Madh Koliwada

By Anurag

Certain places achieve an iconic status in the public consciousness owing to numerous factors, including the media. Different areas in a particular geography become part of the common lore. However, these often become cursory curiosities for most, without actual knowledge of the proverbial iceberg of the local culture that has been thriving there since time immemorial. One such place in the urban landscape of Mumbai that is known by many is Madh island. The submerged part of this iceberg is the Koliwada of Madh, which has been a major cultural driver in this part of the city.

Early History

Kiran Koli, a native of Madh Koliwada and a researcher of local history, states that the Mahikavatichi Bakhar, a chronicle of the city of Mumbai from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, mentions that Raja Bimba visited the shrines of Harba Devi and Mukteshwar in Madh in the thirteenth century when he entered this region for the first time. From Mukteshwar he sailed to Mahikavati, present-day Mahim, and set up his fabled capital there.[1]

Koli suggests that the name Madh stems from the word medh, which refers to tidal marshlands. The Portuguese, who came to be in possession of Mumbai after the 1534 Treaty of Bassein, realized the strategic importance of Madh and built a fort, Fort Vasai, that still stands overlooking the Arabian Sea. It was one of the largest and most important forts built during the Portuguese rule of Mumbai. The Marathas, who ousted the Portuguese in 1739, acquired Madh and its fort, which remained in their control until the Treaty of Salbai in 1782, which ceded the island of Sashti (Salsette), along with the nearby island of Madh, to the British.

The British were impressed by Madh's idyllic landscape and built numerous government offices and residential quarters on the island. After World War II broke out in 1939, the British evacuated the Madh Koliwada to build a Royal Air Force base, anticipating an airborne invasion by the Axis powers. The land acquired by the erstwhile defence ministry remains in the possession of the Indian Defence Ministry and continues to house an Indian Air Force station to this day.

Madh Koliwada

The Madh Koliwada of Madh is situated on the south side of the present-day peninsula that was once an island off the west coast of Sashti. The British-era map of Mumbai (see below) refers to it as Mhar. It is strategically located, with the open sea to its west and the creek to its east, which gave the local Kolis plenty of area to fish in.

Image 1: 1893 map of Mumbai showing 'Mhar' to the northwest of the city. Image courtesy: Wikipedia

It is a considerably large Koliwada divided into numerous padas or gaons and gallis; like Dongar Pada, Vatar Galli, Madhla Pada, Bhotkar Galli, Darya Galli, Vandre Galli, Nava Nagar, Navpada, Lochar Gaon, Paat Wadi, Dhondi Pada, Oscar Wadi, Christian Galli, Marathi Aali etc. Some of these names have sprung up due to the natural elements present in those surroundings. Darya Galli was the closest to the sea, hence its name, darya being the word for sea in the local dialect. The fibres of coconut trees are known as paatya in the local dialect, which were used to cover the boats when they were docked. The settlement with numerous coconut trees from where these paatyas were sourced came to be known as Paat Wadi.

A unique feature of Madh Koliwada is that every settlement, i.e., each Pada, Wadi, and Galli, has its own distinct flag, known as paar in the native dialect. These paars are important local markers in the Koliwada and are crucial to maintaining the local rules and regulations.

Image 2: An overview of the market area of Madh Koliwada from the Harba Devi temple.

Fishing Practices

Most Madh Kolis practice open-sea fishing. It is referred to as sthir masemari by the locals. The most utilised technique in open-sea fishing is kavechi masemari, or bag net fishing. It involves piling large logs of wood or metal poles known as khunt on the sea floor and securing nets or dols between these. The tidal movement drags and traps the fish into these bag nets, which are then fished out by the fishermen. Kavechi masemari is a labour-intensive process and requires several people to put the net structure in place. In the old days, men sang together to entertain and motivate each other while engaging in this demanding work. These singing sessions were known as ambavnis, and Koli says that many of the popular Koli folk songs of today actually started their life as ambavnis sung by the Koli men at sea.[2]

Madh Koliwada is one of the few places where selling dried fish is prioritised over fresh fish. About 70 per cent of the overall catch is dried on the multiple fish drying racks, or valands, dotting the Madh coast, while only 30 per cent of the catch is sold fresh. Historically, the dried fish from Madh was procured by Memon merchants from Gujarat and merchants from South India. Koli states that even today, the Kolis of Madh have familial relations with the merchant families who have been procuring and selling dried fish from Madh for many decades now. The majority of the dried fish produce of Madh is taken to be sold off at the Marol wholesale dried fish market.

Image 3: Valands or fish drying racks in Madh Koliwada.

A unique and prominent product of Madh Koliwada is the kuta. It is a mix of small prawns and shrimps, which is dried and sold as fertilizer and animal feed, particularly to the poultry industry.

Image 4: Dried kuta being sorted and packed in Madh Koliwada.

The main types of fish caught in the waters of Madh are makhli (squids), lepti (sole), vakti (ribbon fish), bombil (Bombay duck), and, occasionally, ghol (blackspotted croaker) as well as four to five types of prawns, including karadi (baby prawns).

Religious Landscape

The fabled Harba Devi is the Gram Devta of Madh. Koli narrates a fascinating local myth regarding the arrival of Harba Devi on the shores of Madh. There was once a king in the Mewad region who had seven daughters and one son. The king decided to marry off his daughters against their wishes, ignoring their protests. The sisters then urged their brother Vetal to help them out of this conundrum. Vetal built a boat and smuggled his sisters in the dark of the night through a river that flowed nearby. Upon entering the ocean, the boat got stuck in a storm, and the siblings were shipwrecked on the coastline of north Konkan. One of the sisters, Shitala, reached the shores of Kelve Mahim, where she became Shitala Devi; another sister Sopan, landed on the shores of Sopara and established herself as Sopan Devi; Hira reached the shores of Erangal and became known as Hira Devi; Harba and Harda established themselves at Madh; Mot Mauli settled at Bandra; Padmavati landed at Walkeshwar; and Vetal found himself on the island of Khanderi.[3]

Image 5: Harba Devi temple
Image 6: The central images of the goddesses in Harba Devi temple

When viewed from an anthropological perspective, this local legend explains the distribution of the Koli community along this geographical stretch from Kelve Mahim in the north to Alibag and Khanderi in the south.

Image 7: Fish maidens decorating the entrance pillars at Harba Devi temple

An important shrine in Madh is the dargah of Hazrat Saiyad Hussein Nizamuddin, a Sufi saint locally known as Pir Baba, situated on Ambu Bet, an island off the coast of Madh. An interesting local legend connects Harba Devi and the Sufi saint. As the story goes, when the sisters Harba and Harda were entering Madh, they rested on a rocky island known to locals as Kasha, where they were stopped at the shore by the Pir Baba, who asked them to go back. Upon asking why he wanted them to leave, the Pir replied that the sisters were too powerful and that the locals would shift all their devotion to them, forgetting his existence in the process. Hearing the Pir’s concern, the divine sisters assured him that his importance would not be altered by their presence in the village and that the locals would continue to offer the first honour of the day to him. Since then, all the fishing vessels in Madh make their first offering of the day, i.e., an honorary coconut on the shrine of Pir Baba, when they set out to the sea, and upon returning to the shores, they offer an oblation at the shrine of Harba Devi.

Image 8: The dargah (seen at the far right) of Ambu Bet

An annual Gondhal in honour of Harba Devi is organised by the Madh inhabitants on the first Tuesday following Hanuman Jayanti. The Gondhal of Harba Devi also has an interesting legend associated with it, as Koli shares. After all the siblings safely landed on the shores and established themselves with their local communities, Harba Devi decided to organise a feast to celebrate the safe landing and the newfound lives of her siblings. She invited all of them to Madh and arranged for a tikhtacha jevan, or non-vegetarian feast. Vetal, who had to come all the way from Khanderi, grew hungry and ate some food before the actual feast. When the food was ready and about to be served, Vetal told his sister of his folly and that he was too full to eat. The considerate sister told him that she would bring his share of the food to his home, and following that tradition, the natives perform a sacrifice to the shrine of Vetal at Khanderi during the annual Gondhal celebrations of Madh.[4]

During this time, the Kolis of Madh also perform a Kaul ceremony at the Vetal shrine. The ceremony consists of placing two flowers on both the arms of the Vetal image and saying the phrase ‘Sukh sheracha!’ meaning ‘Bless us with a bountiful catch!’ The attendees then ask the god for the number of udhaan, or high tide periods, consisting of fifteen days that they will have in that particular fishing season. The assembly begins with a higher number and waits for the deity’s approval on a particular number. For example, the crowd asks if they will have four udhaan that season. If the flower on the left arm falls, it is a no. The people then lower the number and ask whether they will get three udhaan. If the flower on the right arm falls, the god has conveyed his approval and all the further fishing preparations are made with keeping the three udhaan or a period of 45 days in mind.

Koli says that the Kaul system has never failed the Kolis, and the fisherfolk do not incur any losses even if they do not record a profit. He further states that fishermen across the coast of Maharashtra believe in the Kaul of Vetal. These fishermen call the Madh Kolis on the day of this ceremony to find the number of Udhaans the deity has conveyed, and they adjust their fishing schedule accordingly. [5]

An intriguing tradition links the Gondhal and the fishing practice of the Madh Kolis. The Devi is shown an oblation of vegetarian food with a screen of cloth separating her offering and the animal sacrifice. However, the locals believe that the goddess’s love for her devotees is such that she comes to participate in the sacrifice undertaken in her honour. When the meat is being sorted in a large plate following the sacrifice, the locals see a palm-like outline emerge in that plate, which they view as the goddess coming to partake in the sacrifice. This palm outline is an important highlight of the annual Gondhal, and the direction in which the palm is pointed is taken by the natives as divine guidance on the direction that they should venture to secure an abundant catch at the sea. It is believed that the direction shown by the goddess’s hand has never failed the local Kolis when it comes to fishing.


Shimga or Holi is an important festival in Madh, like other Koliwadas. It is a 15-day celebration, starting from the Amavasya, or the new moon night before the main Holi. The women of Madh start singing and dancing as a group from the fifth day onwards. An interesting practice in the old days involved women surreptitiously removing bamboo sticks from the multiple valands in Madh and performing the garba with those bamboo sticks. A bygone tradition involved boys going from door to door asking for kurya, or firewood, to be used for making the smaller bonfires in the days leading up to the Mothi Holi. A popular phrase that was repeated in front of the houses was ‘Kuri de nahitar tujhya gharavar uri maren!’ (‘Give me the firewood or I will jump on your house’), the phrase rhyming comically in Marathi. Another local tradition was the songa, or playful enactments, done by the Madh youth. Shimga was and is a time when all playful antics are socially accepted, and it has always been a time of the year which provides a socially accepted medium for people to vent their anger about disagreements with others in a playful and jolly way.

Similar to other Koliwadas, the wood of amba (mango), jambul (jamun), bhendi (Portia), and erand (eucalyptus) trees are used to create the Holi bonfire. The bonfire of the Mothi or the main Holi is created using amba and jambul wood. The newly married couples are specially invited to perform the pooja of the Holi, and the groom carries a stick of sugarcane, a bundle of kurya and a shawl on his shoulders, while the bride carries a platter of fruits known as tali. The couple does five rounds around the bonfire and then offers the oblations into the Holi fire. The direction in which the Holi bonfire collapses is important as the Kolis believe that it is the divine message indicating the direction in which they will find better catch.

Image 9: A Holi bonfire erected for Kombad Holi

Another local tradition from the olden days involved the families of the boys and girls who were betrothed to each other. On the day of Dhulvad, the family from outside of Madh would come to Madh in their boats after celebrating Holi in their own Koliwadas and request their in-laws in Madh to gather and drink alcohol with them. These familial parties often happened in the open areas of the Koliwada, such as the harbour or the paar area of the settlement.

Narali Pornima is celebrated like all other Koliwadas by offering a coconut to the sea in gratitude. However, a unique aspect of the local Narali Pornima at Madh, is the fact that they organize a Harinaam Saptaha in the Harba Devi temple, during which many locals practice religious fasting. Finally, after the day of Gokul Ashtami, the Kolis of Madh commence their fishing season.

Gauri Ganpati is an important local celebration, and most households welcome Ganpati and Gauri for one-and-a-half, five, seven, or ten days. The Gauri celebrations are particularly important, and she is shown the traditional Naivedya of chimbori (crabs). After the Visarjan or immersion of the Gauri, the local custom known as Shila Sann follows. During this, natives of Madh Koliwada dress in common-coloured clothes known as Ekthaat. Wrestling competitions are organised in Madh on this day, and wrestlers from all over Maharashtra come and participate in these competitions.

Seven days after the Gauri Ganpati festival, the Bandar Pooja ceremony is undertaken. It is an annual local tradition of an esoteric nature meant to propitiate the local spirits and souls of the departed. It starts with two streams of people starting the ceremonies independently and then meeting at a common spot known as Sarsari near the sea coast where the ceremony is concluded. One of the parties starts their ceremonies near the Hira Devi temple, within which is a small underground chamber where coins from the previous years’ ceremony are kept. After doing the associated rituals at the temple, the coins are taken out and distributed as prasad to the attendees, and new coins are placed in the chambers for the following year’s Bandar Pooja. This group then moves to the Sarsari, where the other group that started from Paat Wadi joins them to conclude the ceremony.

Vangi Sath is a festival celebrated by the Madh Kolis eight days before Diwali. It includes making fried brinjal preparations by slicing large brinjals and offering the dish as an oblation to Harba Devi and other village deities as well as the darya. A unique aspect of Vangi Sath is that the brinjal prepared as the offering is made without adding salt to it.

Baravichi Jatra is another festival that the Madh Kolis celebrate in January. It is the annual feast of St. Bonaventure organised at the eponymous church situated in Erangal village. It is an important festival for local Christians and Hindus alike, and the natives of Erangal, Madh, and Bhati villages jointly organize and conduct this celebration.

The Urus at the local dargah of Hazrat Saiyad Husseini Shah, or Pir Baba as he is referred to by the locals, is organized in February. The natives of Madh have traditionally organized the Urus by collecting donations from every household. The Urus is marked by the Sandal procession (a ritual of anointing sandal paste) through the streets of Madh Koliwada in the Sufi saint’s honour. Ferry services are also organized for the people to visit the Dargah on Ambu Bet from the Madh coast.

Culinary Traditions

Madh Koliwada is one of the few Koliwadas where visitors have easy access to the Koli cuisine through the multiple roadside eateries run by the native Koli women. As the evening progresses, the streets of Madh Koliwada become redolent with the scrumptious smells of the various fish fries and curries.

The traditional household fare includes multiple dishes cooked for various occasions. However, some dishes stand out as iconic. Bambuke bombil, or semi-dried Bombay ducks, is a local delicacy. Koli says it is especially beneficial in the winter and provides the warmth needed for the body.[6] The bombil is prepared in a dry paste that is cooked at night and eaten the following morning, as all the spices and flavours get absorbed into the protein and make the dish more delicious.

Aatleli mandeli, or dry paste of golden anchovies, is another dish that all the Madh locals love. A dry preparation of prawns known as chikchiki kolambi is enjoyed by young and old alike. The kanji, a quintessential fish porridge of the Kolis, made in Madh Koliwada consists of bombil, mandeli, kolambi and drumsticks. Vaktichi chichavni, or ribbon fish sour curry, is one of the beloved dishes of the Madh Kolis. A speciality of Madh Koliwada, in the words of Prabhakar Koli, another Madh native, is the morichi saraki, or baby shark mince, which is well-known amongst the non-natives of Madh as well. Palyachi ukhar, or hilsa broth, is a simple Koli preparation made with hilsa, turmeric and kokum.

The Koliwada of Madh akin to its fort stands like a bastion of native customs and traditions, undisturbed by the forces of modernity. The natives Kolis of Madh are proud of their syncretic littoral heritage, and enthusiastically nurture it for the coming generations.

Image 10: An elderly woman dressed in traditional Koli attire visiting the Harba Devi temple


[1] Kiran Koli, interview with the author, March, 2024.

[2] Kiran Koli, interview with the author, March, 2024.

[3] Kiran Koli, interview with the author, March, 2024.

[4] Kiran Koli, interview with the author, March, 2024.

[5] Kiran Koli, interview with the author, March, 2024.

[6] Kiran Koli, interview with the author, March, 2024.


The author would like to thank Dheeraj Bhandari, Sunil Koli, Prabhakar Namdev Koli and Krushna Fakir Koli for their guidance and assistance with the research.


Kiran Koli (local historian), in discussion with the author, March, 2024.

Prabhakar Namdev Koli, in discussion with the author, March 2024.