East Indian Community of Mumbai

in Overview
Published on: 30 November 2020

Devyani Nighoskar

Devyani Nighoskar pursued her Bachelors in Media Studies with a specialisation in Journalism from Symbiosis International University and has worked as an editorial coordinator with GoUNESCO and as a cultural reporter for an online magazine called Homegrown. Devyani is a cultural enthusiast and a history aficionado and loves to travel.

The city of Mumbai has always nurtured the dreams of those who come seeking their fortunes from all across the nation. According to the World Population Review, about 40 per cent of the entire population of Mumbai is made up of migrants from the rest of the country. Urbanisation and the ever-increasing numbers of migrants have led to a rapid change in the dynamics of the country’s commercial capital. Its original inhabitant communities such as the Kolis, the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu (CKP) and the Banjaras, are struggling to protect their identities. The East Indians, a unique Catholic community of Mumbai, is one such ‘endangered’ group:

The name, the East Indians, was given by the British to differentiate the community from Goans and Mangaloreans (West Indians) who were also Catholics and had migrated to Mumbai. The area constituting the villages of the East Indian community consists of the former seven islands of Bombay (given to the British as dowry by the Portuguese), the former island of Salsette (ruled by the Portuguese, till the Marathas defeated them, and gifted it to the British), Thana, Bassein (Vasai), Chaul, and parts of Raigad. In 1891, their population was estimated to be about 60,000 across 180 gaothans. Today however, only 3,50,000 East Indians exist in and around Mumbai across 80 gaothans.

The History of the Community
In the early part of the 16th century, many natives of Bombay, Bassein and Salsette were introduced to the teachings of Christianity by Franciscan missionaries. This slowly led to the conversion of many natives to Christianity, a movement furthered by Jesuit fathers under St. Francis Xavier and his successors after 1542.

The Gazetteer of the Bombay presidency mentions that:

 ‘…The Portuguese converted Brahmins, Pachkalshis, Charkashis, Sonars, Khatris, Bhandaris, Kharpatils, Kunbis, Kumbhars, Nhavis, Dhobis, Kolis, Bhois, Mars, Chamars, and in Thana, even Mussalman weavers.’[1]

The conversions led to changes in the names of people as they started adopting Portuguese names. However, today it is difficult to determine who the original East Indians are. The early East Indians, today known as the Anglo-Indians, bear no relation with the modern East Indians. The racial distinction in the case of the East Indians was introduced by the Europeans in India. After a certain point marriage with the officers of the British Government and the soldiers of the East India Company was encouraged. This led to a tremendous rise in the population of the East Indians – now different from the original inhabitants of the island – resulting in the traditional East Indians losing their identity.

In order to make a clear distinction, a census was made of the Armenians and the East Indians. The report of the Indian Law Commissioners however complicated things as, according to DSouza, it mentioned that:

The East Indians meant to include all those who were not Hindus and Muhammedans and the English Law was made applicable to them as personal law.’ 

Although the Charter Act of 1813, brought an end to the monopoly of the East India Company, it helped the Company retain the monopoly of trading in China and tea trading with India. Other subjects were now completely opened to the British. However, the Act had a provision which granted permission to go to India for ‘moral’ and ‘religious’ improvements which meant the setting up of Christian missions. This led to an influx of many Christians from Europe to India which in turn led to an increase in the number of East Indians.

The Moore's Indian Appeals which was a 14 volume set of the nominate papers filed by the English barrister Edmund Moore, contains the law reports from 1836 to 1872. One of its cases, Abraham v. Abraham, discusses the question of the legal status of two Christian communities, the natives and the East Indians.[2]

The argument was centred on the native Christians who were considered to be of Hindu origin and the East Indians, originally members from other castes who eventually converted. The East Indian community, considered to be well-off, adopted the European lifestyle. However, the case reveals that native Christians could also become competent enough to acquire European tradition and culture while maintaining their native character.

Various names were given to the native Christians who belonged to Bassein, Salsette and Bombay.  It was further argued that they were not descendants of the Portuguese because they were descendants of the converted natives who retained their original caste distinctions. The natives could also be called East Indian if they adopted European customs. Hence, the term ‘East Indians’ began to lose its significance and slowly the use of the original term began diminishing.

With the increase in population by the end of the 19th Century, the East Indian community started segregating themselves from the rest of the communities. They adopted a distinct and specific term called the ‘Eurasians’.

Eventually, Christians in India came to be known based on their territorial designations like the Mangaloreans, Goans, etc. The original Christians of Bombay and the other suburbs, however, did not accept the nationwide differences and retained their original identity. The educated class was already known by the same identity which is today renowned as the East Indian community.

The East Indians claim to be the first inhabitants of Mumbai, however, this is debated by many. Some say that the CKPs were the original inhabitants while others say it was the Kolis. But there is no verifiable source to confirm this. The only pragmatic reasoning here could be that the geographical definition of Bombay has been different at different times and hence all claims may be valid.

Bombay, the East Indian Gaothans, and the East Indian Home
As mentioned earlier, the very definition of what constituted Bombay was itself up for debate. Did it comprise of just the seven islands or did it also include the belts in the North Konkan? In The East Indian (1967) Elsie Baptista writes, ‘the homeland of the East Indians is situated in the North Konkan Belt between 18°55 and 19°28 N Lat. and 72°45 and 72°51 E, comprising Bassein, Salsette and Bombay covering roughly an area of 300 square miles, bound by the Vaitarna River on the north and the Arabian Sea on the south and the west.’ 

Even today, the East Indian gaothans can be found in these areas. Earlier there were 169 gaothans, however, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) records today show only 70-80 gaothans that are left as they are collapsing under the pressure of urbanisation and have people from all cultures living in them.

However, a few characteristics, unique to the community, can still be observed. The houses have distinctly Portuguese architecture and are brightly painted. A typical house consists of a veranda (oli), used for repairing nets and receiving visitors; a sitting-room (angan), used by women for household work; a kitchen; a central apartment; a bedroom; a devotional room (devaghar) and a detached bathroom. The upper floor is connected to the lower floor with an external staircase. The indoors are simple and cosy with a lot of family pictures and religious symbols.

Most gaothans comprise of narrow lanes with colourful houses on either side. They have a chapel and a big cross symbol mounted on an elevated platform. These were places where everyone knew everyone and there was a lot of mingling and merry-making, especially during festivals. However, today new high-rise buildings are coming in and changing their character.

Many typical gaothans have disappeared. A few can still be found on the Manori-Uttan stretch and in the northern suburbs of Bandra, Kurla, Vakola, etc. One such beautiful gaothan is in Girgaon, known as Khotachiwadi. One of its residents, James Ferreira, a celebrated fashion designer, has been rallying for the cause of obtaining a heritage status for the gaothans. According to Mr. Alphi D’Souza, head of the Mobai Gaothan Panchayat, the present Chief Minister of Maharashtra has said that the gaothans are heritage precincts and has instructed the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to start their demarcation process. However, official grading of these houses is still awaited. 

The East Indian Population
East Indian history is 400 years old but the population is certainly dwindling. Today it stands at a mere 3,50,000, dispersed around Mumbai, Vasai and Thane.

The main reasons stated for this decline are:

  • Migration: Many East Indians have migrated to Canada, Australia and the Middle East in search of a better life.
  • Thinly populated families: Most East Indian families do not have more than 2-3 children.
  • Inter-faith marriages: Being a liberal and a progressive community, East Indians are allowed to marry outside their faith and religion.

Caste and Occupation
Just like the Hindus, the occupations of the East Indian community went on to define their caste. There are five East Indian cultural groups: Kulbis, Samavedi Christians (commonly called Kuparis, or the literate class), Koli Christians, Wadvals and Salsette Christians.[3] Each caste has various sub-castes as well. However, these caste differences are not as apparent in the community today.

The East Indians were typically farming and fishing communities. Most farmers had their own land (mostly on Dharavi island and Vasai) and were involved in rice, paddy and corn harvest. Vegetable cultivation was also common in the summer season. The community also grew white onions in the winter which were sweet and not pungent. Other professions associated with the East Indians were that of salt pan workers and toddy makers. Some of them were fishermen and boatmen as well.

However, the East Indians were fairly literate and, given their ability to speak English, enjoyed a certain beneficiary status under the British and were given employment in various sectors such as banks, railways, municipal offices, and textile mills. Some East Indians acquired higher education and went on to become lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc. Today, however, there is no distinct occupation of the East Indian community and its members are pursuing different careers in various fields.

A directive was issued by the government in 2006, stating that all East Indians will get the Other Backward Class certificate. However, members of the community reported that this has been an issue as they have been asked to produce their great-grandfather’s birth certificates which most people do not have. Despite showing landholdings and other documents, they have not been given these certificates. They are now appealing to the government to make this process simpler.

Cultural Aspects of the Community
The East Indian Community has a rich culture that can be observed through its food, language, festivals and celebrations.

Clothing - The clothing of the East Indian Community is not too different from regular Hindu clothing. The women who were part of the fishing communities wear knee-length sarees. The typical saree is red and pink in colour and is usually worn during festivities, while widows generally wear blue and black sarees. The wealthier women usually wear gowns and dresses. There are no distinctive clothes for men. They usually dress up in a loose-fitting white kurta and knee-length shorts.

Jewellery - The East Indian community’s jewellery is quite distinctive. It is similar to the kind worn by Hindu women but is much heavier. The fug dor is a gold necklace with intricate flower designs. The poth is a jewellery item presented to the bride by the groom and is seen as an identity marker for married women. The padar, widely worn, is a simple chain made of gold beads. The popular kaari is a hair ornament with a flower and pin. These days the East Indians dress up in their traditional attire mainly during festivities and celebrations.

Festivals - Apart from Christmas and Easter, the main festival of the East Indians is the Agera Harvest Festival in October. The paddy grown in Gorai and Manori is brought to the church to be blessed and is distributed amongst the people to mark the harvest festival. It is like a thanksgiving festival that is held in the first week of October where stalks of grain, which were first plucked, are made into sheaves and brought to the altar of the Lord in procession. On this occasion, women play the ghumat or the kettle drum (Baptista 1967).

The Church Feast is also a popular celebration wherein each parish has their own feast. Food festivals and East Indian music festivals are held regularly. However, not all these events are being celebrated in the way that they were before because many non-East Indians, who now occupy the gaothans, complain of chaos and noise. The East Indians, therefore, invite everyone to these celebrations to make people aware of some of these dying traditions.

Weddings - Weddings are grand in the community and are characterised by certain unique traditions, one of which is the Umra Cha Pani, which is essentially a procession carried out at night to the gaothan well. Water is collected from the well which is to be used by the bride to have a bath the next morning. The day after the marriage, a big get-together is held where the guests pitch in the money to prepare a lavish fish menu.

Cuisine - Food and drink are perhaps the most important aspect of the East Indian community. Most of their preparations take time as their feasts are elaborately prepared and are very lavish. They are mainly served with boiled rice or bhakri (a type of cooked bread). They have an exotic seafood fare and a key element of their eclectic taste is the East Indian bottle masala that is a mixture of 32 hand-grinded and safeguarded masalas.

Some popular East Indian dishes are the Khudi curry (Chicken and mutton), Bombay Duck (Bombil) curry, Sorpotel, Vindaloo, Indal, Gizad, Tambrinath, etc. Their favourite snacks include potato chops, cutlets and tongue rolls. They also have special handmade bread known as Aapas. Desserts include the traditional Christmas sweets such as marzipan, kalkas, etc., and regular sweets include pancakes, chatch, pithiche laroo, etc.

Wine and other liquor make up an important part of not just the East Indian celebrations but also their diet. No occasion is complete without wine. The most popular wine is toddy, which is obtained by tapping into the palm tree. It was consumed in the afternoon by plantation workers and farmers for rejuvenation after a day of hard labour. Another widely consumed wine by the community is the khimad, a sweet and spicy coconut wine. Ginger wine and rice wine is also made and heated in earthen jars and served in small mud glasses called cheuvnies.

There are no standalone restaurants dedicated to East Indian cuisine in Mumbai but some of the popular dishes such as Sorpotel and Vindaloo do make it to meat and seafood menus of certain big restaurants.

There are various tools, objects and appliances that are specific to the East Indian community. These are:

Karba - A pot-like vessel made of glass used for storing country liquor

Engarichi Barni - A pot made of clay used for storing vinegar

Kolimachi Barni - A pot made of clay that is used for storing Kolim or tiny prawns

Forma - A large clay vessel with a clay lid to bake pig/cake

Morli - A tool made of wood with a steel blade used for cleaning and cutting fish

Reckla - A cart used for travel and for horse racing

Kupta - A clay pot used to warm liquor

Chavnis - Little cups to serve liquor in

Khavni - A tool used to scrape and grate coconuts

Bovatra - A broom made of ribs of the coconut leaves used for sweeping

Movali - A broom made of the leaves of the date palm or of weeds. It is used for sweeping the house.

Ghumat - A musical instrument made of clay and lazert skin on top.

Ulki - A big spoon made of coconut shell.

The language of the East Indian community is a mix of Marathi and Konkani with a heavy Portuguese influence. It does not have a script of its own. Before the Portuguese arrived the language spoken by the locals in North Konkan (Mumbai) was Konkani Marathi, but after the arrival of the Portuguese many Portuguese words crept into the language. For example, Patata (potato + batata), Sal (living room), etc.

In the 1600s the Portuguese started writing important documents in the East Indian language using the Roman script. One of the most important books thus written was the Christ Purana, a holy book of the East Indians. Earlier, Mass in the East Indian churches was held in East Indian Marathi however once the Portuguese left and the British took over, English was the language that started being used. Eventually, English took over the education system as well and the use of Portuguese words in the language became lesser.

Today, the situation is unfortunate in that the younger generation does not know how to speak the East Indian language, which is, therefore, gradually dying out. The Mobai Gaothan Panchayat is trying to revive it by creating an East Indian Language Dictionary. Every year, annual singing competitions are organised where participants are encouraged to write their own songs in East Indian Marathi and perform them.

Mogan Rodriguez, an expert on the East Indian Language is even trying to revamp and record old East Indian folk songs that only a few elderly women of the community know. Every year a Mass is organised in the East Indian language but Rodriquez feels that reviving a language is futile unless the community members start talking in it as a practice. There is also no literature available on and of the language.

Bodies and Associations for the East Indian Community
Though almost every goathan has its own association looking after its welfare, there are four main associations working for the community as a whole. 

  1. The Mobai Gaothan Panchayat
  2. The Bombay East Indian Association
  3. The Maharashtra East Indian Federation
  4. The Mool Sangathan

Though each association works separately, they come together whenever there is a common cause. For example, when the BMC tried to demolish Cross symbols in gaothans, all the associations came together to fight them.

The Mobai Gaothan Panchayat has also started a newsletter, inspired by the Juhu gaothans. This will be adapted to Gaothans across Mumbai. The newsletter consists of articles on culture, food and festivals, news, current happenings, funding requirements, photos, etc., written and managed entirely by the community members. Around 3500 copies are printed for the city and 18,000 emails are sent to the diaspora abroad. The newsletter is available to anyone, who wishes to read it. It is also available online.

The Major East Indian Cultural Revival Projects
(a) Manori Museum

The East Indian community has been striving for cultural revival in an attempt to not only save their own culture but to make non-East Indians aware of this rich heritage. One such step taken towards this was by the Mobai Gaothan Panchayat which established a museum housing more than a hundred artefacts like jewellery, clothes, books, utensils, mud pots, furniture and installations depicting the East Indian culture.

Set in Manori, the museum was initially opened in two hutments in 2010, and was shifted into a wooden building a few years later. The number of artefacts keeps growing year by year as more East Indians become aware of it and donate traditional objects such as utensils, jewellery, clothes, etc. The museum also depicts various East Indian professions from older times such as toddy tappers, farmers, salt pan makers, tailors, etc. through mannequins. The museum is closed during the monsoons. The effort now, however, is to rally the government to take over its management so it can be promoted under the banner of Maharashtra State Tourism.

(b) Uttan Heritage Village

There are certain revival projects that have still not seen the light of the day. One such attempt is the Uttan Heritage Village Project. Uttan is a small coastal town towards the north of Mumbai, an area densely populated by East Indians and Kolis. The Mobai Gaothan Panchayat, after realising that most Gaothans were losing their character because of urbanisation, thought that there should at least be one heritage village that retains the characteristics of a typical Gaothan. Since Uttan was a suburb, the cause of the East Indian Heritage Village in Uttan was actively pushed. Unfortunately, due to a lack of funds and grants, it is still on hold. However, the Uttan-Gorai-Culvam-Manori belt still preserves a lot of East Indian heritage precincts.

(c) The East Indian Bhavan

Another such project that is still only on paper is the creation of an East Indian Bhavan for cultural events, talks, conferences, meetings and celebrations. Alphi D’Souza says, ‘Earlier, most churches were built on the donations made by East Indians. However, now we as a community have started feeling deprived. We are really pushing for these projects and hope they take life someday. There we can talk about old times, good times.’

Future of the East Indian community
As of now, the community is very much alive in the city of Mumbai, however, it is struggling to make its existence known. Though awareness levels are much higher than what they used to be, the East Indian language and culture is dying and the community members are working hard to save it.

However, the younger East Indian generation does not seem to be too involved in the community’s activities. Could this be one of the reasons that the community is on the brink of extinction? Many people of the older generation certainly feel so. As long as they do not get involved and innovative ways are not incorporated in their attempt at cultural preservation, the struggle may never end for the East Indians and their rich heritage and legacy may one day be confined to history books.



[1] History of East Indians’. http://tbeia.com/History.html

[2] Abraham v Abraham [1863] 9 Moore Indian Appeals 199, 19 ER 716 http://www.geocities.ws/englishreports/19ER716.pdf

[3] ‘East Indians’. https://www.freewebs.com/east_indian/history.pdf


DSouza, William. ‘East Indian Christians’. http://www.freewebs.com/east_indian/beiaeichristians.htm

Baptista, Elsie Wilhelmina.The East Indians: Catholic Community of Bombay, Salsette and Bassein. Bombay: Bombay East Indian Association. 1967.