninsula, like an outstretched, grasping hand, reaching westwards into the Arabian Sea; in this primeval world before clock towers, the fishermen—who were called Kolis—sailed in Arab dhows, spreading red sails against the setting sun. They caught pomfret and crabs, and made fish-lovers of us all...There were also coconuts and rice. And above it all, the benign presiding influence of the goddess Mumbadevi, whose name—Mumbadevi, Mumbabai, Mumbai—may well have become the city's. But then the Portugese named the place Bom Bahai for its harbour, and not for the goddess of the pomfret folk...the Portugese were the first invaders, using the harbour to shelter their merchant ships and their men-of-war; but then, one East India Company Officer...saw a vision. This vision—a dream of a British Bombay, fortified, defending India's West against all comers—was a notion of such force that it set time in motion.”


  1. One of my most vivid memories of India is of visiting fishing villages on the southwest coastline. I got devoured by mosquitoes, which was definitely memorable ;) -- but I was in awe of the bright color that filled the shore. Poor women in the most beautiful saris, and brightly colored fishing boats filling the shore.

  2. Mine too, Gigi. And that coastline is one of my favorite parts of India. Marco Polo once visited it too, and if I remember correctly, he wasn't too happy about the mosquitos either.