Versova Koliwada

By Anurag


Landscape and people are tied together in an inseparable bond across the globe, with the former shaping the collective consciousness and the tangible and intangible culture of the inhabitants. This natural relationship has given rise to countless unique native cultures worldwide, known for their cultural adaptations to surrounding ecosystems. The Inuits of the American Arctic, the Tuaregs of the Sahara, and the Mongols of the Steppe are a few examples exemplifying this interaction between nature and humanity.

Culturally unique communities have also been inhabiting the geographical terrain of South Asia since times immemorial from the frigid Himalayas in the north to the parched sands of the Thar in the west, the dense jungles of central and northeastern India, and the tropical coasts of the Indian ocean. One such community thriving for millennia on the northwestern coast of India, steadfastly holding onto its cultural origins, is the Kolis of the North Konkan coast of Maharashtra.

The Kolis encompass various sub-groups such as Mahadev Koli, Son Koli, Vaity Koli, Malhar Kolis, Mangela Koli etc. The Son Kolis, notably associated with Mumbai’s native culture, were among the earliest settlers of the islands of Bombay and were the first to fish its bountiful water bodies. Synonymous with the sea, the Son Kolis’ oral and material culture has been profoundly shaped by the ocean, whose shores they continue to inhabit. They founded numerous hamlets known as Koliwadas across the seven islands of Mumbai and the Salsette (Shasthi) islands where they have been living for centuries. Thus, the Koliwadas of Mumbai are one of the few remnants of a distant past amidst the present-day urban landscape.

History of Versova Koliwada

Situated in the Andheri suburb of Mumbai, Versova Koliwada is one of the city’s prominent Koliwadas. The earliest reference to Versova dates back to the 12th century chronicle named Mahikavatichi Bakhar, which mentions a village named Yesav[1] (येसाव) on the west coast of Salsette island. The term ‘Versova’ appears to be derived from the Prakrit and later Marathi word Visava which means respite. Locals still refer to their Koliwada as Vesave (वेसावे), with the surname ‘Vesavkar’ being common in the area. Mumbai has long been renowned for its deep natural harbour, and this holds true for the many villages that dot its coast, which boast deep waters safe for heavy cargo boats. Strategically positioned at the mouth of the Versova Creek, a deep inlet of the sea into the mainland, Versova served as a resting and restocking station for merchant ships traversing the west coast of India for centuries. The Portuguese also considered it one of the finest bays on the Salsette island coast.[2]

According to local legend, about a thousand years ago, the Son Kolis migrated to Mumbai and eventually the Versova coast from the base of the Ekvira Temple at Karle. The group that settled around the banks of Vaitarna river came to be known as the Vaity Kolis (वैती कोळी); those who t worshipped the God, Malhari Martand, were called the Malhar Kolis (मल्हार कोळी); and the ones who took up the occupation of watermen became known as the Panbhare Kolis (पाणभरे कोळी). One faction took to fishing and owing to the profits from its trade, amassed considerable material prosperity, prominently displayed through an abundance of gold jewellery. This group came to be known as the Son Kolis (सोन कोळी), due to their ostensible display of wealth.

The territory of Salsette, including the hamlet of Versova, was ruled by various native Hindu kingdoms until the 13th. During this period, the last indigenous power in the region, the Yadavas of Devagiri fell to the Khilji armies of the Delhi sultanate, ushering in the Muslim period, which lasted for about three centuries. The last Muslim ruler of the area, Bahadur Shah of Gujarat Sultanate, relinquished these lands to the Portuguese in 1534, initiating the European phase of the islands’ history. The Portuguese significantly altered the local landscape, building a fort on the neighbouring island of Madh, which also oversaw the settlement of Versova. The village of Versova, along with the Salsette islands, came under Maratha control following their conquest of the northern territories of the Portuguese in 1739. However, the Marathas were subsequently supplanted by the British in 1775, who remained in power until 1947.

According to Rajhans Tapke, editor of the Koli newspaper ‘Sagar Shakti,’ despite the changes in regimes, the Kolis remained unaffected by the larger state of affairs due to their simple tribal lifestyle, which was only centred around fishing and having access to two meals a day. Rulers primarily directed their attention to other settled communities of Mumbai, viewing the Kolis as tribal people of lesser importance.However, the British were the first to recognize the importance of the Kolise and made efforts to bring them to their side. As Tapke explains, Versova village was under the authority of the administrator or Vazir at Malad, who levied taxes on the native fisherfolk by claiming a share of the fish produce. To establish uniform control over the island inhabitants, the British abolished the Vazir’s power,thus gaining the support of the local Kolis.

Early Topography and Fishing Practices

Until the 19th century, the city of Mumbai, as we recognize it today, comprised a collection of fragmented islands interspersed with numerous creeks and tidal inlets. The Koliwada of Versova was situated on one such island, bordered by the open sea on the western side and various creeks on the remaining three sides. These creeks are known as Khoshis (खोशी) in the native Koli dialect. The traditional fishing grounds of the Versova Kolis extended from the Khoshis of Oshiwara in the north to Amboli in the east and Juhu in the south. Employing ingenious fishing techniques, such as constructing bunds known as Mundis (मुंडी) across the narrow tidal creeks, the Kolis created a small outlet for the passing seawater, upon which nets were placed to trap passing fishes. This technique, known as Mundichi Masemari (मुंडीची मासेमारी), facilitated abundant and easier fishing and remained a hallmark of the Versova Kolis for many years until the surrounding wetlands were encroached upon by urban development.

Image 1: 1893 map of Mumbai depicting Versova island in the north-west. Image courtesy: Wikipedia.

The Religious Life of Versova Kolis

The Kolis, including the Versova fisherfolk, have always been deeply religious, a trait that persists today, evidenced by their adherence to strict rules and rituals surrounding their fishing practice. For a community whose very livelihood depends on the unforgiving and unpredictable vicissitudes of the sea, it is a natural cultural reflex to deify these formidable forces, seeking to placate them through worship to ensure their safety and protection. Thus, at the heart of the social fabric of all Koliwadas, including Versova, was the Bhagat (भगत) or the local Shaman, who mediated between the people and the local spirits, to ensure harmonious co-existence of both entities. Before the advent of modern medicine and technology, the local Bhagat served as the primary recourse for addressing all manner of daily challenges, ranging from boat malfunctions and poor catches to family discord and illnesses.

Image 2: Household shrine of the Pede family in Versova Koliwada. Image courtesy: Yamunabai Lakshman Pede (Gandul).

Versova Kolis, like their other counterparts, uphold strong religious traditions,with household and social life still guided by religious diktats. Ekvira and Khandoba are the primary deities worshipped in every household shrine. The images of these deities, embossed on a silver sheet known as Taak (टाक), are the centrepiece of the household shrine. In the olden days, when the native houses were scarce, each household typically had one central shrine. As individual families expanded and split into different homes to accommodate the growing number, newer houses also established their own shrines. However, the central shrine in the original family home retained and still retains paramount importance for the entire extended family, and all important household rituals are conducted in the original family shrine. These expanded individual houses are known as Khatli (खटली) in the native dialect, while the original family home with the central shrine is known as Pova (पोवा). Therefore, one Pova oversees multiple Khatlis. According to Tapke, there are seven such Povas in Versova Koliwada, each of them presided over by its own Bhagat.

Image 3: Taak depicting Ekvira and Khandoba along with Mhalsa, in the Pede family shrine. Image courtesy: Yamunabai Lakshman Pede (Gandul).

The religious landscape of Versova Koliwada is dominated by two significant temples, the Hingla Devi (हिंगळा देवी) Temple and the Vetal (वेताळ) Temple. Hingla Devi is considered the gram devta (ग्राम देवता) or the patron Goddess of the Koliwada. According to local legend, many years ago, the villagers found a young girl adorned in finery abandoned on the shores of Versova. They rescued the girl and sheltered her in the house of the Hingle family of the Koliwada. To everyone’s surprise, the girl disappeared without a trace that very night, leaving the villagers perplexed. Coincidentally, the following morning, a local fisherman caught an idol in his nets, which he promptly brought to the Koliwada. The locals interpreted this as a sign that the girl was an incarnation of a Goddess who had left her idol behind for them to worship. The idol was ceremoniously installed in the centre of the Koliwada, and the deity came to be known as Hingla Devi, worshipped by the people of Versova Koliwada ever since. An interesting aspect of this shrine is that the religious services are conducted by women who serve as temple priestesses instead of male priests, highlighting the elevated status of women in the Koli society.

Image 4: Entrance of the Hingla Devi temple. Image courtesy: Vetal Mandir, Dongri Galli, Versova Koliwada.

Another important deity in the spiritual life of the Versova Kolis is Vetal, considered a fierce manifestation of God Shiva and regarded as the guardian of Koli settlements, requiring propitiation once a year for his divine protection. In Versova Koliwada, Vetal plays an additional role as the guardian of the local fishing dock and is known by the epithet Bandar Raja (बंदर राजा) or king of the dock. An annual esoteric ceremony called Bandar Raja Pujan (बंदर राजा पूजन) is performed to honour the Vetal and thank him for his guardianship. The local Bhagats have a unique method of determining the date for this ceremony. After the month of Aagot (आगोट), which is the Koli term for the non-fishing monsoon period, dogs within the Koliwada start barking incessantly at night, interpreted by the Bhagats as Vetalacha Sanket (वेताळाचा संकेत) or a message from Vetal demanding his annual tribute. A communal meeting convened thereafter to fix the date for the pooja.

For the Bandar Raja Pujan ceremony, the Koliwada is enveloped in darkness as houses are shuttered, with only a select few volunteers present to conduct the rituals. The ceremony starts at the Vetal Temple, where a large Palkhi (पालखी) is assembled, containing a bed of cooked rice, upon which a slurry of gulal (vermillion powder) is sprinkled, lhaya (ल्हाया) or puffed rice is also added along with chopped pieces of ash gourd and large cucumbers. The Gulal and the chopped vegetables symbolize the blood and meat traditionally placed in the Palkhi in the olden times. Once the Palkhi is ready, a volunteer chants prayers invoking the prominent gods and goddesses of Maharashtra to invite them to the Pooja. After each deity is invoked, the volunteer tosses a coconut into the assembled crowd, and attendees compete to catch the offering. The person who catches the coconut offers praise to the invoked deity and smashes the coconut on the ground in honour of the deity. This ritual continues until all prominent deities are invoked, resulting in the ground in front of the Vetal Temple being covered with smashed coconuts. Once this custom is done, the Palkhi bearers run with the Palkhi towards the Versova crematorium located outside the Koliwada, followed by the rest of the attendees. Throughout the procession, the participants are not supposed to look back and continue to keep running forward. Once the procession reaches the crematorium, further rituals are conducted, including the sacrifice of some chickens, and the Vetal is thanked for its spiritual presence in the Koliwada and requested to continue his protection of the people of Versova Koliwada. The participants then return home, following the same rule of not looking back while walking.

The Kolis, including those from Versova, as a coastal community, consider all water bodies sacred, with the Ganga in particular holding the highest reverence as the epitome of purity and honesty, which they identify and venerate as Kashi Ganga. An example of this veneration is evident in the traditional social customs of the Kolis, where individuals invoke the Kashi Ganga to plead their innocence in any disputed matter concerning them. The phrase ‘Kashi Gangechi shappath gheun sangto!’ (काशी गंगेची शप्पथ घेऊन सांगतो!) is the one being referred to here.

Image 5: Vetal shrine in Versova. Image courtesy: Hingla Devi mandir, Versova Koliwada.

Trading History, Architecture, and the Locality

Versova is one of the few Koliwadas that served as an important port for trade along the western coast of India, spanning from Gujarat to Kerala. Its secure and deep natural harbour made it a favoured stopover for boats travelling back and forth, where the local fishermen provided hassle-free docking facilities. An intriguing anecdote connected to the trade and local architecture is shared by Tapke. He recounts that in the days of his great-grandfather, roughly a century ago, all houses in Versova Koliwada were constructed entirely of thatched walls and woven palm fronds as roofing. However, due to the organic nature of the houses, there were numerous fire breakouts in Versova, resulting in the destruction of the entire Koliwada on several occasions. To address these incendiary mishaps, the people of Versova finally decided to transition to more durable pukka houses. They sourced the raw materials, primarily consisting of stone, timber, limestone, and roof tiles, for the pukka houses from the merchant ships that frequented the Versova port. Thus, due to repetitive fires and the existing trade networks, the domestic architecture of Versova Koliwada changed forever from kaccha (mud) to pukka (brick/concrete) houses.

Image 6: One of the few remaining traditional houses in Versova Koliwada belonging to the Pede family. Image courtesy: Yamunabai Lakshman Pede (Gandul).

Versova Koliwada is divided by numerous lanes, each with interesting etymologies. Many of these lane names were derived from wide-ranging sources including topographical factors of the bygone landscape, professions, communal background etc. A few of them are as follows:

● Areas along the seacoast often undergo significant tidal sediment deposition, leading to the formation of sand mounds on the coast. In the seaside area of Versova Koliwada, several such mounds, known as Tera (तेरा) in the Koli dialect, were once prevalent. Consequently, the settlement that grew near these mounds became known as Tere Galli (तेरे गल्ली). Although the mounds have since disappeared, the nomenclature remains, offering insight into Versova’s past landscape.

● Mumbai is known for its rocky coastline, characterized by numerous basalt mounds or hillocks, which still exist in some areas. Versova Koliwada had similar basalt hillocks, which were known as Dongri (डोंगरी) in the local dialect. The settlement that developed near these hillocks came to be known as Dongri Galli (डोंगरी गल्ली).

● Bhagats hold and have historically held a revered status in every Koliwada, including Versova, and the localities of their residences often became associated with their names. One of the most celebrated Bhagats of Versova was an individual named Budha Bhagat (बुधा भगत). Hence, the lane in which his house still stands is referred to as Budha Galli (बुधा गल्ली).

Mandvi (मांडवी) denotes a customs office in the native language. As per Tapke, the Portuguese established a customs post at Versova to monitor local trade activities. The neighbourhood that grew near the former Portuguese customs post, acquired the name of Mandvi Galli (मांडवी गल्ली).

● During World War I, the British government evacuated some Koliwadas in Mumbai to accommodate army barracks. Sion Koliwada was one of the evacuated places. Many displaced residents of Sion Koliwada relocated to Versova Koliwada, and the area designated for them by the locals became known asShivkar Galli (शिवकर गल्ली), derived from the Marathi name for Sion, which is Shiv (शिव).

● The bustling trade on the Versova coast attracted many trading communities from outside to settle in Versova Koliwada. Among the oldest of migrant groups in Versova is the Khoja community from Gujarat, who settled in Versova to engage in fish trading. The local Kolis allotted a piece of land in Versova Koliwada to the Khojas, and their settlement came to be known as Khoja Galli (खोजा गल्ली).

Socio-cultural Practices

The societal structure of Versova Koliwada is unique in that their women have historically enjoyed greater freedom compared to other communities. Child marriages were never the norm, and the age for marriage for girls was determined through an interesting social practice. In their early years, girls in Versova traditionally wore a gown and a brocade known as Perker Polka (परकर पोलकं). As they entered their teenage years, their attire changed to the Lugra or a sari being worn beneath the waist, while the Polka remained above it. After coming of age, the girls transitioned to wearing the full Lugra (लुगरं), draping the shoulder with the Padar or the end of the sari for the first time. This act, known as Padar Jhilla (पदर झिल्ला) or draping the garment over the shoulder, was a marker indicating that the girl was of marriageable age. Padar Jhilla or Padar Jhilne (पदर झिलणे) was celebrated as a festive occasion for the family, and the first draping of the garment for the girl was ceremoniously done on the day of Khandoba Pournima (खंडोबा पौर्णिमा) when a Palkhi was organized in honour of the namesake deity; thus, marking the transition of the girl into a woman.

The prospective girl's family was then approached by the family of the potential groom, and the wedding prospects were discussed in the presence of the elders. If both parties agreed to the marriage, the groom’s family visited the bride’s home a few days later, typically in the evening, carrying a token amount known as Dej (देज) which was to be paid to the bride’s family. Further, the details were finalized in a ritual known as Sada Parakhne (साडा पारखणे), where the material exchanges for the marriage ceremony were formalized. The religious customs of the wedding commenced after Chaitra Ashtami, specifically after the festival of Holi. On the night before the wedding, both the bride and groom households ceremoniously fetched water from the local fig tree, known as Umbrache Pani (उंबराचे पाणी).

The entrance of the wedding household was decorated with two converging banana trunks, known as Kelicha Toran (केळीचे तोरण). On the day of the marriage, the Bhagat would visit the wedding household and conduct certain religious rituals to invoke the household deities. Following this, the process of Ghare Talne (घारे तळणे) or frying the Ghare, which are sweet vadas, commenced, and the Ghare were then distributed amongst family and friends. An important and unique aspect of Koli weddings, including those in Versova, was the presence of Dhavlarin (ढवलारीण), the community priestess. The Dhavlarins possess knowledge of all traditional rituals and customs essential for completing Koli weddings; including numerous rites, methods of organizing objects for specific rituals, and traditional wedding songs. This knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next, with young women volunteering to learn from senior women, thus preserving the traditions of the community.

The Koli women of Versova also enjoyed certain privileges not available to their counterparts in other communities. A prominent aspect of this was the acceptance of widow remarriage. If a Koli woman lost her husband prematurely, the custom of Paat Lavne (पाट लावणे) allowed the woman to remarry the unmarried brother of the deceased husband, with the support of the husband’s family. Over time, this practice was extended to all eligible bachelors of the community, with either the maternal or in-laws’ household or sometimes both, wholeheartedly supporting the woman in her new endeavour.

Association with the Freedom Movement

India recently celebrated its 75th anniversary of independence, and an interesting aspect of Versova Koliwada’s identity is its association with the Indian Freedom Movement. The plaque at the entrance of the Koliwada proudly declares it as ‘The Land of Freedom Fighters.’ A total of 114 freedom fighters from Versova Koliwada actively participated in the freedom struggle against British rule. Among them, Posha Govind Nakhva was particularly renowned, earning the moniker ‘The Tiger of Versova’ from the British government. In fact, the Versova Kolis suggested this name to the state government for the naming of the coastal road bridge which bypasses Versova. Tapke narrates two compelling anecdotes that propelled the Versova Kolis into the freedom movement. The first anecdote highlights that by the end of the 19th century, the Versova Kolis were almost completely dependent on British goods such as cloth for the boat sails, tar for waterproofing the boats, and coir ropes and nets for fishing. When the British government imposed an import tax on these items, skyrocketing their prices, it significantly impacted the livelihoods of the Kolis. This economic hardship prompted them to revolt against this injustice.

Another interesting incident recounts how the Kolis rose in arms against the colonizers to protect the honour of their women. Some British officers had settled in spacious bungalows in the neighbouring Koliwada of Madh and would pass through Versova to access the mainland. Given the festive nature of the Kolis, numerous celebrations occurred throughout the year, where both Koli men and women regaled shoulder to shoulder without gender distinction. The passing Britishers would crudely ogle at these Koli women, catching the attention of the Koli men. In response to this affront, they decided to protest against the indignity but were met with police brutality by the British authorities. This incident fuelled a deep-seated resentment towards the colonizers among the Versova Kolis, which persisted and motivated their fight till the eventual ousting of the British in 1947.

Image 7: Entrance of Versova Koliwada.

Mumbai is often referred to as the microcosm of India due to the multitude of communities from across the country coexisting within its cityscape. This diversity is reflected in the various neighbourhoods of the city, including Versova Koliwada. Despite accommodating a diverse migrant population with open arms, Versova Koliwada continues to maintain a conscious awareness of its core identity amidst the unabating march of modernity.


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

[2] Campbell, James M. The Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency-Thana


The author would like to thank Rajhans Tapke for his guidance and assistance with the research.


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

Campbell, James M. The Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency- Thana. Volume XIV. 1882.

Rajhans Tapke, in discussion with the author, January, 2024