The Kolis

Language: Marathi (?), Religion: Hindu/Buddhism, Estimated population: ?.

The fishermen were here first ... when Bombay was a dumbbell-shaped island tapering, at the centre, to a narrow shining strand beyond which could be seen the finest and largest natural harbour in Asia.
"Midnight's Children", Salman Rushdie

Kolbhat, Palva Bunder, Dongri, Mazagaon, Naigaum and Worli were among the islands the Kolis gave their names to. Kolbhat was distorted to Colaba; Palva Bunder became Apollo Bunder. The temple to Mumbadevi in Dongri gave rise to the name of the city. One of the smaller islands near Colaba, variously called Old Man's Island and Old Woman's Island, was a distortion of the Arab name Al-Omani, given for the same fishermen who ranged as far away as the gulf of Oman.

The development of the modern city slowly marginalised these people of the sea. They were removed from Dongri already in 1770 by the East India Company. This historical process of elimination eventually pushed them to the strand near Cuffe Parade, from where they plied their ancient trade of deep water fishing. The Backbay reclamation of the 60's would have further marginalised them had they not approached the courts to stay the reclamation. Now their settlements are protected by law.

In Marathi, Koli means the originally heterogeneous marginal tribe-castes that took late in history to agriculture and were often press-ganged for porterage in army service. The same word also means spider and fisherman, presumably because the fisherman makes and uses a net to catch his prey as a spider his web.
D. D. Kosambi

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Created on Jul 16, 1995; last modified Nov 17, 1999.