The Kolis: An Introduction


The Kolis are indigenous people living on the coasts of Mumbai and its neighbouring areas. The term ‘indigenous peoples’ can simply be understood as natives of the land who have inhabited the region since time immemorial. José Martinez Cobo, a Special reporter of the United Nations (UN), provides a working definition for indigenous peoples, encompassing the definition of indigeneity at both the group and individual levels. However, the term lacks a universal definition due to challenges in defining someone as belonging to an indigenous community or being an indigenous person, owing to factors such as the history of colonization, the process of assimilation, or the intricate laws governing membership in an indigenous community. The notion of indigenous peoples was developed to facilitate international accords and is employed as a construct with specific communities and populations in specific regions.[1]

Article 1 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169 (Indigenous and Tribal People’s Convention) states that it applies to:

“(a) tribal peoples in independent countries whose social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community, and whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations;

(b) peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonisation or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions”. [2]

The above description offers insight as to what can be understood by the term indigenous peoples.

Indigenous Communities in India

India, as a nation, is characterized more by its diversity than its similarities. Within this diverse land, exist several indigenous populations whose cultural features have evolved with respect to the environment they inhabit. Each community possesses a distinct history, culture, and set of customs that define its identity and way of coexisting with the natural world and its particular surroundings. India is home to several indigenous groups and tribal communities spread across the country, preserving traditional knowledge passed down through generations. India has witnessed numerous stages of transition, especially in the pre and post-colonial eras, which have profoundly influenced the country and its people. As a result, the ‘indigenousness’ of communities has been continuously impacted, leading to changes. Among the indigenous communities residing in India are the Santhals, Khasis, Bhils, Bodos, Garos, Meenas, and Gonds.

The Kolis – a historical account

For a person living in Mumbai, the term Koli often evokes images of the sea, fishes, and fisherwomen. However, the term Koli is an umbrella term encompassing various communities that reside in the hinterlands and are not necessarily involved in fishing occupations. The general term ‘Kolis,’ which is used to refer to several communities, fails to capture the diversity of the range of vocations and phases of cultural development that exist among the different communities within the group.[3] Enthoven notes that for centuries, the term Koli has been used to refer to the majority of the indigenous residents of the Presidency (Bombay), who were members of a tribal organization.[4] The Kolis are an indigenous group inhabiting parts of Gujarat, Northern Konkan, the Sahyadris, the Deccan, and other regions of the country.

In the Gujarat region, the Talabdas were found in significant numbers. The Son Kolis originally inhabited the area of Bombay and its neighbouring islands. Residing in the Jawhar and North Konkan region were the Raj Kolis, while the Mahadev and Malhar Kolis were found in the Deccan region. The Kharvas and Agaris inhabited the Surat and Thana regions. The Dhudias, Chaudharis, Warlis, Katkaris, Dubalas and Thakurs have been described as the offshoots of the Kolis.[5]

Enthoven mentions several endogamous divisions of the Kolis which are as follows:

Agri, Ahir, Band, Bhil, Bhilave or Bhirale, Chanchi, Dhor or Tokre, Helmar, Kabber, Karade, Khar, Konkan, Kulparna, Mahadev/Dongar/Raj, Malhar/Kunum/Chumli/Pan/Panbhari, Maratha, Marvi, Mendale, Meta or Dhangar, Musale or Bhandu, Nehre, Rahtadkar, Shingtoki, Son, Solesi/Kashti/Lallangoti, Suryavanshi, Tankri, Tayade, Thankar/Christians and Wali.[6]

Among the divisions mentioned above, the main groups according to him were the Malhar Kolis, the Mahadev Kolis, the Son Kolis and the Dhor Kolis.

The Gujarat Kolis have several endogamous groups like the Thakardas, Chunwaliyas, Talabdas, Patanwadias, and Patelias. They are found mainly in the areas of Surat, Ahmedabad, Palanpur, Mahikantha, Panchmahals, Kaira, and Baruch. [7]

From Mulshi in the southwest of Pune to Trimbak (Trimbakeshwar) near Nasik, the Mahadev Kolis inhabited the valleys on the east slopes of the Sahyadris. The Raj Kolis of Jawhar are believed to be a part of the Mahadev Kolis. The Chief of the Jawhar State in North Konkan was a Mahadev Koli; this, along with their claimed Rajput ancestry, is likely what gives them the name ‘Raj.’[8] The Mahadev Kolis are originally thought to have worked as infantrymen. Over time, they began working as labourers, husbandmen, and cattle owners. In certain locations, they work as boatmen during the rainy season, transporting travellers across rivers and streams. At Mahadev temples, some people serve as hereditary priests and accept the offerings made to God. In Kolhapur, the Mahadev Kolis catch and sell fish and gather slake and lime nodules. Many of them own lands, while others till the lands.[9]

The Malhar Kolis, also known as the Pan-bhari or the water-filling Kolis, share many similarities with the Mahadev Kolis. They are called Malhar Kolis, because they worship Malhar, a manifestation of Shiva. As implied by their name, Pan-bhari, which means water filler, their typical duties include cleaning the village rest house and office and supplying water to both locals and visitors. They are also known as Kunum Kolis because, according to Captain Mackintosh of the Bombay Geographical Society, they associate and eat with Kunbis. The name Chumlis comes from the chumal (fabric fenders) they wear on their heads as water pot rests. They can be found throughout Bombay City, in nearly every village in the Deccan, and in the Thana district's seaside. Bhoir, Jadhav, Kerav, Langa, Povar, Sharanpad, Shelir, Sojval, and Vekhande are shared surnames of the Malhar Kolis. Their dialect, attire, traditions, and rituals are all the same as those of the Mahadev Kolis.[10]

The majority of Dhor Kolis, also known as Tokre Kolis, are located in northern Konkan. The word dhor means cattle; the Dhor Kolis consume beef, hence the name. The name Tokre originates from tokar, a bamboo, suggesting their occupation of bamboo cutting.[11]

The Son Kolis are the original inhabitants of Mumbai. In his book, The Tribes and Castes of Bombay, Vol. II, Enthoven mentions that the Son Kolis are found along the North Konkan coast from Bassein (now Vasai) to Ratnagiri in the South. The question of how the Son Kolis came down to the coasts is one shrouded in doubt. Some opine they emigrated from the hills a few hundred years ago. The Son Kolis have no knowledge of any relationship with the Gujarat Kolis, but they are open to admitting the possibility of such an affinity. Fishing is the traditional means of subsistence for the Son Kolis, and almost everyone who worked in the industry profited from the vocation. A tiny percentage of the Son Kolis were employed by the government as clerks or accountants, while the remainder engaged in wholesale fish selling and fish merchandise. The Son Koli women almost exclusively sold fish that was caught by the men. The women brought money into the house. As a result, the women held considerable authority, handled household finances, and ran the business independently.[12]

The Dolkars and the Sates are the two primary occupational classes among the Son Kolis. The latter, restricted to Mandvi, buy the haul wholesale, while the Dolkars carry out the actual fishing. The Sates typically launch boats to greet the returning Dolkars, purchase the fish on the water, and then sell it to shop merchants and hotel developers on the beach. Have you heard of the koligeet, ‘mi dolkar, dolkar, dolkar dariyacha raja’? (I am a Dolkar, King of the sea). The word Dolkar comes from ‘dol’ or ‘dhola’, a large funnel-shaped net used for fishing. The Dolkars are further subdivided into four groups: (a) the Vagharkars who catch the ghola/ghol (black-spotted croaker), (b) the Ravshi who catch the ravas (Indian Salmon), (c) the Daldis who fish on a large scale, and (d) the Vastad, a class of impoverished fisherman who works for the wealthier members of the tribe.[13]

There seem to have been subdivisions within the Kolis on the basis of worship. Some of them worship their ancestors (Vir) and are termed Virkar. The Devkars, on the other hand, worship only Christian and Hindu gods. [14]

The Christian Kolis, also known as the Bombay East Indians, are a subgroup of the Son Kolis which took to Christianity during the time of the Portuguese settlement in Bombay. The Christian Kolis blend the customs and traditions of the Kolis with the beliefs of the Christian Church.[15]

The Son Kolis are quintessentially involved with the occupation of fishing. However, there is another community enlisted by Enthoven from the Bombay Presidency that subsisted on fishing - the Macchis.

The Macchis, also called Tandels, are primarily found in the coastal cities, towns, and villages of Broach, Kaira, Panch Mahals, Surat, Thana, Surat Agency, and Rewa Kantha. Their name is derived from their activity of catching and making a living from selling machhi (Sanskrit matsya, fish). They seem to be Kolis, possibly mixed with Rajput fugitives.[16]

Origin of the Word Koli:

There are several theories regarding the origin of the word ‘Koli’ but none of them can adequately track down or explain its origin. Dr J Wilson translates the word Koli into clansmen coming from the Sanskrit word Kul meaning clan. The name ‘coolie,’ which European settlers in India indiscriminately used to refer to manual labourers, most likely originated from the term Koli.[17]

The Kolis and the Sea

Aami Koli daryache raje haav, na baraan jaun hora bharun maashe hantaav - We Kolis are the Kings of the Sea, even in stormy situations we go (to the sea) and get boats full of fish.’ These lines depict the relationship of the Kolis with the sea. Engaged in the fishing industry for generations, the Kolis are the masters of the sea. Dependent on the sea for their livelihood, they understand the importance the sea holds in their life. The traditional beliefs of the Kolis about the sea and fishing have been passed down to them from their ancestors. The Kolis are well-versed in the characteristics of the sea, and their life and daily activities are synchronized with the tides.They revere the sea as their soil and their primary source of food and living. The fishing methods of the Kolis reflect their profound regard for the ocean and the marine environment. Every year, on the occasion of Narali Purnima (Coconut Day), they offer a coconut to the sea as a gesture of gratitude, praying for good fortune, prevention of calamities at sea, and a bountiful catch.

Members of the Versova Koliwada gathered during the procession of Gauri Visarjan. Photograph by Yash Sheth.
Father and son from Khar Koliwada unloading their catch of the day near Khar Danda shore. Photograph by Ankita Jain.

The Kolis and Mumbai

Owing to a lack of proper historical documentation of the region and its people, we are uncertain about when the Kolis settled on the islands of Mumbai. In his Origin of Bombay, Joseph Gerson Da Cunha calls Bombay a desolate island of Koli Fishermen, which has transformed into the present capital of Western India. The Mumbai[18] of today is built on what was once an archipelago of seven islands that formed as a result of tectonic movements and volcanic eruptions. These seven islands are - the Isle of Bombay, Parel, Mazagaon, Mahim, Colaba, Worli, and Old Woman's Island (Little Colaba).[19] The seven islands that make up Mumbai were ruled by different native rulers for centuries until being given to the Portuguese Empire and then to the East India Company in 1662. This was made possible by Catherine Braganza's dowry when she was married off to Charles II of England. The Hornby Vellard project, which started in 1782 and involved reclaiming the space between the seven islands from the Arabian Sea, drastically altered Mumbai in various regards. Major roads and railroads were built, and the reclamation project, which was finished in 1845, made Mumbai a significant seaport on the Arabian Sea.

Today, people from far and beyond have come and settled in Mumbai, which is an ever-expanding metropolis. The world around the Kolis kept on changing as time went by, but they have been here from the beginning, fishing in the creeks and water bodies of Mumbai and have continued to do so for generations.

The distinct little settlements inside the metropolis of Mumbai, called Koliwadas, are home to the oldest community of Mumbai. A Kolwar or Koliwada, was originally a hamlet or a settlement of the Kolis. Koliwadas are usually situated near the sea or other water bodies like creeks or rivers. Today, the Kolis live in Koliwadas or Gaothans (urban villages) in the heart of Mumbai City. They live in both large and small Koliwadas along streams like Gorai Creek, Manori Creek, Worli, Mahim, Versova, and Khar Danda.

The majority of these properties are located near beaches or the coast, where demand from the hotel business and the surge in tourism has caused property values to soar. The Kolis and the sea share a close and mutually reinforcing relationship, evident in their traditional fishing methods, language, and culture. Their ties to the water are fundamental to their identity and legacy, serving as a source of income as well. Despite this, they are having a difficult time maintaining their traditional fishing methods and cultural legacy in the face of environmental change and industrialization. The Kolis find it challenging to anticipate fish behaviour and adjust their fishing operations as a result of rising sea levels, more frequent storms, and shifting rainfall patterns.

The Kolis from Versova Koliwada offer coconuts at the Versova beach on the eve of Narali Purnima. Photograph by Ayan Ghosh.
A Koli woman performing aarti of the coconut which is brought to the Versova beach for immersion in the sea. Photograph by Ayan Ghosh.


[1] Sarivaara et al., ‘Who is indigenous? Definitions of indigeneity,’ 369

[2] ILO 169, International Labour Office. ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples

[3] Ghurye, The Mahadev Kolis, 1

[4] Enthoven, The Tribes and Castes of Bombay Vol. II, 243

[5] Ibid, 244

[6] Ibid, 245

[7] Ibid 245-6

[8] Wilson, Aboriginal tribes of the Bombay Presidency, 9

[9] Enthoven, The Tribes and Castes of Bombay Vol. II, 254

[10] Ibid 256

[11] Ibid, 253

[12] Ibid, 257, 259-60

[13] Edwards, The Gazetteer of the Bombay City and Island Vol. I, 228

[14] Ibid, 227

[15] James, ‘Marriage Customs of Christian Son Kolis.’

[16] Enthoven, The Tribes and Castes of Bombay Vol. II, 397

[17] Ibid, 243

[18] Bombay was officially renamed Mumbai in 1995

[19] Dhavalikar, Cultural heritage of Mumbai


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Dhavalikar, Madhukar Keshav. Cultural Heritage of Mumbai. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, 2016.

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

Enthoven, Reginald Edward. The Tribes and Castes of Bombay. Vol. 1. Cosmo Publications, 1987.

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

Ghurye, Govind Sadashiv. The Mahadev Kolis. Popular Prakshan, Bombay, 1963

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

Hegde, Sandeep. ‘Son Kolis–the aboriginal inhabitants of Bombay (now Mumbai) in transition.’ International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences 62 (2015): 140-146.

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James, V. ‘Marriage Customs of Christian Son Kolis.’ Asian Folklore Studies (1977): 131-148.

Sarivaara, Erika, Kaarina Maatta, and Satu Uusiautti. ‘Who is indigenous? Definitions of indigeneity.’ In Eurasian Multidisciplinary Forum, EMF 2013 (1: Tbilisi: 2013): proceedings: vol. 1(2013) 369-78

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