Traditional Dress of the Kolis of Mumbai


Often, the first thing that catches your eye about someone is their attire. Clothing can be seen as an extension of a person’s identity and serves as a medium of interaction with the world. Clothing styles and patterns are suggestive of the occupation people may be involved. The traditional way of dressing of the fishing community of Mumbai, the Kolis, is quite unique and complements their main occupation of fishing.

Image 1: A Koli group wearing their traditional attire in a festival at Versova. Image courtesy: Ankita Jain


Headgear, such as hats and caps, has historically been a significant component of one’s attire. Sailors, pirates, and seafarers are usually depicted wearing long, wide hats. The Koli hat or kamblichi topi, red in colour and rectangular at the top instead of curved, has been a part of traditional Koli attire for a long time, but its origin is a subject of conjecture. The Gazetteer notes that the red hat was donned only by the Kolis of Mandvi, Thana, Versova, and Madh.[1] Hats that are flatter in shape compared to the red hats were worn by the Kolis of Revdanda, while turbans were worn by the Pan Kolis (Panbhare Kolis). The Kolis staying north of Bhayandar and Bassein (now Vasai) wore the kantopi or the ear cap. As fashion evolved over time, Koli men started wearing earrings (bali) on their upper ear as well as earrings (gathe) on their earlobes. Wearing caps with ear flaps thus became troublesome. To make wearing the hat convenient, the ear flaps must have been folded upwards to leave the ears free and avoid hassle.[2]

Sawant mentions that the Koli men wear two types of topi (caps). The first kind is usually white. This woollen cap had a ball of tufted wool (gonda) in the middle. Sometimes, these tufts of wool can be observed on either side of the cap. It is used by all Koli men while going out to sea. The second type is called topra and is worn by nakhwas or boat owners. They are made with better wool and are either red or orange in colour.[3]

Although there is no definite explanation for the origin of the Koli red hats, the purpose behind wearing caps while going out to the sea is more or less practical. Caps are worn at the sea to regulate the temperature of the head. Caps help to keep the head warm in winter and cool in summer. For the Kolis who went out to the sea, these hats protected them from the sun and the wind. Knitted, horizontally worn hats are less likely to be blown off by the wind than hats that are worn vertically. For the Panbhare Kolis, who primary occupation was supplying water to various parts of the city,[4] turbans may have acted as resting pads for the pots used to carry the water.

Nowadays, the Kolis wear woollen red caps that have a tuft on the top. They are either plain red in colour, have one or two black stripes/bands running horizontally across the body of the cap, or have bands of black and white stripes with ‘aai ekvira’ (Mother Ekvira) in Marathi written between them on the front. The red cap of the Kolis is an identity marker. Depending on the wearer, the cap extends to cover the ears or rests above the ears. Today, it is popularly known as the Koli topi or the Aagri-Koli topi.

In the past, the Koli men used to wear a red langoti (loincloth),[5] one of the most basic forms of male clothing, while working or out at sea. The langoti is not seen today. Another garment worn by the Kolis is the surkha, or surka, also known as rumal. The surka is a two to three feet long cloth that is square in shape. It is also known as teen ghadi, which literally translates to ‘three folds.’ It is tied around the waist in such a way that once tied, it appears like a triangle.[6] Depending on the wearer, the surka reaches just below the knees or extends a little past the knees. The practice of wearing the surka as it is seen today may have evolved after the langoti. The surka comes in various colours, patterns, and fabrics. Some prints even have fish motifs on them.

When going to the sea for fishing, a rough woollen waistcoat (kurta) is worn over the rumal.[7] [8] Traditionally, for ceremonial occasions, Kolis wear a long white coat (angarakha), a red handkerchief (uparna) worn on the shoulder, a langoti, sandals, and the Koli red hat. A mandil (stiff, tall headdress) a jama (long white robe with tight sleeves knotted under the left arm), and a pichodi (broad band made of the same material as the jama) are worn during marriage ceremonies. The red hat is only worn during a pat (remarriage) ceremony.[9] Other times, while going out, a dhotar, or dhoti, and a pairan (a kurta with slits on the side[10]) is worn. In the winter, the Koli men wear a warm bandi or peti. A bandi is a woollen vest-jacket. The sandals worn by men are called vahanas. The vahanas are heavy and are fashioned like Kolhapuri chappals.[11]

A change in time, surroundings, and occupation brings about a change in one’s attire as well. The clothing style of Koli men has also changed in modern times. Traditional surkas are donned by men during important occasions and festivals. At such times, a t-shirt or shirt is worn along with the surka. Sometimes, a jacket is worn over the upper garment. The everyday attire of Koli men includes t-shirts, shirts, pants, and trousers. Those who go out to sea can be seen wearing shirts, t-shirts, or vests with shorts or half pants. The adoption of Western clothes is a matter of convenience, comfort, and flexibility.


The Koli fisherwoman is known for how she drapes her saree. This method is commonly referred to as the Koli kaastha pattern. The saree is “tightly drawn around the thighs,”[12] “The Koli women wear a bodice and cotton saree drawn tightly between the legs.”[13] Conventionally, the Koli sarees, known as lugat or lugda/lugra, were draped to cover the thighs and reach the knees.[14] Since the Koli women often work in or near mud and water, the fact that the saree is short allows them to work freely.

The sleeves of Koli women's blouses, known as the choli, extend to the elbow. In earlier times, the Koli women did not wear blouses, but the practice also began among the Kolis as they got acquainted with other communities.[15] The basic choli has evolved in forms and patterns as fashion advanced.

The tokra lugra or the half saree is worn by unmarried Koli women.[16] According to The Gazetteer, the Christian and Son Koli girls do not use the upper portion of the saree which covers the head and breast until after marriage. The bride is called before the elders and the caste panchayat on a designated day, and after being instructed to cover her head and bosom (padar ghene), the elders formally bless her. Only the panchayat headmen are authorized to conduct this last ritual, which is required to enter the ranks of womanhood.[17] The practice of covering the upper body did not exist in the Koli community. The practice of covering the upper body evolved once the Kolis got in touch with other communities.

Married women wear what is known as the purna padrachi saadi or the full saree.[18] It is a common misconception that the Koli saree is a nauvari saree and that it measures nine yards. The Koli saree is, in fact, a twelve-yard (bara vaar) saree draped in the kaastha style. The saree is tightly draped around the waist. This tight method of draping the saree is known as the aathe. It helps the saree stay in place and prevents it from being unfastened. The padar or pallu is always tied to the waist. This enables the women folk to work freely. The lower part of the saree that can be seen loose in the front is known as shegli/soga. The drape of the saree is such that it allows the women easy and quick mobility.

The Koligeet Laay Laay Layekarni celebrates the unique characteristics of women from each Koliwada. The song refers to the safed parkya (white scarves/dupattas) worn by the women of Mumbai (Mobai), the long soga (lamb soga) of women from Versova (Yesav) and the printed sarees (chaapil saarya) of women from Mora port, the region around Uran.

One can see these mentioned in the lyrics of the Koligeet:

…Vatin khurda varlikarni pori varlikarni, safed parkya mobaikarni

Lamb sogyachya yesavkarni pori yesavkarni, kalya tiklya dande karni

Yenila gonda malvankarni pori malvankarni…

Chappil saarya moryakarni pori moryakarni, Motha ambara karjekarni…[19]

The long white scarf (pharki) is a distinctive identity marker of the Koli women. The pharki acts as a scarf or a dupatta for the women who wear a half saree. Traditionally, Koli women used to carry the pharki on their shoulder as they headed to the markets to sell fish. It is a simple white cloth with colourful borders with flower patterns. The pharki is also used as a cloth pad (chumbal) upon which to rest fish baskets on their head. It has a cultural significance in the community and is worn during marriage as well as death ceremonies.[20]


Until they are 10–12 years of age, the Koli boys wear a kurta and half chaddi (shorts). As they grow older, they start donning shorts. The girls wear a ghagra that reaches their feet, and over time, they will shift to a parkar (petticoat) and blouse. Once the girl reaches puberty, she starts wearing the half saree and blouse.[21]


[1] Edwards, The Gazetteer of the Bombay City and Island, Vol.1., 229.

[2] Edwards, The Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island, Vol. I, 229

[3] Sawant, Mumbaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal an Aaj, 23

[4] Enthoven, The Tribes and Castes of Bombay Vol. II, 256

[5] Edwards, The Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island Vol. I, 229

[6] Sawant, Mumbaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal an Aaj, 23

[7] ibid

[8] Edwards, The Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island Vol. I, 229

[9] ibid, 229-230

[10] Surve, ‘Traditional Textiles of Maharashtra’, Textile Value Chain

[11] Sawant, Mumbaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal an Aaj, 23

[12] Enthoven, The Tribes and castes of Bombay Vol. 2, 263

[13] Edwards, The Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island Vol. I, 230

[14] Strip and Strip, The Peoples of Bombay, 19 (Illustration of a Koli man and woman in color by Rao Bahadur M.V. Dhurandhar)

[15] Sawant, Mumbaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal an Aaj, 24

[16] Mumbaikar Folks, कोळी साडी - लुगडी प्रकार व माहिती/बारावार 12 Yards saree drape/koli Fisherfolks women's attire/Vlog, YouTube Video

[17] Edwards, The Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island Vol. I, 230

[18] Mumbaikar Folks, कोळी साडी - लुगडी प्रकार व माहिती/बारावार 12 Yards saree drape/koli Fisherfolks women's attire/Vlog, YouTube Video

[19] Shahir Balakram Varlikar, Laay Laay Layekarni

[20] Mumbaikar Folks, सफेद फडकी घेण्याचे प्रकार - कोळी महिला खांद्यावर फडकी का घेतात? जाणून घेऊया वेसावकर कोळी मावशी कढून, YouTube Video

[21] Sawant, Mumbaitil Koli Samaj: Kaal ani Aaj, 25



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

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

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

Strip, Percivial and Olivia Strip. The Peoples of Bombay. Thacker & Co. Ltd, 1944.

Journal Articles:

Conover, Michael R. "The importance of various shell characteristics to the shell-selection behavior of hermit crabs." Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 32, no. 2 (1978): 131–142.

Gilligan, Ian. "The prehistoric development of clothing: archaeological implications of a thermal model." Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 17 (2010): 15–80.

Hallett, Emily Y., Curtis W. Marean, Teresa E. Steele, Esteban Álvarez-Fernández, Zenobia Jacobs, Jacopo Niccolò Cerasoni, Vera Aldeias et al. "A worked bone assemblage from 120,000–90,000 year old deposits at Contrebandiers Cave, Atlantic Coast, Morocco." iScience 24, no. 9 (2021).

Mohanty, Sangita S. “Practice of Traditional Rituals and Rites of Koli Community and its Transition: A Study on Koli Community of Thane.” Editorial Board 9, no. 6 (2020).

Web articles:

Gilligan, Ian. “My search for the origins of clothing.” Sapiens, April 20, 2023. Accessed: February 12, 2024

Surve, Sampada Girish. Traditional Textiles of Maharashtra. Textile Value Chain. March 5, 2020 Accessed: February 24, 2024

YouTube Videos:

Ramle, Mohit. ‘कोळी साडी - लुगडी प्रकार व माहिती/बारावार 12 Yards saree drape/koli Fisherfolks women's attire/Vlogg.’ Mumbaikar Folks by Mohit Ramle, YouTube Video. May 29, 2020.

Ramle, Mohit. ‘सफेद फडकी घेण्याचे प्रकार, - कोळी महिला खांद्यावर फडकी का घेतात? जाणून घेऊया वेसावकर कोळी मावशी कढून.’ Mumbaikar Folks by Mohit Ramle, YouTube Video. January 27, 2023.

Varlikar, Shahir Balakram. ‘Laay Laay Laayekarni.’ Saregama India Ltd., YouTube Video. February 27, 2019.