Long before the Portuguese arrived to the port of Bombay, the city which is today known as Mumbai, was once a mass of several tiny islands. These islands were inhabited by the fishing community of coastal Maharashtra, known as the Kolis. Today, the aboriginal tribe of Mumbai seems to be lost in translation.
The word Koli in Sanskrit means "one who spreads the net". That is probably how the name originated. There is enough evidence to suggest that they were not the only inhabitants of the Seven Islands. These islands were invaded by numerous Kings dating back to the Maurya Empire in 3rd century BCE. Each era saw a different kingdom eventually being invaded by another powerful kingdom. By the 13th century, King Bhimdev established his kingdom in this area but was defeated by the Muslim rulers of Gujarat in 1348.
From 1391 to 1594, it was the Gujarat Sultanate that governed these islands. However, when the Portuguese arrived, the Treaty of Bassein (known as Vaisai today) between the Portuguese viceroy Nuno da Cunha and Bahadur Shah of the Gujarat Sultanate placed the islands into Portuguese possession in 1534. As a close knit community, the Kolis remained unaffected by the several rulers that came and went as the eras faded. They carried out their fishing profession passionately and diligently, without being a hindrance to the kingdoms that came, conquered and collapsed.
But as the Portuguese began to take control of the islands, there were many changes in the names of places; this being an outcome of their inability to pronounce the names. They renamed the island of Mumbai as Bombaim (Bom in Portuguese means good. So Bombhay/Bombaim/Bombay literally meant "a good bay/port") Likewise, the tiny island of Al-Omani, which was located very close to the island of Kolbhat(Colaba), was renamed as Old Woman's island. The Koli's of the Al Omani island were famous for traveling all the way to the Gulf of Oman for catching fish.
It is said that wherever the Portuguese set foot, they infused their Christian culture into the local traditions. Thus began the conversion of several Kolis from Hinduism to Christianity. Although they changed their religion, they continued to live in harmony with the rest of the community. Even today, both Hindu and Christian Kolis live very peacefully in their Koliwadas, celebrating all their festivals together.
An important festival of the Kolis is that of Narali Punav. The Coconut Festival or Narali Pornima as it is known otherwise, is celebrated on the first full moon day (Pornima) of the Hindu month of Shravan. This is usually in the month of August. The festival marks the beginning of a new fishing season. During the months from June to August, no fishing is carried out as this is the time for their breeding. A massive variety of fish and sea life is repopulating the sea and hence it is considered a sin by the fishermen to go fishing during this season.
The month before Shravan, ie. Ashad (June-July) is the time during which the monsoon in the western coast of India is at its peak. Thunderstorms and cyclones frequent the turbulent waters of the Arabian Sea. This is also another reason why fishing has been officially banned during this season by the Govt.
According to mythology, this festival is celebrated by offering a coconut to the Lord of the Sea, Varuna so that he is pleased and calms down the angry ocean. In Hinduism, the coconut is considered a holy fruit and is offered to all the gods on all occasions. However, logically, the coastal region has an abundance of coconut trees and hence it is offered to the sea during Narali Punav.
Being a festival, yes it certainly has a special treat to offer. Narali Bhat is a famous dish, cooked in the Koli style, that is enjoyed by one and all during the festival of Narali Punav. It is sweet, it is savory and most importantly, it is a beautiful blend of spices and jaggery. Rice being a staple of the coast, Narali bhat today has undergone a lot of variation in its ingredients and cooking methods.
The Kolis live in small pockets of the city known as Koliwadas (wada in Sanskrit means locality). There was once a time when Mumbai had more than a 100 Koliwadas and Gaothans. However, due to urbanization, there are only a few Koliwadas remaining in the island city. Some of them are Sion, Colaba, Worli, Versova and Mahim.
Interacting with the Kolis is not only easy, but a very enjoyable experience. Not only are they warm and welcoming, but will go all the way in helping someone in need. One very important aspect of this community is that they strongly believe and practice gender equality. There is no discrimination between men and women whatsoever and both are equally independent. The Kolis also believe in financial independence, and hence, you may find that a lot of Koli women investing their earnings in gold. They may not have a fancy car or a big house to live in, but they certainly load their necks with gold chains and hands with sparkling gold bangles.
The traditional dress of the Kolis is very simple. The women wear the Nauvari (nine yaard saree) and the men are draped in a square loin cloth, called a surkha, and shirt with a cap. The lower end of the cloth is tightly drawn through the legs and knotted at the back so as to cover the buttocks.
If you happen to visit a fish market in Mumbai, you will notice that fish is mainly sold by women. That is how the business has been for centuries and is still continuing. It is only the Koli women who sell fish and only the men who go fishing. Economic stability and independence is highly important for both.