Settled in various parts of Mumbai, the East Indian community is a tribe unheard-of for Mumbaikars. Here’s an ode to the culture we came off experiencing on several different occasions while travelling in these parts of the city.
Encountering peaceful urban villages within a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai can feel like stumbling upon a paradise, if such a thing exists. Unlike the rest of the city, which is a blend of diverse cultures and communities, these urban villages on the Dharavi Island near Mumbai, and a few even in the south like Khotachiwadi near Girgaon, are truly special. They are home to the East Indian community, believed to be the original inhabitants of this dream city. Many thoughts cross the mind as one navigates the vibrant and colorful lanes on the island, just as it did for us.
Upon arriving here, the first and foremost curiosity that arises is always about the firm establishment of these villages and the history surrounding their existence. Surprisingly and unfortunately, many from the younger generation in the community are oblivious to their heritage, while the elderly have a great deal of interest in recounting their roots. The East Indian community consists of fisherfolk who have resided on Dharavi Island – one of the seven islands that comprise Salsette Island. Geographically, this island is situated in the northwest Konkan region of Maharashtra. Dharavi Island is further subdivided into six villages: Uttan, Manori, Gorai, Chowk, and Pali – all predominantly inhabited by the East Indian Community.
Reportedly, the community finds its roots in the 15th and 16th centuries when Portuguese missionaries carried the process of conversion turning the local farmers, fisherfolks and salt-making communities to Roman Catholics. Another report also leads to the belief that after the Portuguese power fell, the community seemed to be losing out on a guardian and owing to their pledged loyalty to the East India Company, kept the name as the 'East Indian Community'. However, many living here also proclaim to have supported this name so that they could be distinguished from the Goan Catholics who had moved to Mumbai later.
Label it as a melange of influences within the East Indian community, and you'll find a quintessential blend of Marathi, Portuguese, and English cultures still thriving in Mumbai and its satellite cities such as Thane and Dharavi Island. As we explored these areas, even years later, the Portuguese elements continued to resonate within the community's homes up to the present day. We noticed that some common features among all the houses were verandas and sloping roofs. Many houses in this region are designed in the form of villas and bungalows, some of which are over a century old.
An impression of identicality can also be easily discerned towards the northern end in the Palghar district, en route to the Kalamb beach where multiple bungalows are aligned on both sides of the road amidst lush greenery, swaying trees and chirping of birds. Here, the commonality lies with the feature of large wooden swings. Along with the houses, the Portuguese influences are also reflected in the traditional food prepared by the East Indians, which has slightly distinctive elements from that of the dishes made by Goans. What is most peculiar is the language spoken by the community, which might turn out relatable to not just Marathis and Konkani but even Portuguese. A few of the words depict both Marathi and Portuguese together!
Another thing remains detectable in their traditional attire, but not of the Portuguese but Maharashtrian, which is red chequered saris with gold ornaments. Although, the same has been restricted to specific occasions now, as the daily clothing mostly includes a knee-length dress for women, something similar to Goan Catholics. And, the winds of change have ensured a lot of other things from the community to replenish owing to the growing urbanization in these parts and the need to survive in this fast-paced life.
Changeover times for the East Indian Community
Considering the Uttan village on the Dharavi islands, many from the East Indian communities either have sold their houses or land to people outside the community and the government for re-developmental projects or have revamped their houses to offer stays to the tourists who come to these areas in search of peace. In both cases, a lot of the historical elements here are also losing their stakes to the time.
Other Gaothans, a term used to describe clusters of East Indian villages in Manori and Gorai, have managed to maintain the original charm of their ancestors while also welcoming travelers, which contributes to their livelihood to some extent. Many residents of these villages live in small hut settlements and rely primarily on fishing as their occupation. This trade not only supplies local markets but also supports the hospitality industry, which employs community members as helpers.
This might seem a helping hand to the community but the cost borne by the same is a bit too high. There are fewer people from the community who are working to preserve their indigenous culture, language and everything that are specifically unique to them. The museums like Kaka Baptista have been working here to give people a glimpse into the community’s culture while a few initiatives like East India Memory Co. have also been giving their contribution to the purpose. But it still won’t be wrong to claim that the efforts are working at a snail’s speed, which, if nothing, is evident from the fact that the majority population of Mumbai can be easily found unaware of these original inhabitants of the city.