Join Sreyasi Mukherjee as she walks through an 800-year-old fishing village in Mumbai as part of The Locavore’s Worli Koliwada Project with RPG Foundation.
On a balmy October evening, Koli visual artist and auto-ethnographer Parag Tandel put together an art installation, Journey of The Bombay Duck, in collaboration with a few women from the Koli community. During the performance at Mumbai’s Goethe Institute, the artists mummified the dried Bombil or Bombay Duck while singing songs of grief and mourning. The mummified Bombil is symbolic of the deep sense of loss experienced by the Koliwada community—a loss of knowledge, culture, and access to the sea.
Inhabiting parts of the western coast, the Kolis are a community of fisherfolk who live in Koliwadas—the Koli fishing villages that open out to the sea. At present, there are several Koliwadas dotting the coast of Mumbai, but none of these are homogeneously inhabited by the Kolis alone. They are melting pots of multiculturalism shaped by the confluence of migrants and indigenous folk who have made it their home.
Having lived by the coast for centuries, the identity of the Koliwada residents is deeply intertwined with the sea. However, rising temperatures, overfishing, and increasing marine pollution have severely impacted these communities that have largely relied on fishing for their livelihood. And since fishing is no longer a lucrative profession, the younger generation is seeking alternative means of income.
Perhaps this explains the sense of sadness and loss I observed during my field trips to the Koliwada area, and through conversations with some of the residents. “My father-in-law used to have a big boat, but we sold it. There are no fish to catch, so why keep it? Earlier, my husband went out to sea every day on his father’s boat, now he sells cricket nets,” said Pramila Worlikar, one of the women I interacted with.
Her neighbour, Rajeshwari Mahendrakar, added, “When I was little, we used to get so many different varieties of fish, and the quantity was much higher too. It even tasted better! Today, we barely get anything in comparison to that.” Unbeknownst to many in Mumbai, the Koliwadas continue to sing songs of the sea, protect their lands and waters, and fight for their right to livelihood.
As the resident anthropologist of The Locavore, I was assigned the task of interacting with the Worli Koliwada community for the Worli Koliwada Project, a part of The Heritage Project initiated by RPG Foundation. The project aims to draw attention to this area and its people, and develop methods to help them earn supplemental income. As an impact-driven platform, we believe that in order to achieve this meaningful goal, we must first seek to understand the lives, challenges, and joys of the communities that inhabit Worli Koliwada.
The fight to fish
Just a few weeks after making the daunting move from Kolkata to Mumbai, I embarked on my first trip to Worli Koliwada. As I got out of my cab near the Indian Coast Guard Western Headquarters, I was struck by the view in front of me. Several colourful boats were docked in the inlet to my left, and a vibrant mural stretched across the adjacent wall, depicting the incredible life and tides of Worli Koliwada.
Observing the fishing nets left out to dry, and older men instructing younger ones on how to repair boats, I was immersed in the history and culture of the place—a culture shaped not just by the losses experienced by the indigenous dwellers and migrant communities, but equally by the tenacity in the everyday lives of the Koliwada people.
It was just before 9 am, and the Koliwada residents were already going about their day. The fishermen had returned with their catch, and women vendors were setting up the fish market. I spent some time photographing the boats, allowing the sea and its ceaseless movement to ground and prepare me for weeks of life-changing conversations and culinary explorations.
As I waited for my interlocutor (I don’t speak or understand Marathi), I was struck by the sight of a black, slurry stream clogged with garbage and effluents, struggling to make its way out of the city. It took me a while to realise that this was a continuation of the creek on the other side where the boats were docked. The waste of the city was bottlenecked by a sluice gate that would remain closed until the monsoon season, when all the accumulated waste would be flushed into the sea.
The bridge I was standing on spanned across the creek, separating the peninsula from the mainland. This was the harsh reality of the Worli Koliwada community—caught in between unsustainable urban development and a polluted sea. It felt as if they were relics, clinging on for dear life.
A short walk brought me to the strikingly white marble structure of the Golfa Devi Temple, from where the lanes begin to narrow and incline upwards. The idol of Golfa Devi, flanked by Sakba Devi and Harba Devi, was once the cultural and spiritual hub of the Worli Koliwada. The patron goddess of the village, she was believed to help her followers make difficult decisions, and her blessings were considered crucial in ensuring success at sea.
However, with declining fish stocks and more young people turning away from traditional fishing practices, Golfa Devi seems to have lost some of her significance. As citizen historian Anita Yewale narrates in her lecture ‘The fall of Golfa Devi and the rise of Shiva’, the festival honouring the goddess once lasted for days, with people travelling from across the coast to seek blessings from the three sister goddesses.
Today, the Golfa Devi Jatra has been shortened to a single-day affair. Meanwhile, Mahashivratri—a relatively newer tradition adopted by the community in the last decade—has gained greater prominence. Because, why continue to pray to Golfa Devi, protector of the fisherfolk at sea and granter of bountiful catch, if you no longer take your boat out to sea?
The changing religious practices also symbolise the evolving identities of the Koliwada community, with some of the culture and stories tied to the sea and fishing—traditionally passed down—beginning to disappear. Recognising this, The Heritage Project aims to raise awareness about the diverse religious practices of the Koliwada community by installing signages at significant religious landmarks like the Golfa Devi Temple.
It’s not easy to describe the place the sea holds in the lives of the Koliwada community. Whether it’s the indigenous Koli folk who have lived here for generations, or its recent migrants from Bihar and Bengal, everyone here has deep ties to the surrounding sea and fishing.
An assimilated community
Although it is often assumed that the Worli Koliwada region is solely inhabited by Kolis, in reality, there has been a long history of migration from states such as Telangana, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. With each wave of migration came new cooking techniques and stories, resulting in a more assimilated community. Interestingly, food traditions originating from the Koliwadas have over time influenced much of the food culture of Mumbai.
The ubiquitous Fish Koliwada, which features heavily on menus across Mumbai, was first created by Hukamchand Singh Julka—a partition refugee from Peshawar who lived in Sion Koliwada. Urban legends claim that Julka combined his traditional Punjabi cooking techniques with ingredients available to him to create the first-ever fish Koliwada. He started by selling the dish out of Hazara, a temporary stall named after his hometown. This humble fish preparation, made by deep-frying marinated chunks of fish, went on to take a life of its own and is now available in eateries all over Mumbai.
Descending from the fort, I trekked to my final destination on the walk—the Batteri, or Koliwada Jetty. The route to the jetty is marked by two coexisting landmarks: a chapel housing the Dariya-cha-Raja (the king of the seas) which depicts Christ on a boat, and a temple dedicated to Vetaal Dev, a ghost-like manifestation of Shiva. During occasions believed to be Vetaal Dev’s feast days, the community offers meat, fish, and alcohol to the idol. Both shrines are of great significance to the fisherfolk, who have set up small workstations all along the road leading down to the jetty.
I arrived at the jetty just as the sun began to set. And while I watched the boats moored in the bay gently swaying in the waves, a fisherman returned from his trip, bringing back a meagre haul. As he opened out his net picking through his dismal catch, a tiny crab scuttled away, leaving behind discarded plastic packaging, leaves, and a lone fish struggling for air.
As I made my way back from the Worli Koliwada, I watched the sun dip beneath the horizon, its final rays casting an orange glow on the gently lapping waves. But the serenity of the sea was soon drowned out by the jarring cacophony of Mumbai traffic, a reminder that amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, the Koli community and their way of life still endures, intricately woven into the fabric of Mumbai’s rich cultural tapestry.
As a social anthropologist who loves food, Sreyasi Mukherjee is captivated by the intricate connections between food, stories, and people.
Note: This article would not have been possible without the women from the Worli Koliwada who generously shared their stories, food, and time with us. The Locavore does not intend to speak on behalf of the community, but rather to amplify what has been shared with us by the people of the Worli Koliwada with their permission. The Locavore team has made every effort to maintain a practice of dynamic, informed, and continuous consent while interacting with and gathering data from the community.
The Worli Koliwada Project—initiated by RPG Foundation in collaboration with The Locavore— aims to bring attention to Mumbai’s Worli Koliwada region. The project uses food as a lens to showcase the unique culinary and cultural heritage of the communities in the area, while also providing economic opportunities for the Koliwada’s local residents.
The Heritage Project, an heritage initiative of RPG Foundation, works to bring back to glory, sites of cultural and social importance. It aims to help the masses engage with, relive, and experience our heritage through practical new approaches, keeping in mind the evolving, fast paced world.
The Locavore is partnering with the RPG Foundation to work within the Worli Koliwada geography to provide the tools for self-reliance for the Worli Koliwada community, as a part of their Heritage Revival Project.
RPG Foundation collaborates with Government entities, not-for-profits and other civil society organisations to develop innovative solutions to social challenges in India. They are committed to catalysing sustainable social change through holistic interventions that are impactful, scalable and ultimately help build an equitable society. One such intervention is the Heritage Revival Project.