Bhandup Koliwada

By Anurag

Mumbai, being an island city, is surrounded by two main kinds of water bodies: the open sea to the west and numerous creeks to the north, east, and south. The fishing communities that settled along the coasts of these water bodies adapted their livelihoods and lifestyle according to the surrounding marine ecology. Thus, the Koliwadas of Mumbai can be divided into two categories: those with access to the open sea, and those with access to the abundant creeks. The article focuses on one of the prominent Koliwadas situated on the coast of the Thane creek.

Early History

Bhandup is one of the most historically relevant places in the city of Mumbai. The Shilaharas of Thane, who ruled this region from the 10th- 12th centuries CE, are known to have built a Rajpath, or royal road, that passed through Bhandup,[1] and connected their capital to places on the eastern seaboard of Mumbai. A copper plate inscription mentioning Bhandup was found in 1835 in a field in Nahur. The inscription dates back to the reign of the Northern Shilahara King Chhittarajadev, who ruled from 1022-1035 CE.[2]

The Mahikavatichi Bakhar, chronicling Mumbai from the 13th-14th century CE, mentions the place with the same name as the present-day Bhandup. This makes Bhandup one of the few places in Mumbai whose name has remained unchanged for the last seven to eight hundred years. The text mentions Bhandup and the surrounding areas under the jurisdiction of an administrator named Harbaji.

In Bhandup Koliwada, there exists a Gadhegal, or ass curse stone, and a sculpture resembling a Virghal, both of which are worshipped as deities in the local Mhasoba shrine. Gadhegals were historically installed on the boundary of land donated to any individual by the king, and were meant to deter people from trespassing into private land. A Virghal was a memorial stone in honour of a warrior who had fallen in armed conflict. Both these sculptures found in Bhandup can be dated to around the 13th-14th century CE based on their art style, providing another important marker of the historicity of the Bhandup region.

Image 1: Gadhegal and Veerghal in the local Mhasoba shrine.

Bhandup was an important location for salt production on the Shasthi or Salcette island, dotted with numerous salt pans lined along the coast of the Thane creek. Advait Keni, a young member of the local Koli community and an avid documenter of local history and culture, states that a practice referred to as Fattemari existed in Bhandup. In this practice, the abundant salt produced locally was shipped from Bhandup to Thane, from where it was exported to the wider world.

Image 2: One of the former salt pans in Bhandup, now cut off from the creek due to urban development.

After the British supplanted the Maratha rule in Salcette in 1818, they focused on maximizing the profits from the salt production at Bhandup. They established the office of the Collector of Salt Revenue and built numerous structures to serve as the offices for the Salt Revenue Collector and warehouses, locally known as Mith Chowki, for storing the salt. Many of these British structures still survive in Bhandup, and the main office of the Salt Collector is still in use as the office of the Superintendent of Salt under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry of the Government of India.

Bhandup was also the location of a distillery which was tasked with supplying rum to the Bombay presidency government and the army, a substantial portion of which also found its way into the general population of the city. The rum distillery also came under jurisdiction of the Salt Revenue Collector. In 1858, when the presidency government discovered that rum imported from Mauritius was cheaper compared to the locally manufactured one, the Bhandup distillery went into dormancy and eventually closed down in 1878.[3]

Image 3: British era office of the Salt Revenue Collector, now used as the office of the Superintend of Salt by the Government of India.
Image 4: Ruins of one of the British-era salt warehouses, or Mith Chowkis, in Bhandup.

Another significant aspect of Bhandup in Indian history is its connection to the first railway line in the country. The famed Parsi businessman Framji Cowasji owned a large estate stretching from Bhandup to Powai. During a visit to Cowasji’s estate, the chief engineer of the Bombay Presidency government, George Clarke, conceived the idea of establishing a railway line[4] connecting Bori Bunder on the southern end of Bombay to Thane, the northern end of Salcette island. The government approved his idea, and the first passenger railway in India ran on April 16, 1853 from Bori Bunder to Thane.[5]

The Koliwada of Bhandup is also one of the leading Koliwadas that participated in the Indian Independence Movement. Numerous inhabitants of this locality diligently struggled against British rule. There exists a structure near the Bhandup Koliwada that was used as an execution facility by the local government, where many freedom activists were hanged. The most important phase in its local history was the Salt Satyagraha organized by Mahatma Gandhi. The salt pan owners of Bhandup joined the Salt Satyagraha wholeheartedly, producing salt independently, and defying British laws.

Image 5: Ruins of the old Bhandup railway station platform.

Bhandup Koliwada

The Gaothan of Bhandup was originally located near Vihar Lake. Keni states that when the British established a water filtration plant in that locality to supply drinking water to South Mumbai, the Koliwada was moved to its present-day location in Bhandup East. He further mentions that when the railway line passed through Bhandup, the natives were terrorized by the hitherto unseen railway engines, and called them ‘Aag Oknare Rakshas’ or fire-spewing demons, and ran away at the sight of the passing trains.

Eventually, the locals got accustomed to this new technology, and the fisherwomen of Bhandup Koliwada started using the trains heading for Bori Bunder to transport their daily catch to Sassoon dock, where it was sold in the wholesale market. Coolies, or hamal as they are referred to locally, used to carry the paati (heavy fish baskets) on their heads and sprint from the Koliwada to Bhandup station in the early hours of the morning. Gradually, with the advent of tar roads and road transportation such as rickshaws, the fisherwomen started carrying their fish baskets in these vehicles to the railway station.

Along with fishing, rice cultivation during the monsoons was an important occupation for the natives of Bhandup Koliwada. The farmlands of Bhandup villagers extended from the Bhandup Koliwada to the present-day Airoli bridge near Mulund.

Socio-religious Landscape

The traditional expanse, or ves, of Bhandup Koliwada was marked by four shrines dedicated to local deities established in the four cardinal directions. The shrine of Brahmandev marked the northern end of Koliwada, the shrine of Nama Devi sat on the western border, the shrine of Gaondevi formed the eastern boundary, while that of Varoba demarcated the southern frontier of the settlement.

Kolis and Aagris comprise the main communities residing in Bhandup Koliwada, and the fishing hamlet is divided into two localities; Aagar Vali and Koliwada. Vali is the local adaptation of the Marathi word ‘aali’ denoting a lane. The original settler families of Bhandup Koliwada are the Patil, Bhoir, and Vatandar, who form the oldest households continually residing in the Koliwada.

Owing to the large number of salt pans present in the region, extra manpower was required to tend to these pans. A community called the Kharvi Kolis were invited from Gujarat and given a plot near the Koliwada to establish their settlement. The term Kharvi is derived from the word ‘khar’ meaning salt, and denotes their traditional profession. The settlement of the Kharvi Kolis still exists near the Bhandup Koliwada.

Image 6: A lane inside the Bhandup Koliwada.
Image 7: A hanging fish motif in Bhandup Koliwada.

The Gram Devta of Bhandup Koliwada is the Goandevi, whose shrine sits on top of a hillock on the LBS Road in Bhandup West. The shrine was initially located near the original Gaothan when it was situated near the Vihar Lake but is now separated from it by the railway line. The annual jatra (annual ceremony) of Gaondevi is organized on Magh Pornima, when all villagers of Bhandup visit her shrine and make offerings. An oblation of a goat and a chicken is offered to the Goddess on the second day of the jatra. Due to difficulties faced by the elderly from the Koliwada while travelling to the Gaondevi shrine, the young generation of locals has started organizing the palkhi (palanquin) of Gaondevi on the day of her jatra. The palkhi is brought from her temple and paraded in the Koliwada so that the old members can access their beloved Goddess from their homes, avoiding the long trek to her temple. The family of Subhash Namdev Bhoir in Bhandup Koliwada is the hereditary caretaker of the Gaondevi shrine.

Image 8: An old house in Bhandup Koliwada.
Image 9: A mural painting in Bhandup Koliwada.

Keni states that the older generations believed that the Gaondevi came out of her shrine at night atop a white horse and roamed through the Bhandup Koliwada to ensure the safety of its inhabitants. Since the white horse was considered the divine mount of Gaondevi, it was a local practice in Bhandup Koliwada to avoid using white horses in weddings for the groom, as they were reserved only for the Goddess. This practice is still actively followed with dedication and humility by the locals.

Image 10: The shrine of Gaondevi. Image courtesy: Advait Keni
Image 11: An old picture of the Gaondevi shrine with locals from the Bhandup Koliwada. Image courtesy: Advait Keni

Veshi Varche Dev, or frontier deities, are important entities in the religious landscape of Bhandup Koliwada, and their shrines mark the boundaries of the settlement, as mentioned before. Keni says that in the days before the roads and vehicles became prevalent in Bhandup, Varoba guarded the citizens, especially the fisherwomen going to Sassoon dock in the dark hours, in the form of a shepherd. He escorted people safely from the Koliwada to the railway station and back. In return for his favour, the locals gave maan (annual offering), at his shrine on the southern end of their village.

Mhasoba is an important guardian deity for the natives of Bhandup Koliwada. He is believed to walk around the settlement at night, preventing any evil forces from disrupting the local peace. The main shrine of Mhasoba for the Bhandup natives is at Padhgha in Bhivandi, where the annual jatra is held in February. For this event, a ghongdi (blanket) is offered to him by the Bhandup Koliwada. The jatra at the local Mhasoba shrine is also organized around the same time, and an oblation of mutton is offered to the deity by the locals. Since Mhasoba is believed to be an incarnation of Bhairav and is part of the Shaiva cult, offerings of meat, alcohol, cigarettes, and cannabis are commonplace at the Mhasoba shrine. The locals believe that Mhasoba wears out his chappals regularly because of his peripatetic nature. Therefore, a small footwear is placed in front of his shrine as symbolic replacement for his worn-out chappals.

Image 12: The entrance to the Mhasoba Shrine in Bhandup Koliwada.
Image 13: Traditional offering of a ghongdi (blanket), chappal, and a cigarette in front of the Mhasoba shrine.

Nama Devi, who sits on the western edge of Bhandup within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, is considered as the rakhandar (guardian) of their settlement by the Bhandup Kolis. This tradition dates back to the days when the old Gaothan was nestled by the Vihar Lake, and the shrine of Nama Devi was close to the former settlement. Access to her shrine is not possible due to its location within the core territory of the National Park. The local Adivasis staying near the shrine take care of its upkeep and maintenance.

The shrine of Brahmandev, guarding the northern limits of Bhandup Koliwada, is offered a vegetarian oblation during the annual jatra due to the deity being considered a Brahman, as the name suggests. His image is also situated in the shrine of the Bayas (water deities), located near the creek, and he is considered as their brother by the locals.

The Bayas are an important divinity for the Bhandup fishermen, and their shrine is located near the access point of the Thane creek from the Bhandup Koliwada. Every Koli prays at the shrine of the bayas before venturing in the water for their safety and a good catch.

Fishing Practices

Bhandup is a creek fishing Koliwada, and their traditional fishing techniques are meant to optimize the catch in this unique marine setting. A predominant fishing practice is creating bokshi (dams) along the creek coast. The fishermen create a bund with sea mud and stones, about three to five feet high, with a wooden door called ugari. A hole is made in the corner, outside of which a net is placed, attached to bamboo poles. During high tide, this man-made dam floods, creating an artificial reservoir where fishes are allowed to breed and mature in size. Once the fishes inside the bokshi reach the desirable size, the corner hole is opened, and the escaping fishes are trapped in the attached net and taken out by the Kolis.

Paag or cast nets is another fishing technique used by the locals in the middle parts of the creek, where the water is relatively deeper. The creek at Bhandup was rich in crab population, and they were fished using a circular cage contraption known as phaga. Bhise is a fishing technique unique to creek fishermen, involving tying a long net about 50 metres in length and three feet in height to mangrove branches in shallow waters. The bottom of the nets is secured on the creek bed using weights tied to the net, while the top is kept afloat with the help of buoys. This contraption is setup during a high tide, and the marine animals are trapped in these nets with the receding flow of the low tide.

Another unique practice in Bhandup Koliwada is the use of shet talis (farm ponds) for fishing. Fishermen dig a pit in the ground near the creek and allow it to be flooded during high tide. A bund is created around the pond after it is filled, and this artificial lake is then used to cultivate and farm prawns and other crustaceans by the local Kolis.

The main types of fishes found in the Bhandup waters are boit (flathead grey mullet), taam (red snapper), pala (herring), karpal (tiger prawns), mud crabs, nivti (mudskippers), kala masa (black snapper), khube (oysters), and jitada (Asian seabass).

Keni laments that the construction of the two dumping grounds at Deonar and Kanjur Marg has severely impacted the water quality of the Thane creek due to waste and toxic secretions from both these dump sites. This has adversely affected the fish population in the Bhandup waters, which has had a devastating effect on the livelihoods of the Bhandup Kolis. He states that fish catch like karpal, which were once abundantly found in the adjoining creek, have almost disappeared from the waters and are now rarely caught by the local fishermen. He further states that the creek near Bhandup was once home to the seasonal migration of flamingos, and the local water body used to turn pink during the winter months as the creek waters were rich in algae and brine shrimp, the main food of these birds. However, with the increasing water pollution in the creek, the algae and shrimp population in the waters near Bhandup dwindled, and the flamingos shifted their base to the waters near Sewri, which is now the main hub of their annual migration.


The local jatra, also known as Bhandup Gavchi Jatra, is an annual fair that is held during the Sankashti Chaturthi of Magh month. It is the biggest jatra in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai and is attended by people from as far as Navi Mumbai.

Holi, or Shimga, is the predominant festival in Bhandup like all Koliwadas. The Holi in Bhandup commences from the next day of Mahashivratri and goes till the main day of Holi. Wood of amba (mango), bhendi (Portia), and jambul (jamun) trees is used to erect the Holi bonfire. On the day of Mothi Holi or main Holi, the Holi tree is washed with turmeric, followed by milk and water, and draped in the fineries of a bride including a sari and jewellery. A naivedya (food offering) of puran poli is offered to to the tree. A tradition known a Holichi Madki is performed with great fanfare by the natives of Bhandup Koliwada. It consists of women carrying three pots placed on top of each other on their heads, wherein a lamp is placed in the topmost pot. A merry procession of women carrying the Holichi Madki is organized to the beats of the traditional Koli brass band, and the women dump these pots into the Holi bonfire at the end of this procession.

The Maan or honour of lighting up the bonfire is reserved with the Bhoir household. The Bhandup Kolis venerate Holi as a benefactory Goddess who sacrificed herself for the people, and after the bonfire is lit up, all members of the Koliwada pray to Holika Mata or Haulubai, as she is fondly referred to by the Kolis, to burn away all their pain and sufferings in her pious flames. An interesting local custom is waiting in anticipation to see where the Holi bonfire collapses. The natives believe that the direction in which the Holi collapses is the indication by the Goddess as to where the Kolis should focus in the sea for ensuring a prosperous fishing year ahead.

Another important local Holi custom is known as Songa, which consists of short plays created and acted out by the locals, based themes of social messaging. The Songa theatre of Bhandup Koliwada is famed in the Koli and Aagri communities of the eastern suburbs and Navi Mumbai, with people flocking from these Koliwadas and Goathans to Bhandup to witness this festive folk theatre.

The sport of Aatya Patya is an integral part of the traditional Holi celebrations in Bhandup. In the olden days, all members of the Koliwada used to participate in this game organized on the day of Holi. Recognizing the endangered status of this traditional Indian sport, the natives of Bhandup Koliwada, have started organizing city wide Atya Patya competitions. Players from across Mumbai and the surrounding areas come to Bhandup Koliwada to compete, thereby increasing its awareness and popularity amongst the younger generations.

Gauri Ganpati is another important festival, with household Ganpati’s ranging from one and half day, five, and ten days. Gauri is brought in on the third day of Ganpati, and her coming is celebrated with great pomp. The traditional naivedya for Gauri consists of chimbori (crab), and kolambi (prawns). The Fer Nrutya, where groups dance in a circle with a dholki (folk drum) player in the centre, is an important Gauri Ganpati custom performed by men and women of Bhandup Koliwada.

The natives of Bhandup Koliwada observe all four Pavitra Amavasya or holy new moons, namely Pithori Amavasya, Sarva Pitri Amavasya, Deep Amavasya, and Diwali. Pithori Amavasya is particularly important, and Pithori Devi worshipped in every household to bestow health and prosperity on the children.

Diwali is also celebrated with gusto, and the pre-Diwali festival of Aatimbre, celebrated eight days before the first day of Diwali, serves as a marker for the approaching festivities. A local prickly fruit and its leaves are hanged outside of every house, and drawings of farming tools are made with ash in the household courtyards. Laxmi Pujan is another important aspect of Diwali for the Bhandup natives.

Culinary Traditions

Fish preparations dominate the local gastronomy in Bhandup, as in other Koliwadas. Kalya mashancha ambat (sour curry made with black snapper) is an important local dish and a household favourite. Khengat, a unique preparation of Bhandup Koliwada, consists of a mixed fish curry. This dish carries ceremonial importance for the Bhandup natives and is a mandatory offering to the ancestors during Sarva Pitri Amavasya.

As mentioned earlier, Sarva Pitri Amavasya is an important day in the religious calendar of Bhandup Koliwada, marked by the preparation of various dishes offered as naivedya to the ancestors. The naivedya platter on Sarva Pitri Amavasya typically includes khengat, kelyachi bhaji (raw banana fritters), ukdavlelya valachya shenga (boiled beanstalks), batata bhaji (potato fritters), and a favourite item of the deceased.

The natives of Bhandup Koliwada also consume seaweeds sourced from the neighbouring creek waters. Davla, an important seaweed that is procured from the creek waters, is enjoyed by every household for its believed nutritional value, rich in essential minerals and salts. During the monsoon season, numerous fresh vegetables abound, which are foraged and sold in Bhandup Koliwada by the Adivasis living in the adjacent National Park. Monsoon specialties include kantoli (spine gourd) fresh bamboo shoots, an indigenous vegetable known as kadduu, and a tiny leafy vegetable called kavla, which apart from being a local favourite, is also required for Pithori pooja.

Replete with history and witness to numerous historical events, the Bhandup Koliwadastands as one of the oldest and most important Koliwadas of Mumbai. Its younger generations are keenly aware of their rich legacy and are diligently undertaking actions to preserve and bolster it.


[1] Edwardes, The Rise of Bombay.

[2] Campbell, James M. Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency Volume XIV: Thana Places of Interest.

[3] Campbell, James M. Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency Volume XIV : Thana Places of Interest.

[4] Gothoskar, Bharat. ‘Goshta Mumbaichi; Madhya Railway Varil Sthanakanchi Nave Kashi Padli.’ Loksatta Video.

[5] Gothoskar. ‘Goshta Mumbaichi; Madhya Railway Varil Sthanakanchi Nave Kashi Padli.’ Loksatta Video


The author would like to thank Dheeraj Bhandari for his assistance with the research.


Karmarkar, Dipesh. ‘Understanding place names in “Mahikavati’s Bakhar”: A case of Mumbai-Thane region.’ Studies in Indian Place Names 31 (2012): 116–139.

Campbell, James M. Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency Volume XIV : Thana Places of Interest. 1882.

Edwardes, Stephen Meredyth. The Rise of Bombay: A Retrospect. Times of India Press. 1902.

Gothoskar, Bharat. ‘Goshta Mumbaichi; Madhya Railway Varil Sthanakanchi Nave Kashi Padli.’ Loksatta Video. June 5, 2021.

‘The First Railways in India’. Indian Railways Fan Club. 2021. Accessed March 2024.

Advait Keni, in conversation with the author, March, 2024.