Dharavi Koliwada

By Anurag

The word Dharavi conjures up images of vast sprawls of unorganized housing, with the notorious title of the largest slum in Asia. However, like everywhere, Dharavi has more than meets the eye. On a casual stroll from one of the entry points of the settlement, one stumbles across the quaint Koliwada of Dharavi. Visually distinct from the other areas of the Dharavi, this part of modern Dharavi was once the aboriginal fishing village on the banks of the Mithi River and Mahim Creek, which gave its name to the entire locality that grew around it.

Image 1: A view of a lane inside Dharavi Koliwada.

Early History and Social Constitution

Digambar Koli, a Dharavi native and secretary of the Dharavi Koli Jamaat Trust, states that the Koliwada of Dharavi is at least two hundred years old according to documented records, and about four to five hundred years old according to oral traditions. He explains that Dharavi got its name because it is situated along the dhara (flow) of the Mithi River.

The traditional expanse of Dharavi Koliwada was marked by different shrines of guardian deities located at different directions on its frontiers. The shrine of Khambadev marked its eastern limit, while the local crematorium, along with the shrines of Kharpya Keradev and Keryadev, was situated on its southern end. The shrine of Vetaleshwar sat on its south western edge, and the shrine of Hapshyadev marked its northern boundary.

Patil, Koli, Dharavikar, Kini, Keni, and Vaity are the older families that have called Dharavi Koliwada home for many centuries. Koli mentions that the local criteria for identifying native families, as opposed to migrant ones, are the Dev Taaks. These are images of Khandoba, Ekvira, and other divinities important to the Kolis, embossed on silver sheets and worshipped in the household shrines. Koli adds that houses with the taaks of Khandoba and Ekvira are recognized as the original families of Dharavi Koliwada, totalling 28 in number.

Image 2: A family shrine in Dharavi Koliwada.

Dharavi Koliwada is divided into various gallis (lanes), mostly named after important local individuals, families, and religious places. Prominent examples are the Dolya Bhagat Gall, and Devjya Bhagat Galli named after important eponymous bhagats (shamans), Datta Mandir Galli named after an important Datta Temple, J. J. Kini Galli named after the first secretary of the Dharavi Koli Jamaat Trust, and Budhaji Shimge Galli named after a celebrated Koli folk singer from Dharavi. He was also a member of the first cultural delegation sent by Maharashtra for the Republic Day parade in Delhi, where he even got Jawaharlal Nehru dancing to the peppy tunes of Koli folk music.

Image 3: The Dharavi Koli Jamaat Trust Office.

The population of Dharavi Koliwada consists of about 65 percent Christian Kolis and 35 percent Hindu Kolis. Despite their religious differences, both Hindu and Christian Koli participate together in all socio-cultural celebrations in the Koliwada.

A unique social concept in Dharavi Koliwada is the Thal. It is a group of select members from the extended family that manages and coordinates every socio-cultural event or function on behalf of their larger family. This structure ensures that numerous Thals in Dharavi work together to keep the local socio-cultural activities thriving through their coordinated efforts.

Image 4: A Christian Koli house in Dharavi Koliwada.
Image 5: A family cross in Dharavi Koliwada.

The traditional Koliwadas for marital relations of Dharavi Koliwada included Trombay, Shivdi, Mandvi (now displaced), Worli, Khardanda, Madh, and Malvani.

Religious Landscape

Khambadev is the Gram Devta of Dharavi Koliwada, and his temple is located at the eastern end of Dharavi. Koli shares an interesting legend associated with the deity. Many centuries ago, the original sthan (spot) of Khambadev was in Khadi or the creek that flows beside Dharavi Koliwada. He once appeared in the dream of Lambu Bhagat, who was the local shaman of Dharavi, and asked him to move him from his spot in the creek and establish him in a temple outside of the gaon ves (village boundary). Following this vision, Lambu Bhagat spread the word in the village, and people went to move the image, but despite the efforts of multiple men, the image did not budge from its spot. The deity again appeared in Lambu Bhagat’s dream and informed him to place him on a banana leaf and shift him from his spot. The following day, the Bhagat did as was advised to him, and he moved the image on his own without the help of others. Thus, Khambadev was established in its present-day location through this divine visitation. He is considered to be a Brahman by the natives, and his appearance is said to be that of a priest. He is also the rakhandar (guardian) of the village and patrols the Koliwada every night, mounted on his white horse. An interesting detail of his aura is that he emanates sandalwood fragrance from wherever he passes, and the locals identify his presence in the night by this fragrance.

Khambadev is accompanied by his companion Vagheshwar, whose image sits beside Khambadev in his temple. Vagheshwar follows Khambadev in all his nightly patrols and other divine duties. Another fascinating anecdote associated with this deity is that he prefers to stay open to the elements, and the locals have a saying which goes, ‘To unhat rahto pan amhala chappar deto!’ meaning ‘he stays without a roof but provides us with a roof!’ Women are not allowed in the temple of Khambadev, except on the day of Nag Panchami when women offer milk on the images Khambadev and Vagheswar, as the locals believe that he also takes the form of a serpent which often visits the temple.

Veshivarche Dev or frontier deities are also an important element of Dharavi Koliwada’s religious landscape, and they guard the Koliwada from their shrines, which sit on the various entry points of Dharavi Koliwada.

The annual jatra (religious fair) of Khambadev is organized on Chaitra Pornima which falls in April. Since Khambadev is considered to be Brahman, he is offered vegetarian oblations of fruits known locally as phalanchi tali (fruits platter). A sacrifice of a goat is offered on behalf of the entire Koliwada to Vagheshwar, which is performed outside the temple; following which sacrifices from individual households consisting of goats and chickens take place. Some villagers also fling the chickens into the air to set them free, as an offering to Vagheshwar. The goat liver, after the sacrifice to Vagheshwar, is chopped into tiny pieces known as tirpan and offered to all the villagers as prasad (sacred offering of food).

The annual sacrifice or maan of the Veshivarche Dev happens in the month of Ashadh (June/July in the Gregorian calendar) before the Deep Amavasya. It consists of a ram being sacrificed in honour of the guardian deities of the Dharavi Koliwada.

There is an intriguing ceremony in Dharavi is known as the Langdi Thoti ceremony, an esoteric ceremony in the honour and propitiation of the spirits that inhabit the local landscape. The Langdi Thoti ceremony takes place in the month of Bhadrapad (August and September of the Gregorian calendar) before Navratri and is performed on the Gaon Poojan (village ceremonial) land outside the Koliwada. Every household contributes a portion of meat or other non-vegetarian items to be offered to the spirits. A group of select individuals conduct the ceremony, wherein the individual contributions from each household are collected and distributed into various vatas (shares) to be offered to different spirits. All throughout the ceremony, the chants of ‘Langdi Thodi jevay ye! Maan thevilay khavayla ye!’ or ‘O disabled ones come for the feast! Your offering has been kept, come over to eat!’ These vatas are kept at seven to eight different locations across the Koliwada, which are believed to be the spots of these spirits, and the procession then heads to the Gaon Poojan land where it is concluded, where the last vata is offered near the water body for the spirits inhabiting that spot.

The event called Kurusachi Vaat happens before Christmas in December. It consists of local Christian Kolis reenacting the Passion of Jesus, when he was paraded as the King of Jews through the streets of Jerusalem and eventually crucified. The locals take up the roles of Jesus, his companions, Roman soldiers, onlookers etc., and parade throughout the Koliwada, culminating with the act of crucifixion near the local chapel. Dharavi might be one of the few Koliwadas where such reenactments of the Passion of Christ take place.

Fishing Practices

Dharavi, situated at the confluence of Mithi River and Mahim Creek, has always been a creek fishing Koliwada. Before the construction of Bandra Kurla Complex, the Mahim Creek in the neighbourhood of Dharavi was a wide water body with abundant marine life, promising the local Kolis an abundant daily catch.

The most utilized fishing technique was the bhise, which involved erecting nets along a specific stretch in the creek, supported by wooden poles, with boats placed at regular intervals behind the net. The tidal inflow in the creek would push fish into this net, and some fishes which jump out of the water to escape this frenzy would land in the boats behind the nets, where they were picked up by the fishermen. Paag (cast net) was another popular technique for fishing, as the wide creek provided abundant space for the local Kolis to cast their large paags onto the water surface, trapping multitudes of fish. The creek bed beside Dharavi was particularly abundant in a variety of crab species due to the mangrove forests acting as a crab nursery. They were caught using the phaga, which are circular crab cages with a narrow a opening. Dharavi Koliwada was and still is renowned for its green crab, also known as mangrove crabs, which are large and a popular sea food item in many Koli families.

In the present-day, with half of the Mahim Creek’s catchment area lost to the Bandra Kurla Complex and the rampant pollution of the Mithi River, the Kolis of Dharavi have adapted to fishing in artificial ponds created in the creek area within the mangrove stretch. The fisherfolk create an artificial lake and allow it to be flooded during high tide, after which it is closed off by erecting embankments along its shores. The high tide also brings in a variety of fish species, including grown adults, larvae, and fish eggs, which are allowed to further mature within the artificial lake, and later fished out when they reach a desirable growth, using paags.

Crabs within these artificial fishing ponds are caught using the Phaga and an indigenous technique known as chapne. It consists of the fisherman squatting in the pond waters till waist level, progressing on the pond floor by placing both their hands on the pond bed to trace for crabs along the way. Once they feel the lower section of the crab, they lift it from its belly to avoid being bitten by the crab claws and place it onto their boats.

The prominent fish species that are found in the waters near Dharavi are kale mase (black snapper), shegate (catfish), chivnya, chimbori (crabs), kolambi (prawns), nivtya (mudskippers), varashi, and shivlya (clams).


Shimga or Holi is the biggest festival of the year for the Dharavi Kolis, celebrated over a period of 15 days, starting from the Paush Amavasya (auspicious day in the month of Paush). The main Holi event in Dharavi is organized on the Holicha maidan (Holi ground). According to Koli, the Kolis of Dharavi view Holi as a visit from Laxmi to her maternal abode for the festivities, treating her as a beloved bride returning home. An interesting custom tied to this belief is the Madkyancha Aher, where women from Dharavi balance multiple pots on their heads, and parade in procession towards the Holicha maidan. After circumambulating the bonfire five times, they ceremoniously offer these pots into the Holi fire. These pots symbolize gifts from the maternal home for the visiting Goddess. Traditionally, Shimga is regarded as a festival primarily for the Koli women, who revel in the communal celebrations with complete participation.

Image 6: Entrance to the Holicha maidan.
Image 7: Holicha maidan in Dharavi Koliwada.

The customs of Pendhari and Songa are also an integral part of the local Shimga tradition. Men dressed up in bales of hay from head to toe wander through the lanes of Dharavi Koliwada as part of the Pendhari custom, while both children and adults partake in fancy dress celebrations during the Songa festivities. The wood of amba (mango), jambul (jamun), and eranda (eucalyptus) are used to erect the Holi bonfire. The bonfire on the 14th day of Kombad Holi is made solely from eranda wood, while the Mothi Holi is crafted using amba and jambul wood. Lighting the Holi fire is an honour reserved for the Patil of the Koliwada, with the direction of the bonfire carrying significant importance as it is believed to indicate the direction of a bountiful catch, guided by the Goddess.

A distinctive feature of the Dharavi Shimga in the past was the organization of Hodyanchi Sharyat (boat races), conducted during a time when the Mahim Creek was wider and cleaner. Koli mentions that until the 1950s, boat races formed an integral part of Shimga celebrations in Dharavi, with various teams formed by the native Kolis competing in the waters of Mahim Creek for victory in the Shimga boat race. Additionally, kabaddi games during Shimga are another festive tradition associated with the Holi celebrations in Dharavi.

Gauri Ganpati is also an important local celebration, with households welcoming the mother-son divinities into their homes for varying durations ranging from one and half, three, five, seven, and 10 days. Gauri is welcomed on the third day, and a naivedya (food offering) of chimbori (crabs) is offered to her as part of the festive ritual.

Navratri is also widely celebrated by Dharavi Kolis, with each household performing the Ghata Sthapana, involving the planting seeds in a vessel and allowing them to sprout for the nine days of Navratri, highlighting its importance as a fertility festival dedicated to the mother Goddess.

During Diwali, Dharavi Koliwada observes a unique tradition known as Kachra. It is celebrated on the day following Laxmi Poojan, wherein families engage in dusting their homes and gather the collected dust at a common public spot, often the Holicha maidan A diya (oil lamp) is then lit in front of the mound of collected dust, setting it ablaze.

A Christian celebration called the Kurusacha Sann, or the Cross’s Festival, is observed during the last week of May. It involves a communal mass at the local chapel which is attended by both Christian and Hindu Kolis. Koli explains that it always rains on the day of Kurusacha Sann, and the locals believe that rainfall on this day is a guaranteed phenomenon.

Image 8: The local chapel in Dharavi Koliwada.

Culinary Tradition

The Kolis of Dharavi inherits the renowned Koli cuisine, known for its flavourful and delectable dishes. Koli shares that Bambuke bombil (semi-dried Bombay ducks), is a favourite among the locals, often prepared as aatavni, a dry gravy preparation. Fried fish of various kinds is a staple in every household of Dharavi Koliwada. Another dish Koli mentions is the vamachi gabholi (eel egg sacks), which are sliced into small pieces and fried with the traditional Koli masala.

Like in other Koliwadas, many of the traditional dishes in Dharavi are associated with social functions. Gholicha ambat (sour curry made from black-spotted croaker) is prevalent in many of the local Koli weddings, as the main star of the wedding feast. Godache vade (sweet fried bread), is another wedding essential distributed throughout the locality by the wedding household. Phuge (fried puffed bread made from slightly sweet and fermented dough) is also a wedding specialty. Vanga javla bhaji (brinjal and dried shrimp gravy) is also an important dish prepared for Halad and the wedding day.

A quintessential element of Koli cuisine in every Koliwada, including Dharavi, is the tandlachya rotya (rice flatbread) traditionally made on a khaprya (clay griddle).

Despite facing multiple urban challenges, the Kolis of Dharavi Koliwada remain immensely proud of their centuries-old cultural heritage and are actively undertaking measures to safeguard and preserve this heritage.


The author would like to thank Advait Kini for his assistance with the research.


Digambar Koli, in conversation with the author, March, 2024.