Mumbai is a fascinating city, no doubt. But about 54 km away lies Vasai, a closely knit township, steeped in culture and boasting a glorious history.
There’s so much to explore in this nature’s haven from beaches to ruins of structures such as churches and forts, once the stronghold of powerful empires — the Gujarat Sultanate, the Portuguese, Marathas and British.
Vasai Fort drew international attention especially after Coldplay’s ‘Hymn For The Weekend’ featuring Beyoncé Knowles was filmed here. Sprawling over 110 acres of land, it was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. It used to be accessible by both, sea and land — porta de terra and porta de mar. Though parts of it have been restored, a major portion is the original structure; stone plaques bearing the name of the Portuguese governors and captains under whose leadership the fort was constructed, arches, pillars, tall wooden doors, stairways, etc.
The fort is part of a city, which was home to over 3,000 residents, soldiers, nobles and artisans. The township also had churches and chapels, a hospital, granary, library, coin mint, market place and more. Apart from the fort itself, ruins of the churches, chapels, market and granary also exist, as I discovered on an organised heritage tour of the place. “There were seven churches,” says Deepak Machado, the tour guide, adding that the Portuguese loved to build churches. Their architectural style isn’t unlike the churches in Goa, which was also ruled by the Portuguese; they have elements such as naves, arches, bell towers, windows positioned to allow natural light to filter in at all times.
We visit a church with an exclusive section where the Baptism ceremony is said to have been held. The concave roof of this section is painted with faces of cherubs. Throughout the tour, we don’t just learn about the history of the place but also discover intriguing facts about Portuguese architecture. Says Sunil D’mello, the other tour guide, “The Portuguese had a way of interlocking stones while building archways, which secured them in place.” It’s no wonder that while most of the fort is in ruins and bears signs of the attacks — dents and chips by cannon balls, for instance — the archways remain unscathed.
Another common feature of Portuguese architecture is Corinthian and Doric pillars. We find the former adorning entrances to the citadel as well as the churches. Watchtowers, posterns, piers and hidden tunnels are other features. At the end of the tour, we go through a short tunnel, a part of the main fort, which is quite a challenge because the entrance is so small and low that you have to literally crouch and wriggle out.
We visit a second church, which was also a Jesuit college, where prayers are held for the locals to this day. Part of the structure was built with red coloured stones that are still intact. Another church we go to has gravestones; some are carved in Portuguese and one in English, indicating it might have been used during the British Raj.
Vasai has developed in leaps and bounds since I last saw it over two decades ago. But even today, it retains its rustic, small-town charm; the shops dotting the street, the labyrinth of villas belonging to East Indian families — residents of this place, the odd housewife, selling snacks from a makeshift shop — a table and a clothing line displaying chips in local flavours… Easily accessible by road and railways, this slice of Portugal in India is a must-visit.
This post was written by one of our participants, Melissa Nazareth on her visit of Vasai Fort with local experts Sunil and Deepak. You can find her original post here.
It appears as you speed across the sea link, as a mass of coloured roofs and a fort like structure sticking out at the centre.
You can’t miss the fishing boats gently bobbing in the waves glinting in the sun.
And before you know it, you would have reached the end of the sea link and forgotten about the Koliwada.
What you would have probably missed is that the people living here are the original settlers of the city we call Mumbai. Their documented history goes back to Raja Bhimdev’s rule (approximately 750 years ago) but their oral history probably goes back even further.
What you would also miss is that behind the distinctive coloured roofs is a close knit network of different faiths that are live harmoniously and are connected through a system of governance that is beyond what the rest of us follow.
You will miss the narrow lanes that at one time separated the communities by profession, caste and religion.
You will miss the four temples that once marked the boundaries of the village and the church with the unique statue of Jesus in a fishing boat (an inspiration from Noah’s Ark or perhaps a way of giving their profession some sort of religious sanction.)
If you stepped into Worli Koliwada, you would see the original 450 odd families have thousands of others keeping them company. And of course the cats. There must be hundreds of them – each one showing kick-ass attitude.
What you will see is how the trash we dump irresponsibly finds its way onto their shores. You will see a sensitively created ecosystem being ruthless plundered by outsiders for petty gains.
You will also see a lot of history disappearing and religious beliefs transforming. There are of course, old men who have stories to tell – to anyone willing to lend them a patient hearing.
There is the Worli Fort that gives a panoramic view of the sea link (which would have cut through the wada if they had stuck to the original plan but for the intervention of the elders and activists.)
The one thing you will not see, but feel, is the fragility of their livelihoods – threatened by the entry of outsiders into their traditional occupation and the proposed coastal road.
You will neither see nor feel the tenacity of its residents but you know that this is a fight they are all preparing for. It is after all, a fight for their survival and the continuance of a way of life that goes back several centuries.
As the sun goes down creating a spectacular painting in the sky, you can’t help but look at the traffic on the bridge and wonder when they will pause and see what you did.
When indeed will we wake up to the reality that history cannot be hidden under newspapers and fresh paint because it will find a way to rise to the surface and demand to be noticed?
When will we pause and reflect on the untold history and unsung heroes who were here before the Maximum City came into existence?
When will we stand by the city’s original residents as they stand at the threshold of what appears to be a long drawn battle for their survival?
And then you hear the pulsating rhythm of the dhols being played by the village youngsters and you know that you need them, as much if not more than they need you.
This post was written by one of our participants, Savitha Suri on her visit of Worli Koliwada with local expert Anita Yewale. You can find her original post here.
When I was a child, my Mom told us stories about Warli art she saw in Jawhar. She told me about how her Government office is decorated in Warli art, and that the people of the tribe decorated those walls and corridors.
That was my first brush with Warli tribe, indirectly of course. As I got older, I started reading things on how the tribe is associated with superstition and black magic, and never got to know much about their culture. On the other hand, plagiarized Warli art became more and more common, owing to its simplicity and universal language.
Recently, I got an opportunity to spend some time with the Warli tribe in Maharashtra. I ended up learning a thing or two from them and came back with renewed respect for their ideologies, which are still relevant today.
The Warlis are an indigenous tribe, found in northern parts of Maharashtra and some parts of Gujarat. It is a scheduled tribe and their language is Warli, which is a dialect of Marathi (mixture of Marathi and Konkani). They get their name from the word ‘Waaral’, which means manure (Agriculture was the prime occupation of the tribe). Their art is a depiction of their culture, heritage and their relationship with nature. Theirs is a rare community that doesn’t discriminate between genders in society, and between married and widow women for auspicious occasions. They worship nature and hence believe in peaceful and sustainable co-existence.
It is believed that their traditions date back to 2500 B.C., as similar murals are found in Rock Shelter of Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh (which are believed to be created between 500 B.C to 10,000 B.C.)
I got to experience their village, their houses and how they decorate them on the outside and inside, how they create what they do and their beliefs.
Village and houses
One look at their houses and you’ll realise the houses belongs to Warli community – the walls and doors are covered in art. But the real charm is on the inside. The walls are painted in huge and meticulously made murals which are tradionally created during marriages, births of children and new harvest.
How are they made? The walls are coated with cow dung and later covered in red soil for canvas. The paintings are made using a mixture of rice dough and natural glue from trees. The delicate art is made using bamboo stick (like a paint brush). These murals have a life of 25-30 years. They are also made on cloth and take weeks to be created.
(In picture: A house wall in the village)
The tribe worships nature and there is no idol in the temple, but murals of sun, moon, and Earth. They have temple dedicated to deity of Waghoba, meaning tiger, as they acknowlegde and worship its role in balancing the food chain.
(In picture: Temple of Waghoba)
Paintings and murals
The Warli paintings owe their origin to the tribe not having a written language, so they made paintings that depict their beliefs and tradition. The intention remains same as that of written language – passage of information from one person/generation to another. They are created using simple shapes like triangle, circle, and square; nature being the inspiration behind these shapes (For example, circle is inspired from sun and moon, triangle is inspired from mountains and pointed trees)
(In picture: Mr. Parhad teaching us basics of Warli art)
The wedding mural is drawn on the house wall, and shows the arrangement and customs of the ceremony.
The following painting shows evolution of relationship between human beings and nature. It shows human beings when they existed in harmony with nature, deriving food from it (berries in the case of this painting) to how they no longer peacefully co-exist. At the centre of it, Mother Nature is shown weeping.
One of the local residents showed us how they make hair pins, baskets and mats out of bamboo stem. Though the process looks simple, it involves technique and precision that lend the items strength and beauty.
They also make a musical instrument called Tarpa out of bamboo, which is native to the community. They perform the Tarpa dance during festivals and new harvest, in which both men and women participate.
Challenges faced by the community
The community understandably feels the need to preserve its culture. It faces fear of losing their language, as schools in their villages do not teach Warli to children. Artists in the community teach their children the concepts of Warli art, so that they don’t lose touch with their traditions. But perhaps the biggest challenge they face is in terms of plagiarized Warli art, and their need for intellectual property rights. Hopefully with the efforts of skill-sharing NGOs like ‘Adivasi Yuva Seva Sangh’ and ‘Warli Art Foundation’, their art forms receive rightful recognition.
Artworks are by renowned Warli artist Mr. Sanjay Parhad, whose work has been published in 17 countries. He is a recipient of Palghar Bhushan Award.
All images have been clicked by Nidhi Gupta, unless mentioned otherwise.
This post was written by one of our participants, Savitha Suri on her visit of Dharavi Island with local expert Mogan Rodrigues. You can find the original post here.
Imagine for a moment, that you woke up one day and found that you have forgotten your native language, food and attire. And to your horror, you are at your home that is filled with strangers who feel more at home than you do.
What if you found that your family – and your community – is in the same predicament as you?
What is your social and cultural identity then? Who are you really? Where will you go – if you wish to – to reclaim your identity?
Will you give up and forge a new identity? Or pick up pieces that still survive and cling to them hoping that they will lead you to your roots?
I am guessing the answer to that would depend on how vulnerable, threatened, insecure, motivated or inspired you are by your past and present.
Now imagine an entire community seeking answers to these questions.
The pieces of the East Indian community’s history lie scattered across a vast region; from Bandra to Vasai crisscrossing through villages such as Manori, Gorai, Uttan and Culvem – which are part of Dharavi.
That’s right. Dharavi. But not the sprawling urban slum that springs to your mind. Dharavi Island.
It is home to a community that was created out of the native Hindu population when they converted to Christian Catholicism during the Portuguese rule.
A community who chose to be called thus as a way to differentiate themselves from the migrant population that was encroaching their land.
Proclaimed East Indian by royal charter, the community’s members lie scattered all over the world. Their early exposure to European powers and their steady anglicisation meant that their traditional ways of living slowly receded into the mists of time.
Dharavi island remains one of the last bastions of the East Indian community and their traditions.
You will find it in the lugda they drape, in the jewellery they wear, their distinct East Indian Marathi (which has a few Portuguese words as a throwback to the Europeans who forced a new religion on them), their script, their Indo Portuguese cuisine and even their names.
A community that got it’s members from all castes of the Hindus, the East Indians were by no means immune to the Indian Independence movement. It was after all, an East Indian – Kaka Baptista who coined ‘Swaraj is my birthright and I shall fight for it’ made popular by – and often incorrectly attributed to – Tilak. He also represented Tilak and Savarkar during their incarceration.
The tiny museum named after him attempts to put together pieces of a not so distant past. It’s shelves are filled with clay ovens, pans, serving dishes, ladles, musical instruments, jewellery and books that are poignant reminders of a community that is clinging to remnants of their traditional lifestyle.
They wage lonely battles to prevent their quaint villages from being over run by modern monstrosities like amusement parks, SEZ zones and waste management plants that serve as a grim reminder of how vulnerable they are.
Their relative isolation from the megapolis is a double edged sword. And if it has to swing in their favour, they need their stories shared, valued and appreciated.
Walk down the lanes of their villages or run your hand along the ruins of the first church that was built.
Read the names on the memorial plaques at another ancient church or look up at the quarry where the stones for the Bassein Fort came from.
Gaze into the vast sea whose shores have a memorial for Brother Herman who rid the village of witchcraft and made it habitable again or tuck into an authentic East Indian meal at one of their homes.
And when you leave their shores, you will find yourself sending a silent prayer to the heavens that they succeed in forging a stronger identity that is built on a judicious foundation of their rich history.
The Kaka Baptista East Indian Museum mentioned in the post is run by the Mobai Gaothan Panchayat (www.mobaikar.com) and is open for visits on weekends. It is located at Theresa Villa on the Manori-Gorai Road, five minutes from the jetty at Manori.
It is a stop on the East Indian Heritage Tour run by Swadesee with local expert Mogan Rodrigues.
The Warlis are a tribe known for their art, nomadic lifestyle and it’s customs. Their community is a believer of nature interdependency and is accustomed to rural methods of living. They are known for their style of community living and collective sharing of responsibility, be it building someone’s house or working together on a farm. I recently happened to visit one such tribal village located in the outskirts of Mumbai through Swadesee.
Surrounded by urban settlements and cities like Mumbai and Valsad, this village is threatened by urban encroachment, which is already visible as you notice the transition from it’s closest station, Vangaon to the village. Outside the station are concrete buildings and cement related commercial setups, and mud houses come to sight only once we reach the village.
The village has pakka main arterial village road and narrow mud roads that provide access to individual houses.
We were welcomed to a Warli artist, Sanjay’s house which is opposite a local Marathi medium school, Ashram. This school caters to a majority of the local kids till the 10th grade. People who can afford more fees send their children to an English medium school in a nearby town, which is till the 12th grade.
A long chat with Mr. Sanjay over a cup of tea, enlightened us about the inspiring lives the Warli lead. They carry immense love for nature and believe in the correlation of the existence of nature and humans. Evidence of this is seen in their style of construction, celebrations and customs. Sanjay’s house is made of natural materials with techniques of wattle and daub walls and mud flooring. They had recently replaced thatch roof with corrugated sheets to avoid yearly maintenance. Walls are made from boru stems weaved through strong bamboo frames and daubed with moist mix of mud and cow dung. A layer of cow dung is plastered over the wall for protection.
The house is decorated with Warli paintings on the walls, on lamps, handicrafts and musical instruments made of natural materials like fruit or vegetable shells, bamboo, palm leaves, etc.
This age-old tradition of building their own house is threatened today, as we see natural buildings as less as 50% out of 100-120 houses in the village.
The introduction of the scheme by the government, the ‘Pradhan Mantri Yojna’, that started 15 years ago provide help with funds and construction to the villagers to convert their strong, traditional, natural kachha houses to harmful, non breathable, cement constructed pakka houses. In the name of development, the village incurs heavy loss on their traditions, culture and self sustenance. The government’s interference in trying to erase the concept of mud houses which allows the tribe to build their own houses with locally available natural materials, which are better in strength, permeability, thermal insulation and resistance to seismic disturbances than the “modern” cement buildings, takes a heavy toll on the villagers by increasing their dependency on external factors leading to the villagers becoming lesser self sustaining each day.
Rather, the meaning of self sustenance has acquired a new meaning altogether. Earlier, they were dependent on forests and farms for almost all their needs, a large number of which are being lost in land acquisitions. Although they have easy access to materials in markets in Vangaon, Chinchoni and Dahanu, which are in convenient proximity, they have to be obtained in exchange for money, which generates the need for higher income. However, many practices have not been given up like the practice of Ayurveda since olden times for minor illnesses. Government hospital in Vangaon, and few private hospitals in the neighboring urban settlements are approached in the need of major medical attention.
It is ironic how major disruptions in an otherwise peaceful community of the Warli tribe are caused by the government and their development schemes. The Dhamni and Surya dams and canals, constructed with promises to provide water and electricity, displaced an entire village and parts of other villages. These villagers are yet to be compensated, even after 35 years of it’s construction. Similarly, big factories were brought up with the vision of providing opportunities of electricity and employment. Amidst these unstoppable constructions, land acquisitions and false hopes, the villagers lost their fertile farmlands, and with them, their primary occupation of agriculture. They were left with no other choice than to accept employment as laborers in such factories for income.
Amidst these struggles with outside influence and their own survival, their love for nature remains constant. Minimum waste is produced to prevent accumulation in the environment. Compost is made from food and vegetable waste, dry leaves and other organic waste. Dry leaves are burnt over farms to fertilize them and prevent weed from growing. Plastic is burnt. During festivals and celebrations, colors are prepared organically with plants, flowers, fruits and even, ash. However, this practice is slowly seen to be deteriorating with convenient availability of synthetic colors in the market.
Another aspect that the community is known for, is it’s art. Warli art is the identity of the tribe and the villagers are proud and happy to share their traditions, art and knowledge. The origin of Warli art traces back to 15,000 years ago, when paintings were used as a medium of communication. The tribe, since then, has been using paintings as a part of their culture, celebrations and community gatherings.
Warli art is a depiction of their daily routine and the nature in equilibrium. They also convey stories through their paintings by portraying tiny details of the story and it’s components. The paintings are made from basic geometric designs such as triangles, circles, semicircles, dots and lines to make human figures, animals, mountains, sun and other instances from nature. Even though Warli painting is an accumulation of basic shapes, it requires years of practice and skills to achieve excellence in this art. Sanjay, one such artist who can paint Warli art flawlessly and in exquisite detail, taught me how to paint a few figures which I was able to perfect after a lot of practice!
The beauty of Warli art lies in it’s humble nature. The paintings are done using natural materials only. They are done either on walls or cloth, smeared with red mud, cow dung or ash for base. White paint is made with rice flour mixed with natural gum from tree. Paintings are done, merely with hands or thin bamboo sticks.
A specific Warli painting is done every year after harvesting rice.
It is followed by making of toran at the entrance, offering harvest to the Lord, feeding the cattle and finally sitting together and enjoying the feast in hopes of being able to enjoy a rich harvest again, next year. Another such ritual is ‘chowk’ painting done before a wedding by the bride. No marriage in the history of the Warli tribe is done without this painting.
The tribe understands Warli art as legacy and attempts to pass the art on to their kids. They are trying to include Warli art as a subject in academics in the local school, too. Warli art gained recognition in 1976, when people and government noticed the artistic abilities of Jivya Soma Mashe, who received National award for Tribal Art that year and Padma Shri Award in 2011. It was after this recognition that people started pursuing Warli art professionally. Other instances like exhibition of Warli paintings of artists from Ganjad village, in Delhi exhibition by Vishwas Kulkarni, brought this beautiful art to people’s attention.
Today, various groups work in preservation of the Warli art and tribe for future generations to see. Artists like Sanjay Parhad and many more are able to include Warli art in their economic life by exhibiting their work directly and indirectly in and outside India. A group ‘AYUSH’, created and maintained by the tribe itself, enables direct interaction between the tribe and the people. Rural tourism groups create awareness among people making them sensitive about their tribe. Such initiations help in the socio-economic development of the tribe as well. However, awareness is just the first step in the preservation of this tribal lifestyle and people need to understand the importance of their culture and avoid external, threatening interference for them to live peaceful and stable lives.