Kelti Pada

By Anurag

Mumbai is one of the most peculiar cities in the world and is home to a wide range of natural ecosystems and biodiversity, from the open seas, creeks, and rivers to dense jungles. The Sanjay Gandhi National Park, of which Aarey Forest forms a part, is the largest protected forest within a city anywhere in the world.

Aarey is home to numerous Adivasi tribes, such as the Kolis, who have settled in the coastal terrains of the city. Several Adivasi communities have made their homes in various padas or hamlets in these forests, situated in the central region of Mumbai’s contemporary urban landscape, for thousands of years and continue to do so.

Early History

The Mahikavatichi Bakhar is the oldest text on Mumbai, dating back to the fifteenth century. It provides a detailed account of various places in the north Konkan between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This Bakhar mentions Aarey as one of the villages comprising the Marol khapna, or division, under the aegis of an administrator called Rakhmajirao.[1] Aarey is still replete with numerous artefacts dating back to the reign of Shilahara, who ruled this region from the ninth to the twelfth centuries.

Kelti Pada

Prakash Bhoir is a native of Kelti Pada, one of the Adivasi hamlets within the verdant stretch of Aarey colony. He states that there are 222 Adivasi padas in Mumbai, most of which have been cut off from their forest environs due to urban development. The padas within the Aarey colony and the Sanjay Gandhi National Park are the only ones that remain within their once-sylvan settings. The green cover of Aarey Colony has Adivasis belonging to the Warli, Kokna, Malhar Koli, Dhodiya, Dubla, and Katkari tribes, residing within its confines for centuries.

He proudly states that caste is no barrier in the Adivasi community. He cites his own family as an example since he is a Malhar Koli while his wife is a Warli.

Image 1: Entrance to Kelti Pada on the JVLR

Bhoir mentions that the government acquired the Aarey land in 1949, the first instance of the local Adivasi losing full access to their traditional forest land. This loss continued in the following decades as establishments, such as the film city and the SRPF camp, acquired lands in Aarey and banned the Adivasis from utilising their hereditary resources, which had now become private property.

He remembers a time when Kelti Pada was surrounded by perennial sources of drinking water, which have since been lost over the years to the encroaching urban development. Prominent water landmarks were Garelichi Vihir, Futka Talav and Saat Bavdi. Except for the Garelichi Vihir, the other two water bodies are now lost to the Adivasis. He continues that the present-day Majas depot was built by reclaiming a large lake that once existed on that spot. The Adivasis of Kelti Pada and other tribal hamlets used to go there to catch fish, which were abundantly available at the time. The caught fish were later sold in the markets by the Adivasis, providing them with an additional source of income. With the arrival of the bus depot, part of their livelihood was taken away from the Adivasis.

Image 2: Farmland inside Aarey forests with urban high rises in the background

Kelti Pada is one among the numerous Adivasi Padas situated within the ten-acre expanse of Aarey Forest and is surrounded by Damu Pada, Futkya Talyacha Pada and Vanicha Pada. The older families residing in Kelti Pada are the Bhoir, Olambe, Gavit, Page, Thakre, Khandve, Varthe, and Kothari. This tribal hamlet has no particular order to its layout, and the natives identify different areas of their hamlet by the family that resides in that area.

Image 3: Bridge over a stream in Kelti Pada

Religious Life

The Gram Devta of Kelti Pada is the Gaondevi, whose shrine is located in the Devicha Pada near Kelti Pada. There is a local shrine dedicated to Gaondevi within the hamlet, which is used for day-to-day rituals. The annual Jatra in honour of the Gaondevi at Devicha Pada is organised annually on a Sunday prior Diwali, and a goat is sacrificed to her as her maan. The local Gaondevi shrine within Kelti Pada is a relatively quiet place which comes to life during Diwali. The Patil of the Pada has the maan to conduct the Gaondevi pooja on the first day of Diwali. He breaks a coconut in front of the goddess and creates small rice mounds in front of her image, upon which flowers are offered. These mounds are supposed to represent the tribal deities Himaay, Bahram, Gaondev and Vaghdev, along with the forest spirit Raanbhoot. Following this initial ceremony, all the native families offer a coconut to the goddess as part of her annual maan from every household.

Vaghoba is a leopard or tiger divinity worshipped by all Adivasi groups. He is considered the protector of their land and livestock by the Adivasi, and several small shrines to Vaghoba are scattered across Mumbai, Thane and Palghar regions. The leopards who roam freely in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Aarey forests are considered a manifestation of Vaghoba, and there has been no conflict between the leopards and the Adivasis in the long history of their coexistence in these forests. The Adivasis also worship Hirva Dev, a divinity who is the personification of the forest greenery.

Image 4: Green cover inside Aarey Forest

Socio-Cultural Aspects

Bhoir takes pride in the fact that his ancestors lived in harmony with their natural surroundings and, thus, led healthy and contented lives. He continues that with the advent of modernity and urbanisation, the Adivasis are losing touch with their natural surroundings and being dispossessed of their natural heritage, manifesting itself in the declining health of the younger generations of Adivasis. He quotes an example from his own family, saying that his children visit a doctor multiple times a year, while he only avails medical services once a year. In contrast, his parents never had to see a doctor in their lifetime due to the naturally harmonious lives they led. He also shares a few examples to demonstrate the traditional wisdom of his ancestors. The ancestors of the Adivasis inhabiting the National Park were keen observers of the nature around them, which allowed them to predict natural phenomena. If birds made nests in the summer in the central part of a tree on stronger, thicker branches, it was an indicator that heavy rainfall would follow in the upcoming monsoon. If they made nests on the top section of the tree amidst the thinner and scantier branches, it indicated milder rains during the monsoon. When wild sprouting emerged from the ground during late May and early June, it informed them that the rains were just a few days away. Bhoir fondly reminisces on the accuracy of these predictions that he witnessed in his childhood and laments the loss of this indigenous knowledge in the present-day generation of Adivasis.

Another aspect of Adivasi life that Bhoir proudly mentions is the status of women in Adivasi culture. He recalls stating in a cultural forum that if a girl child has the free will to choose the society of her birth, she should go for the Adivasi society. It is the only society where the birth of a child, irrespective of gender, is celebrated with great pomp by the entire community. Widows were also treated as respectable members of society and not shunned or ostracised like others in mainstream Hindu society.

The wedding rituals of the Adivasis are also quite unique. Bhoir says that four traditional elements are central to the Adivasi weddings in Aarey colony, viz. the bhagat or the local shaman, the suvasini or married women, the pancha or the village elders, and the dhavlarins or the community priestesses. These four elements work in harmony to coordinate the wedding ceremony in any Adivasi household. It starts with the boy’s family informing the pancha about their plans to get their son married to a prospective girl from the community they have in mind. Once the boy’s family has informed the pancha, they then visit the bride’s family with the marriage proposal. The formal wedding process begins with the groom’s family uttering the phrase ‘Amhi talag pahaylo aloy!’ or ‘We have come to ask for your girl!’ upon entering the bride’s household.

The girl’s family then begin their own inquiry about the potential groom and his family. Once all their queries are satisfied, they invite the groom’s family over and allow the girl and the boy to interact in their own space. If the girl approves of the boy, the pancha members are informed, and the final pre-wedding ceremony is organised, which consists of both families placing a bottle of spirit in the presence of the pancha members in the girl’s household. The pancha members ask both the girl and the boy for their consensus on their union, and once that is agreed upon, spirit from both bottles is mixed in a vessel and offered to everyone present, and they all share the drink. This is the final part of the pre-wedding ritual, which cements the matrimony forever, as per the Adivasi mores.

The wedding ceremony is celebrated with great pomp by the entire community. Bhoir states that in the olden days, all members from every household participated wholeheartedly in any wedding ceremony in their settlement, undertaking varied responsibilities necessary for the successful completion of the ceremony. An essential part of the Adivasi wedding ritual is drawing the Lagna Chowk. It is a sacred square depicting the Adivasi divinity Palgat, meant to bestow fertility and prosperity on the newly married couple. The suvasinis of the pada draw this holy depiction on the wall of the marriage homes while singing traditional wedding songs. It was traditionally done using age-old Adivasi drawing techniques. A mixture of mud and cow dung is plastered on the wall to create a canvas, and the paint used is a rice flour slurry. The drawing from this technique lasts a few days, eventually disintegrating with ants feeding on the dried rice slurry. Nowadays, many Adivasis have shifted to drawing these symbols with paint as it lasts longer. Once the Lagna Chowk is completed, it is covered with a cloth until the Halad ceremony, which commences a day before the actual wedding. On the day of the Halad, the mama or the maternal uncle has the maan or honour to sit the bride or the groom on their lap, and the family members apply turmeric paste to them.

Image 5: Lagna Chowk depicted on an Adivasi wedding card

All the rituals on the main wedding day are performed in front of the Lagna Chowk. The mandav, or the wedding canopy, is the main element of the Adivasi wedding. In the olden days, the parents of the to-be-wed couple would visit every household in the pada in a ceremony known as Supari. This consisted of the parents formally requesting all the families in the pada to help them with the mandav construction. The families, in return, went into the forests to procure all the required natural materials for erecting the mandav and tending to the remaining rituals. The pada families then constructed the mandav in the courtyard of the marriage home. Amba, or mango, and umbar, or fig, branches are crucial components of the mandav. The amba branches are hung from the periphery of the mandav, while an umbar branch is hung from the centre of the mandav, underneath which an ukhal and musal, or a mortar and pestle, are placed. The families were given alcohol and food in exchange for their help.

An important element that Bhoir highlights here is the Adivasis's reverence towards their surrounding nature. When they go out to forage for different materials, the families always perform a small pooja for the tree, wherein they ritually beseech the spirit of that tree to give its resources for the community's wellbeing and apologise for hurting it in the process. Only after performing this ceremony do the people put the axe to the tree and gather its wood for the community’s needs.

The village bhagat presides over the wedding ritual; however, the most important element is the presence of two dhavlarins. The dhavlarins are mostly widows from the community who become knowledge holders of the details of the wedding rituals. They guide the couple and the families on every ritual that is to be performed in the correct order. The dhavlarins continuously sing traditional wedding hymns. This singing ritual of the dhavlarins lasts for about ninety minutes. Bhoir speaks with awe about the perfect synchronisation of these utterances by the two dhavlarins, where not a single word or phrase goes out of sync between the two. After the wedding ritual, the new bride is welcomed to her marital home with a unique ritual. A plate filled with diluted kunku, or red lime, is placed outside the door, and the bride is supposed to step into it and walk into the home with coloured feet. The mother-in-law guides her new daughter-in-law towards important locations in the house, viz., the chool, or stove, the water storage area, and the granaries. The new bride is believed to be Lakshmi incarnate visiting the household, and she is taken with her coloured feet to these locations to show the goddess these important places so that she may bestow the household with prosperity.

Festive Traditions

Three festivals are predominantly celebrated by the Adivasis of Aarey colony, viz. Holi or Shimga, Gauri, and Diwali. Their celebrations are distinct from the mainstream versions of these festivals and have unique rituals and traits. An essential element of Adivasi celebrations, in Bhoir’s opinion, was the collective singing by the inhabitants of the pada at the outset of these festivities. He fondly recalls the practice where, about ten to fifteen days before the festival date, men and women started singing traditional songs associated with that festival. People sang everywhere, within and outside their homes and in shared communal spaces, and the intensity of the singing increased with every passing day as the festival date inched closer, creating a pure celebratory atmosphere. Bhoir states that back when the families were poorer and had fewer means of sustenance, such traditions kept them immensely happy and contented despite all the hardships. He laments its loss since it was an integral part of his childhood growing up in Kelti Pada.

Holi or Shimga is the most important festival for the Adivasis of Aare. It is divided into two main days viz. Kombad Holi and Mothi Holi. Small bonfires are erected and burnt on the prior. On the day of Mothi Holi, the entire village gathers around a central bonfire, where the Patil of the village presides over the lighting of the bonfire. A small mandap is erected beside the bonfire. Small mounds of rice representing prominent Adivasi divinities are made and worshipped here. An interesting household Shimga custom is related to mangoes. Every family does a small household pooja. This involves consecrating a section of a house wall by applying tilas to the surface, lighting a lamp before it and breaking a coconut in front of this makeshift shrine. Following this, all family members sit together, and the eldest member of the family asks a family member to distribute the coconut and mango pieces to all family members. Once the distribution is done, the elder proclaims that the family can now consume mangoes for that season, and the proclamation is followed by all family members, old and young, hugging each other and touching each other’s feet. The Adivasis of Aarey grow and sell mangoes from their plantations but are not allowed to eat them before this household custom is concluded. They only partake of this seasonal delight after Shimga and the elder’s proclamation.

Gauri is another important festival for the Adivasis and is celebrated during the Ganeshotsav season. The Adivasis veneration of Gauri can be traced back to their primordial worship of the mother goddess, which continues in the form of Gauri pooja. They do not bring any idols of the goddess. Instead, she is represented symbolically by keeping a coconut in a kalash and placing a veni for flower garland on its top, along with Indai flowers native to Aarey. The local belief is that the goddess visits every household during this occasion, and a local tradition known as muthi, or fists, is practised to welcome her. It consists of people dipping the side of the closed fists into a rice flour slurry, imprinting those fists on the household and adding marks on top of this with their fingers to create the image of two feet. A trail is made with the same from the door to the prominent locations within the home, such as the water area, the stove, and the granaries, to show the goddess the way to these areas and bless the family.

Diwali is known as Wagh Baras in the Adivasi tradition. An important tradition on Diwali is the worship of the local Gaondevi and offering her the annual maan of a coconut. On Diwali night, all the village members get together and perform their traditional folk dance to the enchanting tunes of a tarpa, a wind instrument made out of a dried hollow gourd and bamboo. The tarpa player stands in the middle while the people dance in a circle around him. The Adivasi folk dance is always performed in an anti-clockwise direction, which, according to Bhoir, mimics the earth's rotation. Just as Shimga is associated with a communal ceremony for mangoes, Diwali is associated with a similar shared experience with chavli, or black-eyed beans. Once the coconut and boiled chavli beans are shared with every family member, the elder announces that the members can start eating chavli for that season.

Culinary Traditions

The Adivasis of Aarey consume a wide variety of cultivated and wild vegetables, which they regularly forage in the nearby forest. The Adivasi masala is a simple fare consisting of ground chillies, garlic and salt, and this mixture is added to almost all of their curry and gravy preparations. The raan bhaji or phodshi, a wild vegetable which the Adivasis call koli bhaji, is one of their favourite greens. It primarily grows during the monsoon season. The vegetable is so important to them that they perform a small pooja for the first batch of koli bhaji of the season. Kantoli, or spine gourd, is another favourite consumed by all the inhabitants of the Aarey padas. Shevli, or dragon stalk yam, is a raan bhaji eaten with much love by young and old alike. Vaghoti is a bitter round fruit that is made into a vegetable preparation. Chaes are small vines that are foraged during monsoon. The Adivasi diet is replete with raan bhajya or wild vegetables, and Bhoir firmly believes that these raan bhajyas are like vaccines and must be eaten once every year to boost bodily immunity.

An important root that was and is still consumed by the Adivasis is the kadu kand, or bitter root. It is a large bulbous root, which is extremely bitter in its natural state. The Adivasi folk chop it into small discs and cover the pieces with ash. After tying all the ash-covered pieces in a cloth bag, they securely place it overnight in a flowing stream of water. The water drains the excess bitter tannins from the roots and makes them edible. The bag is retrieved the following day, and the pieces are washed again and boiled until they become soft. These processed roots, referred to as vali, are nutritious, filling, and one of the most essential elements of the Adivasi diet, and Bhoir tells us that in the olden days, whenever the community faced food shortages, vali was the food that saved his people in those pressing times.

Another interesting food item is the chich kadi, a curry preparation made from watered-down tamarind pulp, garlic, and household masala. Chich kadi is always accompanied with Suka Bombil, or dry Bombay Duck, and is considered the food that can be eaten when one is ill to help bring back one’s appetite and taste.

The members of the Adivasi community of Aarey are the true protectors of the forests and biodiversity that have existed and sustained these people for thousands of years. They are prime examples demonstrating how humans and nature can coexist peacefully, even in an urban landscape.


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


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

Prakash Bhoir, in discussion with the author, March, 2024.