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Communities at the crossroads

The Koli fisher community and the Visvakarma Panchal artisans are amongst the earliest inhabitants of Mumbai. This article, by Sanjay Ranade, explores the contrasting impact of urbanisation, modernisation and globalisation on these two communities, with the Visvakarmas prospering and the Kolis increasingly facing loss of lands and livelihoods

The story of the Kolis and the Marathi-speaking Viśvakarmā Pānchāls of Mumbai provides an interesting insight into the impact of urbanisation, modernisation and globalisation on centuries-old communities.

Accounts of the presence of the Koli community on the islands of Mumbai date back to the 12th century. The coast from Gujarat right down to the south of India was a traditional fishing area. Through the centuries, as part of their fishing activities, the Kolis moved up and down India’s western coast. In their myths and traditions, they trace their history to the Ramayana, even calling Valmiki, its author, a Koli. Valmiki, the Kolis say, is their adi purusha, or ‘first man’.  

For a long time, before the first records of Koli settlements begin to appear, the Kolis’ occupation of the islands of Mumbai was transitory as they halted between their journeys up north or down south. Their goddesses, like Harbadevi at Versova for instance, were clearly important deities in the 12th century.

The Kolis began to settle on the islands of Mumbai when, in the 12th century, the Salsette islands, or what are popularly called the Sashti islands, came under single rule and became a formal kingdom, Mahikavati or Mahimdesh.

Pratap Bimba, one of the Bimba kings of Champaner, marched into the region in 1138 CE. The area was then ruled by the Kolis and other tribal people. Pratap Bimba called a group of 66 kulas, or families belonging to different communities and occupations from Champaner, to build the new kingdom. Among these were the Viśvakarmā Pānchāls.

The Viśvakarmā Pānchāls comprise five artisan communities -- Sonār or goldsmiths, Sutār or carpenters, Kāsār or those working with copper, Lohār or blacksmith, and Silpakār or sculptors -- collectively called Pānchāl. The Viśvakarmā Pānchāl community, by virtue of its skills that were imperative to the building and establishment of towns, cities and business centres, and its organisational unity, successfully challenged the existing order of castes.

This grouping and regrouping happened through certain processes which also shaped the identity of the Kolis. The first is Sanskritisation, defined by M N Srinivas as a process by which “a ‘low’ Hindu caste, or tribal, or other group, changes its customs, ritual ideology and way of life in the direction of a high and frequently ‘twice-born’ caste”. Thus, the Sonārs now call themselves Daivadnya Brahmins, and the Twaśta Kāsārs now call themselves Pānchāl Brahmins. This process of Sankritisation among the Viśvakarmā Pānchāls in Mumbai has meant that of the five castes that comprised the community originally, only two are left to claim that identity -- the Sutār and the Lohār. These identities have been further challenged because the government now recognises the Lohār as a nomadic tribe, whereas the Sutār come under the category of ‘other backward classes’. Both categories get different opportunities for government jobs.

Meanwhile, modern construction processes have territorially marginalised the fifth caste, the Silpakār, who are without an occupation and concentrated in areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

The Kolis, on the other hand, had their own territories and considered themselves kings or landlords of these spaces in Mumbai. Early during the formation of the kingdom of Mahikavati there is record of at least one occasion when a Koli chief negotiated with the ruler and took for himself a high caste status in return for this favour. The Kolis’ attitude to other castes coming into Mumbai has been one of benevolence -- like a king towards his subjects. Very clearly, the Kolis considered themselves a high caste unto themselves. Among the Kolis, the Son Kolis view themselves as superior to other Koli sub-castes.

The Kolis were part of the reserved category of scheduled tribes, and many Kolis in the early-’50s and ’60s got government jobs. Today, however, they have lost their scheduled tribe status in Mumbai following a court order.

Sanskritisation processes have changed the religiosity of the Kolis more dramatically. The goddess Mumbadevi, for instance, is no longer worshipped by the Kolis; she has been usurped and transformed into a form of Durga. The Varkari and Datta sects have found large numbers of followers among Mumbai’s Kolis. These sects insist on abstaining from alcohol, meat and fish. Such abstinence in Hindu society is believed to lead to a higher social status and recognition within the community. The worship of Shiva too has been introduced with the very strict fasting that is done during the Shivaratri festival.

A second process that caused grouping and regrouping was migration. From their original base in Tamil Nadu, the Viśvakarmā Pānchāls moved up the western coast along India’s ancient and historic ports, right up to Gujarat, in the wake of urbanisation, the formation of cities, and development of trade. Many temples in Mumbai, including those of the Kolis, have been supervised and built by Viśvakarmā Pānchāls. So too were the Shiva temples in Worli and Dharavi Koli settlements built in the early-1900s by Viśvakarmā Pānchāls.

It was migration that led to the Viśvakarmā Pānchāls moving into Mumbai along with the textile, engineering and automobile industries that came up in and around Mumbai. These required the traditional Sutars and Lohars to mix and match their knowledge of working with iron and wood. Bullock-cart making is one industry that brought the Viśvakarmā Pānchāls prosperity in Bhiwandi and Kalyan. The skill of repairing looms likewise. More importantly, the idea of making dies from which jewellery could be moulded involved a combination of blacksmith and carpenter skills, and the Viśvakarmā Pānchāls became experts at this. Today, not a single industrial estate in Mumbai is without a Viśvakarmā Pānchāl and his workshop or factory.

The Kolis were faced with a very different situation. An important event occurred during the rule of the descendants of Kanhoji Angre, Shivaji’s navy chief who ruled the sea along the coast from Raigad down south to Mumbai. The Angres levied a joban kar or choli kar on the Kolis of Raigad. This meant that Koli women had to pay tax if they wanted to cover their breasts. The practice drove the Kolis out of Raigad in large numbers and they began settling in and around the Mumbai islands. These were the Son Kolis.The prefix ‘son’, or ‘golden’, comes from their use of bright golden turmeric powder during worship.

The Kolis may have encountered Islam through trade with Muslim fishing communities even before the Portuguese arrived in Mumbai. Even today, every Koli village has a Muslim shrine and it is customary for the Kolis to offer worship there. Christian practices came with the Portuguese and there were conversions during that period. However, at a time when communal expression finds easy currency in the political theatre, the relationship between converts and non-converts is very different in Koli villages. Indian worship patterns have always been syncretic; this syncretic practice of religion is more pronounced among the Kolis. For instance, a Hindu is born a Hindu and it is impossible for him to get back into the religion if he converts to another one. Among the Kolis, however, if a Christian man marries a Hindu woman, the woman converts to Christianity, and if a Hindu Koli man marries a Christian Koli woman then the woman converts to the Hindu religion. The latter is achieved through the agency of the Brahmin priest who solemnises the marriage. The mere word of the Brahmin priest is enough for the Kolis to accept the conversion and the woman as a Hindu!

The most striking feature of the Kolis’ world of faith and religious practice is that the deity appears unimportant. The Koli, it would seem, keeps his own requirements at the centre and chooses a deity who fulfils those requirements. This brings about an interesting situation. Is the Koli a tribal? Is the Koli a Hindu? Is the Koli a Muslim? Is the Koli a Christian? It would seem that the answer is that the Koli is just a Koli. In any Koli place of worship we find different articles of faith represented in an unabashed, honest manner.

The Viśvakarmā Pānchāls too have withstood the tensions emerging from the divisive and competitive forces of caste, religious fundamentalism and economic reform through a combination of traditional and modern. Their faith in their principal deity Viśvakarmā,their pride in their work and confidence in their artistic and creative skills, and the historic ability of this community of artisans in India to form guilds that evolved into democratic institutions with highly transparent and interactive communication between members have made the Marathi-speaking Viśvakarmā Pānchāl community a unique group worth studying in the context of globalisation and social fragmentation.

Both the Kolis as well as the Viśvakarmā Pānchāls share a common social feature -- an intra-community dispute redressal system whereby all sorts of disputes among members and, at times, even with members of other communities, are settled through the agency of elders within the community. This is a characteristic of older communities in India that has been maintained in spite of emerging legal systems.

Since Independence, Koli lands have been taken over in large measure by the Indian armed forces that want a portion of the land close to the coast for defence installations. The sea has increasingly been taken over by larger and more sophisticated fishing trawlers. The price of diesel and ice has been mounting, so also the price of land in Mumbai. Fishing died, local brewing of liquor was banned, and the salt areas were gradually filled up. At the same time, levels of illiteracy remained high among the Kolis and they continued to marry among themselves. As a result, the community ended up being trapped on pieces of land they could not even sell. These were large tracts on which the Kolis had built large houses. The Kolis began to rent the houses out to make money; it was a profitable business for many Kolis in the early years after Independence. Today, however, the business has changed the Kolis’ position in their territory, as tenants outnumber Kolis ten to one. For decades, the Kolis did not keep a record of rents and, as land sharks begin to circle them, they are finding it difficult to hold on to their property. Without their property the Kolis are helpless, and within the property they are cornered by the overwhelming number of tenants and pressure from land developers.

The Viśvakarmā Pānchāls, in contrast, have managed to transform from the ‘low’ Sudra castes to artisans to artisan capitalists through the centuries. Thus, the Kolis’ indigeneity and the Viśvakarmā Pānchāls’ approach to modernity have brought both communities to a different crossroads in history today.

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(Sanjay Ranade is a Reader at the Department of Communication and Journalism, University of Mumbai, and Honorary Research Fellow, Monash Asia Institute, Monash University, Melbourne)

Infochange News & Features, April 2010