Malvani Gaon

By Anurag


The present-day suburb of Malad in northern Mumbai is a bustling area booming with commercial activities mainly focussed on IT, service, and hospitality industries, along with multiple establishments for socialising. It is one of Mumbai’s highest revenue-generating areas. However, the financial importance of Malad is not a modern-day phenomenon. This locality has been a hub of socio-economic activities in this part of the country for at least the last millennia.

This fact is attested to by the Mahikavatichi Bakhar, a chronicle of the city of Mumbai from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when it was under the rule of a monarch named Bhimdev, who ruled from the eponymous capital of Mahikavati or the present-day Mahim. The region of Malad formed the northern domains of his realm. It was an important financial centre, which must have made Bhimdev assign it as a separate administrative division. The Malad Khapne mentioned in the Bakhar consisted of 22 villages under the jurisdiction of an official named Gangadharrao, and included the native hamlets spanning from present-day Goregaon to Dahisar.

Early History

Malvani Gaon (or Malvani Village) is located in Malad and also finds mention in the Mahikavatichi Bakhar by the name of Malvan, and whose Sanskritised name must have been Mallavana,[1] or forest of malla trees. The malla tree (Bauhinia racemosa), is also known as apta in Marathi, and the region of Malvani must have been wooded with these trees, possibly giving the place its name.

Malvani is comprised of Hindu and Christian Kolis, also known as East Indians, and Bhandaris. The village was and is still ensconced between Rathodi village to its west, Charkop village to its north, Marve to its east, and Dharavali village to its south. It was one of the most important villages in this part of Mumbai, and the villages of Kharodi and Rathodi are still considered part of Malvani division in terms of administration.

Social Setup

Malvani Gaon is primarily populated by the Koli and Bhandari people, and families with surnames such as Koli, Bhandari, and Patil are commonly found within the village. A small percentage of Pachkalshi families surnamed Pathare also reside in Malvani. The Kolis were historically engaged in fishing for most of the year and agriculture during the monsoon. Meanwhile, the Bhandaris were associated with toddy tapping and horticulture, growing numerous fruits and vegetables.

The most cultivated crop in Malvani was rice, and paddy fields once surrounded Malvani Gaon on all sides, stretching as far as the Malad Akashwani Kendra and Malavni Mhada colony, which were built on the farmlands of Malvani natives. The paddy fields were lined with numerous palm trees, which the native Bhandaris harvested for toddy trapping. Apart from rice cultivation, the Bhandaris of Malvani also cultivated jibda (musk melons) and kakdi (cucumbers) extensively.

Hemant Koli, a native Koli who runs a fishery business in Malvani, states that the society of Malvani Gaon was quite self-sufficient with a year-round supply of fish, yearly provisions of rice, and annual stock of their Koli masala. The Kolis and Bhandaris had an efficient barter system, and the few commodities that the natives had to procure from outside their village were oil, sugar, and salt. [2]

Fishing Practices

In the old days, when urbanization was yet to consume the landscape of Malvani, it was a sylvan environment punctuated by multiple creek inlets and numerous trees and palm plantations. Owing to Malvani’s strategic location near the mouth of the Manori creek, the Kolis have made the most of the fishing opportunities available to them. Malvani was one of the few villages in Mumbai where three types of fishing were practised, viz. open sea fishing, creek fishing, and fishing in narrow and shallow creek inlets using hand nets known as vana or vanyachi masemari in the Koli dialect. These narrow creek inlets are known as khochi in the local dialect and were once abundant with multiple fish species. The khochi and vana fishing were the commonly practised forms as the creek provided safety from the unpredictable nature of the open seas. Amongst these two, khochichi masemari, or fishing in tidal creek inlets, was more popular with the Kolis of Malvani village. They knew the details of every khochi on both banks of the Manori creek and navigated most of the khochis from Malvani, Charkop, and Gorai in search of fish. These creek waters were more densely packed with marine life compared to the open seas, guaranteeing an assured catch, especially in the monsoon months when small fish and crustaceans from the ocean came to the refuge of these calmer waters. Thus, heavier rains promised an abundant catch in the khochis adjoining Malvani Gaon.

Image 1: Satellite image of Manori creek
Image 2: Satellite image of various khochis or creek inlets in Manori creek with Malvani village in the south

The fisherfolk employed two techniques in these tidal inlets. The first, as mentioned above, was vanyachi masemari. Handheld nets secured with two wooden poles were known as vana, and small-scale fishermen used these vanas to fish small fish and crustaceans from the shallow inlets. Medium-size nets known as bhokshis were utilized in slightly larger creek inlets. The bhokshis were long cylindrical nets secured by two bamboo poles on either side, and these poles were entrenched in the marshy creek bed during high tide. The force of the receding water during low tide pushed and trapped many of the fish in these bhokshis, later gathered by the fishermen. Larger nets or dols were employed in open sea fishing, which also required considerably larger boats.

A unique fishing technique used by the Kolis of Malvani was creating mud dams known as varans on the creek coastline. Varans were constructed on the adjacent seashore during the advent of Aagot or monsoon when the Kolis did not fish on the open sea. These varans were semicircular in shape and made by piling up mud from the sea bed. They were about two to three feet high and spread out in an area of less than an acre. The varans were naturally flooded during high tide and turned into small reservoirs during low tide. Fish from the open seas used to flow in and nest in these varans as the secluded waters provided safety from the turbulent monsoon waters of the open seas. The fishes laid eggs and multiplied within the confines of these varans, and later, the Kolis fished them out after their population had substantially matured and increased. Koli says, ‘The fish is a smart creature and always looks for stable and safe waters. Our ancestors were keen observers of this fact, and hence, they came up with this fishing technique, wherein the fish preferred the safer waters of these man-made dams, over the raging oceans.’[3] The design of these varans depended on the resources available to the individual fisherfolks. A Koli with little financial resources at his disposal would build a rudimentary varan consisting of just the mud wall enclosure. They would then harvest the fish out of their varan using the usual fishing nets. With more access to resources, Kolis came up with ingenious varan designs consisting of a wooden door known as ugaar. When it was time to harvest this curated catch, a bhokshi adjoining the ugaar was installed, and the door was lifted. The fish swimming out of the enclosure were thus trapped in the pre-installed net and caught.

A prominent catch in the waters next to Malvani was nivti or mudskipper younglings. Nivti fishing was predominantly done by the women of Malvani village, mainly for personal consumption. It was an important activity in the social life of the Malvani women, as it was also a personal time for these women, giving them a chance to chat and discuss daily happenings with their peers. The women would go to the creek mud flats in groups of five or six to catch these subsurface creatures. Their technique involved stepping with either foot on the mud and applying slight pressure. This would cause the tiny mudskippers to pop up, which were then deftly caught by the Koli women in their palms, and placed in a pela or small bowl which they carried with them. The children of Malvani village were introduced to fishing through this, wherein the mothers took with them their children and taught them this hereditary art of fishing mudskippers.

The love of Malvani Kolis for the nivtis was such that they would also make night trips into the creeks to fish them. Venturing into the tidal creeks on their boats, they would get down on the swampy shores with a kerosene lamp, or batti, in hand. The men used to walk on the shores with this lamp since the flame attracted hordes of mudskippers. The fish were dexterously caught and put in a wicker basket, or bochkul, with a narrow opening. The nivti has a slippery texture, and to prevent them from escaping from their hands, the men wore makeshift gloves of fishing nets on their hands, allowing them to hold the nivtis firmly.

Crustaceans were abundant in the Manori creek, and the mouth of the creek near Malvani village was teeming with crabs or chimbori. The people of Malvani also used an ingenious crab fishing device known as phaga, which is a circular cage with a narrow opening and a rope to secure it. The phaga was employed in two ways. The first method involved dropping the phaga near the shore waters and tying them to the branches of mangrove trees. The men would then periodically check on these contraptions to look for trapped crabs, fishing them out when necessary. The second way was to carry multiple phagas on a small boat manned by at least two people and to drop them at different spots in the creek while tying them to nearby mangrove branches. Once all the phagas were dropped along a specific stretch of the creek, the men in the boat would make the return trip while picking up each phaga to check for any crabs. The phagas needed to be pulled up rapidly to prevent the crabs from escaping. This action of rapidly pulling out the phaga is known in the native dialect as palavne. One of the two men would signal the other with the phrase ‘Te phaga palav!’ to pull these crab traps out of the water. The crabs were thrown onto the boat, and to prevent these crabs from coming near and biting the oarsmen, mangrove bushes were placed in the middle of the boat as a barrier, preventing the crabs from trespassing to the other side. Once all the phagas were retrieved and all the crabs were collected, they were placed in a bochkul and brought back to the shore.

Religious life

Jari Mari and Samga Devi are considered the Gram Devatas of Malvani Gaon. However, the most important deity for the villagers is Hanuman, evidenced by a local shrine to him. Hanuman Jayanti has been the most popular and celebrated annual festival in Malvani Gaon. A palkhi is taken out on the day of the celebration with an image of Hanuman, and it is taken to every household in the village, making it a daylong celebration. A Bhandara, or religious feast, is organized at night, and devotees from far and wide come to partake in the festivities and the Bhandara.

Image 3: Jari Mari Mata Mandir

The church of St. Anthony, colloquially known as Malvani church, is also an important religious landmark in the local physical and religious landscape. Constructed around 1630 AD,[4] the original missionaries were tasked with looking after the four villages of Malvani, Marve, Kharodi, and Rathodi. The church formed an integral part of the social life of Malvani Gaon, and in the olden days, the Good Friday and Christmas masses of the church were attended by all inhabitants of Malvani, irrespective of religion.

Image 4: Malvani Church

The Holi or Shimga celebrations in Malvani last for 10 days and culminate with Kombad Holi and Mothi Holi. A small bonfire is lit on the first eight nights of this period, finally culminating with the large bonfires of Kombad and Mothi Holi. The night of Kombad Holi is marked by a dance form known locally as the Yedi. It consists of a roving group of two people who hold a bamboo pole horizontally, while the rest of the group members hit the pole with smaller wooden sticks known as daagra, creating a woody symphony. The Yedi dance is accompanied by Koli folk songs, and the singing and dancing merriment extends throughout the night. In the olden days, people threw rubbish outside the doors of families they had a tiff with. This was meant to serve as a cathartic expression to vent people's pent-up anger against each other and spend the rest of the year amicably.

The main Holi bonfire is decked up with flowers and garlands, and women tie the Otis on the Holi tree in such great numbers that the Holi tree bends with their weight. When the bonfire is about to go out, people take the ash from the burnt Holi and apply it on each other’s forehead as part of the festive tradition. Once the Holi bonfire is completely extinguished, the natives take the burnt tree to the nearby creek and do a visarjan, or respectful immersion of the Holi in the water.

Gauri Ganpati is another important festival in Malvani, and most houses in Malvani Gaon have a five-day Ganpati celebration. The day of Gauri is an important one, and a naivedya, or an oblation of crabs, is prepared specially for Gauri. Girls from the village get together and perform a folk dance consisting of dancing in a circle and clapping hands. It is a period of much exuberance especially for the womenfolk of Malvani Gaon.

Culinary Traditions

The native cuisine of Malvani Gaon inhabitants is pretty similar to that of the other Koliwadas and Gaothans in Mumbai. Koli, however, mentions some dishes from Malvani Gaon with pride. A nostalgic and much-loved dish for many Koli families of Malvani is the chichavni. It is a tangy and spicy curry made from the nivtis. It consists of frying sliced onions along with tamarind pulp and Koli masala, to which the nivtis are added. The concoction is then boiled to produce a zesty curry, which is adored by all Koli folks.[5]

Aquatic vegetation also made up an important part of the native diet. Two types of seaweed were particularly important: davla and ghuri. These shrubs grew on the banks of the creeks and flourished due to the tides nourishing them. These marine shrubs were periodically harvested from the nearby water bodies and made into a bhaji, a vegetable preparation. Koli says that davlachi and ghurichi bhaji are extremely nutritious foods, especially given to children to fortify their nutritional balance and build their physique.

Another simple yet beloved dish is kanji, a fish soup with drumsticks and brinjals added. Whenever kanji is prepared in any household, it is always shared with the neighbours as part of the local tradition. It is akin to soul food for the Kolis and is always accompanied by dry Bombil chutney, fried bombils, or a dry vakti, or ribbon fish preparation. This combination is much loved and prepared in all Koli houses.

Men take the lead in the preparation of some of these dishes, and Koli proudly states that every Koli man is a proficient cook who will never stay hungry in any situation. They cook most of the Koli dishes except the rotis which are an integral part of Koli cuisine that is traditionally considered the preserve of Koli women.

Despite the loss of their farmlands to urbanization and much of their traditional water bodies to pollution, the natives of Malvani Gaon are still holding strong to their native traditions and practices and persevering in the modern world with the gaiety and grit that is symbolic of the Koli community.


[1]Karmarkar, Dipesh. Understanding Place Names in ‘Mahikavati’s Bakhar’: A Case of Mumbai Thane Region. 2012

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

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

[4]St Anthony’s Church, “Parish History | St Anthony Church Malwani Malad | India”

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


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

Hemant Koli (resident of Malvani and owner of a fishing business), interview with the author, March, 2024.