Koli Jewellery: An Introduction

Introduction

Throughout history, humans have searched for and used various materials to decorate themselves. The materials used to make ornaments have evolved over time from natural sources, like shells, leaves, seeds, bones, and feathers, to processed materials, such as metal, glass, or clay. Precious metals like gold and silver, as well as semi-precious stones like agate, lapis-lazuli, and jasper, have been found during excavations at ancient archaeological sites such as the Harappan sites. Ornaments also carry symbolic significance—from representing social status to protecting the wearer from harm or warding off evil influences. Every region and community in India has its own distinct style of jewellery, differing in type and design across geographic and ethnographic lines. The details of these differences offer insight into the economy, society, and culture of particular periods and regions.

Historically, gold and silver have been the most commonly used metals for the manufacture and production of ornaments. These metals are highly malleable and ductile, allowing them to be shaped into myriad forms. Gold has been a status symbol since time immemorial. It also functions as a symbol of power and wealth.

The Kolis are known to be fond of their gold. This can be seen in how one of their communities is named ‘Son Koli’. This name is believed to have come from the golden colour of bhandara (holy turmeric powder), which is sacred and is a favourite of their god, the Khandoba of Jejuri. ‘Son’ in their language translates to golden.[1] This fondness for gold can be seen in the figurative use of gold in their description of fish: ‘mhavra haay majha sonyavani’ (This fish is my gold).

Historical records are scant in terms of the descriptions of jewellery, ornaments, or accessories worn by the Kolis. This might be because they might not have indulged so much in ornamentation. Jose Gerson Da Cunha mentions that the Koli men wear an iron knife around their necks which they manufacture themselves. These knives served as a distinctive emblem of their tribe.[2] However, such knives have not been observed in the contemporary context.

Reginald Enthoven states that neither Koli men nor women wear anklets. The women wear a heavy silver bracelet (vala) on their right hand. No other ornament is worn on that hand. Enthoven explains that the absence of any adornments on the right hand is a symbol of the agreement between the women and their deity to ensure the protection of the fishermen at sea.[3] In her book ‘Mumbaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal Ani Aaj,’ Surekha Sawant mentions that the vala weighs about 25–50 tola. A tola is a unit of measurement for gold. One tola equals ten grams.[4] She explains that the Koli fisherman is at the sea day and night; his life depends on the tides of the sea. The Koli women offer the chooda (bangle) worn on the right hand to the sea seeking protection from the sea for their husbands. This is the reason behind the saying, ‘ek haath daryala dila’ (gave one hand to the sea). The vala was worn by Koli women some 70–80 years ago, but they are not seen today. Another reason behind wearing just the vala in one hand is that the Koli women use a heavy knife to cut fish. There is a possibility of glass bangles breaking accidentally in the process. To prevent such a mishap, just the silver vala was worn in one hand. It was believed that the vala provided strength to the hand. During marriage, women are adorned with green bangles (hirva chooda). These green bangles are considered a symbol of marital auspiciousness. There are also instances where the richer Koli women would wear two valas on the same hand. Today, the Koli women are seen wearing glass and golden bangles. A widow wears bangles made of gold or silver.[5]

Given below is a list of the jewellery worn by the Koli fishing community.

Jewellery worn by Koli Women:

1) Ketak: A type of ornament/accessory that is worn over a hair bun (ambada). The ambada is a characteristic hairstyle of Koli women. It is a practical hairstyle for women busy with various activities throughout the day. The ketak is made of gold or silver, and looks similar to a modern brooch, though worn on the hair. It is often designed in the shape of rose flowers, buds, and, sometimes, ghungroos (small bells) attached to the ketak. It is used like a hairpin.[6] With the easy availability of plastic and gold-plated brooches, traditional ketaks made of gold or silver are rare. Indian women accessorize their hair with flowers, festoons, or gajras (small flower garlands), usually made from jasmine flowers. Today, one can observe women adorning themselves with artificial flowers and gajras made of plastic or fabric.

2) Gathe: The fish-shaped gold earrings traditionally worn by Koli women are known as gathe, pere, or masole. They weigh about 5–10 grams each (ardha tola/ek tola).[7] The design of these earrings is such that two fish are moulded to form a circle. However, that is not the only design they come in. Some of these gathe are hollow; they are filled with cotton, while others that are not hollow are filled with gold or wax. They are presented to brides by their parents on their wedding day and are supposed to be worn by them throughout their lives. The practice of wearing these earrings has gone out of style, and only older Koli women still wear them. Because of the heft of these earrings, the earlobes of older women donning them would become elongated.[8] [9]

3) Karapli/Kaap: Karapli or kaap are big stud earrings made of gold. This is the most common type of earring worn by Koli women. They come in various sizes and patterns.[10] Studs shaped like or representing a flower design are called kudi.

4) Bugri: Bugri are studs made of gold that are worn on the helix, part of the upper ear. These are also called bugadi.[11]

5) Moti: The moti is a gold nose pin traditionally worn by Koli women. It is typically studded with green, violet, or red gemstones and measures about half an inch.[12] Some women also wear fish-shaped nose pins, which have become available in the market in recent times.[13]

a) Nakatli vali: Also known as mot or morki, the nakatli vali is a big circular nose ring made of gold. Koli women today are not seen wearing such nose rings.[14]

b) Nath: The nath is a typical Maharashtrian nose pin. Sawant mentions that the practice of wearing the nath came later (when compared to the moti). It is made up of 21 pearls and has a red or a green gemstone in between. Traditionally, a female receives the nath from her mother’s home (maher). The nose is symbolic of respect and status. The understanding behind receiving a nath from the maher is to prevent the daughter’s dignity from falling into someone else’s hands, thereby protecting the family’s dignity.[15]

6) Vajrik: The vajrik looks like a band woven out of gold beads. It is also called vajratika or thusi and is worn close to the neck like a choker.[16]

a) Lakfak haar/jhilmil haar: The lakfak haar or jhilmil haar is a sparkling golden neckpiece that is worn close to the neck like a choker.[17] [18]

b) Chichpeti/Chinchpeti: A chichpeti can be described as an ornament made of small golden boxes fitted on a piece of cloth worn around the neck. The cloth would have been cut to the measurement of the woman who would wear it so that it fit closely around the neck.[19]

c) Mohan maal: A mohan maal is a chain of gold beads with 5–10 strands. It is 24–30 inches long and is a favourite among the Koli women.[20]

d) Bormaal: The bormaal is a chain made up of golden beads shaped like the bor fruit (Indian jujube). It is 24–26 inches long.[21]

e) Paachucha haar: The paachucha haar is a gold necklace with red gemstones in the middle. It was prominent in olden times and is not worn as much today.[22] In Marathi, paachu translates to emerald. However, it is possible that the word ‘paachu’ here refers to the red gemstones.

f) Putlyancha haar: A putli is a flat golden coin that may or may not be decorated with motifs. The motifs usually depict the goddess Laxmi. A putlyancha haar is a necklace made up of 8–10 putlya (coins), but the number varies according to the wealth one possesses. The number of putlya in the necklace is suggestive of how rich the wearer is.[23]

g) Laxmi haar: A Laxmi haar is a necklace with a depiction of Laxmi on the pendant, the putlya, or other elements of the necklace.[24]

h) Thauja/dorla: Worn by married women, it is a thick mangalsutra with multiple strands of black beads. A thauja normally has five or nine strands of woven black beads and is also known as manimagalsut.[25] [26]

i) Kanthi: A kanthi is a neck ornament comprising three to eight layers or strands of gold chains with two asymmetrical pendants. These pendants depict figures of deities, fish or names of children, grandparents and parents. [27] [28] The kanthi necklace is characteristic of Koli women and is worn by men as well.

j) Mangalsutra: The mangalsutra consists of multiple strands of black beads that are offset by gold beads. The Koli women wear a long and heavy gold mangalsutra, typically referred to as a gathla.[29] Some have pendants of fish or shells included as well.[30]

7) Patlya: The golden bangles worn with the hirva chooda are called patlya.[31] The design of these bangles is such that small hexagons or rectangles appear all around the arc of the bangle. These bangles are either plain or inscribed with designs. Widows usually wear patlya without any other bangles or with glass bangles of colours, typically blue or light green, other than the usual dark green worn by married women. Golden bangles of various designs supplement the hirva chooda of Koli women today.

8) Gaath: A gaath is a kada (bracelet) with protruding designs on the outer side. It can be opened with the help of a key (a screw). Once open, it can be worn and locked again. This ornament is called gokhar in Marathi.[32]

9) Dolyachi bangdi: The dolyachi bangdi is another type of bangle worn by widows. The design on these bangles look like human eyes (dolyachi), hence the name. They were made of glass or porcelain (cheeni maati).[33]

10) Rings: Silver rings with a pearl studded in them were worn earlier. People have taken to wearing gold rings now.[34]

11) Kamarpatta: Kamarpatta refers to a silver band worn around the waist. It was given to a woman by her mother’s house and came in varying designs and weights.[35]

12) Polare: Big anklets with ghongroo that ring as the wearer walks are called polare. These are typically worn during festivities and are given to a woman by her mother’s family.[36]

13) Masoli: Masoli are fish-shaped toe rings worn on the second toe.[37]

14) Jodvi: Jodvi are big silver toe rings worn on the third toe.[38] They are usually worn by married women.

15) Tode: Worn above the polare, the tode are feet bracelets that weigh around 20–25 tola, almost half a kilogram. Unlike the polare, they were worn daily. Tode are given to a woman by her in-laws.[39]

Image 1: Gathe (notice the elongated earlobes)
Image 2: Patlya
Image 3: An example of hirva chooda worn with golden bangles by modern day Koli women

Jewellery worn by Koli Men:

Although limited in their jewellery choices, the Koli men are also seen decked up in gold jewellery. In the olden times, a few Koli men also wore gathe in their ears.[40] [41] The Gazetteer reports that the Kolis of Alibaug, Danda, Versova and Mandwa wear armlets on their left wrists and that the Son Kolis wearing bangles on both wrists.[42] On occasions like weddings and during festivals, Koli men can be seen wearing the kanthi.

1) Kurkya: Kurkya are earrings worn on the helix of the upper ear. These are also known as bali.[43]

2) Chain: A chain with a locket shaped like a tiger claw (vagh nakh) was seldom used.[44] Today, Koli men can be seen wearing gold chains of various designs, lengths, and thicknesses. Some have a fish or the image of a deity as the locket.[45]

3) Kargota: A kargota is a waistband made of silver.[46]

The Koli men wore silver rings. Although very rare, a few men wore valas on their legs.[47] Silver valas were also worn by Koli women on their feet.[48]

Jewellery worn by Children

The children donned a chain and a ring. In earlier times, children wore a small bali on their ears. The boys wore a silver kargota around their waist, and the girls wore polare and vala on their feet. [49]

The Kolis were taught to fish by their forefathers, each generation learning from the previous one. Most of them depended on the sea for their livelihood, so education was not always a priority. The only ways of investing their earnings were in the form of gold and in their fishing boats. If their fishing business was not doing well, the Kolis could procure loans on the gold thus providing for their needs.[50] The finances of the Kolis are dependent on the amount of catch and the price they sell their catch for. These are subject to several factors making their income unpredictable. In such a situation, gold items are the best form of investment as gold retains its intrinsic value.

Nowadays, chain snatching and robbery are not uncommon phenomena. Wearing gold puts one at risk. As such, it is not always feasible to wear their traditional jewellery on a daily basis. However, they can be found all decked up on festive occasions like Narali Pornima, Shimga (Holi), Gauri Ganpati or during weddings. Over the years, there has been a high demand for gold, and gold prices have witnessed a remarkable surge.[51] Faux gold imitations of classic Koli jewellery are now on the market and attracting consumers.[52] Faux gold is cheaper and more affordable compared to gold. It also allows the consumer to upgrade to newer designs without spending as much.

For Koli women, gold is a repository of their wealth. Some ornaments are passed down from one generation to the next generation as family heirlooms. In recent times, the shift from gold to imitation jewellery can be attributed to a change in time and economic constraints.


Footnotes:

[1] Harad and Joglekar, ‘A Study of Fish Symbolism in the Son Koli Community of Mumbai.’ 121

[2] Da Cunha, The Origin of Bombay, 40

[3] Enthoven, The Tribes and castes of Bombay Vol. II, 257

[4] What is tola? Why gold is measured in tola?, The Times of India

[5] Sawant, Mubaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal ani Aaj, 26-27

[6] Ibid., 25

[7] Ibid.

[8] Harad and Joglekar, ‘A Study of Fish Symbolism in the Son Koli Community of Mumbai’, 125-6

[9] Mumbaikar Folks, Satya Kahani – Koli aajichya kaanatil sonyachya gaathyanchi, Youtube Video

[10] A conversation with Damyanti Dawne of Versova Koliwada

[11] Sawant, Mubaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal ani Aaj, 25

[12] Ibid.

[13] Harad and Joglekar, ‘A Study of Fish Symbolism in the Son Koli Community of Mumbai’, 126

[14] Mumbaikar Folks, Kolis of Bombay, Year 1965-75 Old Video Culture/ Koli samaj pehrav va puratan daagine, YouTube Video

[15] Sawant, Mubaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal ani Aaj, 25

[16] Ibid., 26

[17] Mumbaikar Folks, Traditional Koli Jewellery attire at Versova Koli Sea Food Fest 2024, YouTube Shorts

[18] Mumbaikar Folks, Koli Mahila Sonyache daagine ka ghaalte? Koli daagine Vividh june navin prakar – why koli women fond of gold, YouTube video

[19] Sawant, Mubaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal ani Aaj, 26

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] A conversation with Damyanti Dawne of Versova

[25] Sawant, Mubaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal ani Aaj, 26

[26] Mumbaikar Folks, Koli Mahila Sonyache daagine ka ghaalte? Koli daagine vividh june navin prakar – why koli women fond of gold, YouTube Video

[27] Ibid.

[28] Harad and Joglekar, ‘A Study of Fish Symbolism in the Son Koli Community of Mumbai’, 126

[29] Mumbaikar Folks, Koli Mahila Sonyache daagine ka ghaalte? Koli daagine Vividh june navin prakar – why koli women fond of gold, YouTube video

[30] Harad and Joglekar, ‘A Study of Fish Symbolism in the Son Koli Community of Mumbai’, 126

[31] Sawant, Mubaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal ani Aaj, 27

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Mumbaikar Folks, Kolis of Bombay, Year 1965-75 Old Video Culture/ Koli samaj pehrav va puratan daagine, YouTube Video

[41] Edwards, The Gazetteer of the Bombay City and Island 1, 230

[42] Ibid.

[43] Sawant, Mubaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal ani Aaj, 27

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Mumbaikar Folks, Satya Kahani – Koli aajichya kaanatil sonyachya gaathyanchi, Youtube Video

[49] Sawant, Mubaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal ani Aaj, 28

[50] Mumbaikar Folks, Koli Mahila Sonyache daagine ka ghaalte? Koli daagine Vividh june navin prakar – why koli women fond of gold, Youtube video

[51] Why Gold Prices is Increasing in India?, IIFL Finance

[52] Jaisinghani, Now, Kolis don’t just bank on gold, The Times of India

Bibliography:

Damyanti Dawne (resident of Versova Koliwada), in conversation with the author, February 2024.

Books:

1) Da Cunha, José Gerson. The Origin of Bombay. Vol. 20 of Journal of Asiatic Society of Bombay. Society's Library, 1900.

2) Edwards, S. M. The Gazetteer of the Bombay City and Island 1. Cosmo Publications, 1909.

3) Enthoven, Reginald Edward. The Tribes and Castes of Bombay 2. Printed at the Government Central Press, 1922.

4) Sawant, Surekha. Mumbaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal Ani Aaj. Dimple Publication, 2007.

Journal Articles:

Harad, Pranita A., and P. P. Joglekar. "A Study of Fish Symbolism in the Life of the Son Koli Community of Mumbai." Bulletin of the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute 77 (2017): 121–130.

E-newspaper articles:

1) Jaisinghani, Bella. “Now, Kolis don’t just bank on gold,” The Times of India, August 5, 2009

2) “What is tola? Why gold is measured in tola?”

The Times of India, September 25, 2017, Updated: April 16, 2020

Web Articles:

1) LeGrand, Douglas S. “Early History of Jewelry: Ancient Times to the 17th Century.” International Gem Society.

2) “A History of Silver in Jewelry.” Lang Antiques and Estate Jewellery

3) “The History of Jewelry Metals,” M. S. Rau, November 11, 2022

4) “Why Is Gold Price Increasing in India 2024?” IIFL Finance 15 February 2024

YouTube Videos:

1) Ramle, Mohit. “कोळी महिला सोन्याचे दागिने का घालते? कोळी दागिने विविध जुने नवीन प्रकार -Why koli women fond of Gold” Mumbaikar Folks by Mohit Ramle, Youtube video. January 31, 2023. https://youtu.be/vr4cXYzu0EQ?si=AtV5AuhO2ptEqL8W

2) Ramle, Mohit. “#kolis of Bombay - Year 1965 to 1975 #Old Video Culture/कोळी समाज,पेहराव व पुरातन दागिने #ShortFilm” Mumbaikar Folks by Mohit Ramle, YouTube video. April 3, 2021. https://youtu.be/KwdyTWIa2DQ?si=j1LdmaD4kuW2lBAn

3) Ramle, Mohit. “सत्य कहानी - कोळी आजीच्या कानातील सोन्याच्या गाठ्यांची #indigenous Tribal #jewellery #Koli #earrings” Mumbaikar Folks by Mohit Ramle, Youtube Video. September 21, 2021. https://youtu.be/UQfiCjWnkO8?si=M--axjFLQg8ouVk-

4) Ramle, Mohit. “Traditional Koli Jewellery attire at Versova Koli Sea Food Fest 2024.” Mumbaikar Folks by Mohit Ramle, YouTube Shorts. January 22, 2024. https://youtube.com/shorts/u-DjEcnRcVQ?si=YoLy0OaSejnUNObF