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East Indians of Vakola
Vakola is home to one of the indigenous communities of Mumbai, the East Indians. The East Indians are the original inhabitants of Mumbai, Salcette, Bassein and Thane regions. The Red Indians of America, aborigines of Australia, tribes of North East and adivasis of various Indian states are in the same league as the East Indians of then – Mobai. It is believed that the East Indians are those whose ancestors converted to Christianity in the 16th century when Portugal took over Bombay from Bahadur Shah of Gujarat who gifted it to them for support. It is though debatable as historic records exist of two apostles of Jesus – St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew coming to India, almost after Jesus ascended to heaven – around 50 AD. There is proof of St. Thomas’ presence especially in the South and that of St. Bartholomew in the North Konkan region. Besides, there is evidence of many Nestorian Christians who were in India long before the Portuguese and India had Jewish traders and settlements for over 2000 years.
Over the years, the global Islamic invasion in the East, Moghul rule in India and growth of Buddhism/Jainism/Hinduism left the early Indian Christians spiritually starved for the next fourteen centuries. This could have led to their backsliding and following the religion of the majority around or the rulers. What looks to be most probable is that when the Portuguese arrived, they re-converted the few earlier nominal Christians and revived them, but also converted many thousands more as is well recorded. After Portugal handed over Bombay in 1661 to the British East India Company, the company began recruiting Christians from other parts of the Konkan — Mangalore and Goa – or these were migrants to Bombay. Hence, to display their loyalty and also to differentiate the ethnic community of Bombay the others, they began to call themselves the Original East Indians, after the company.
Almost all the villagers then had relatives being married into the neighbouring villages – Kalliana (now Kalina), Vakola, Vile Parle, Sahar and other East Indian villages or gaothans. Each had further divisions called pakhadis with mud roads dividing the houses. Kole-Kalyan was a station on the Salsette–Trombay Railway which was dismantled after the rail line closed down in 1934. St. Anthony’s Church and parish are part of the ” Kole Kalyan ” tehsil of Suburban Mumbai district which meant home of the foxes, wolves, jackals… And fox hunting was a favorite pastime of the Britishers posted at the Kalina Military Camp – In fact, taking advantage of the plenty hunt available here, The Bombay Jackal Club (1889) founded in Santacruz was shifted to Kalina. The Portuguese modified Kole Kalyan to Cole Caliana and later just Callina to suit their tongue. The nearby village to this Kalina became Vancola and later was anglicised to Vakola.
Vancolites – Initially Parishioners of Kalina
The Church of Our Lady of Egypt at Kalina to which the Vancolites initially belonged is mentioned in the fifth list of 1630 and again as Colecaliana in the 1713 list by church historian, Paulo da Trinidade who writes – it was founded in the days when Antonia da Portiuncula was Custos (1605 – 1608) and missionary Manoel de Santo Mathias was baptizing souls by the thousands. Paulo also refers to the two villages which in had over 1000 adult Catholics, 200 children and some babies. Vakola started out as a younger brother to Kalina though over the years, it has over taken it to become the third largest in the archdiocese – over 23,000 families. They lived in quaint tiled houses with verandas and traveled by bullock carts / horse carriage or on a mud un-tarred road to station by Bandra Bus Co. which took passengers from Kalina to station for one anna and from Vancola for two pice.
St. Anthony’s was a typical East Indian village – hamlet of houses clustered together, surrounded with fields with vegetables or orchards of fruits and marshy land. The property boundaries were marked with cactus and the villagers were happy and jovial. Feasts were celebrated in traditional style and the community was united with each family having to send at least one member for a funeral or it would have to pay a fine and face social disgrace. All East Indian traditions were observed including Umrache Paani (procession to the village well to fetch water) prior to the wedding ceremony. Komen and East Indian Competitions were nights of song, dance, drink, brass band and revelry, where the community gathered at the Kalina Talao (pond), which is now a filled-up ground next to the Kalina Church – Kaka Baptista Maidan – beautified by Mr. Brian Miranda and his wife, Mrs. Tulip Miranda, both BMC Corporators.
Sons & Daughters in the Lord’s Vineyard
Everybody in Vancola was either a Miranda or Rodrigues until the Lobos who came in much later. Msgr. Benny Aguiar, an internationally renowned Catholic journalist and eminent longest serving ex-editor of ‘The Examiner’ which is now over 170 years, was born (10th March 1926) in Vakola since his mother was from here, though the family house is in Kalina. As a new bride, his mother, Ms. Catherine Lobo had to come to her mother’s house for confinement/delivery. His brothers include Justice AS Aguiar, who in 1996 was Judge in Mumbai’s City Civil & Sessions Court until 200 when he was elevated to the High Court bench.
Vakola has contributed many priests and nuns serving in the Lord’s vineyard. Msgr. Nereus Rodrigues was Vakola’s first priest, besides being a renowned school admininstrator and Rector of Mount Mary’s Shrine, Bandra. His brother, Msgr. Hilary Rodrigues was the parish’s first graduate who also directed and made valuable contributions to Chruch organizations like Alcoholic Anonymous and Nurses Guild nationally. Both the brothers started out at St. Anthony’s School which had just one teacher then and their love for education and sports forced them to move to St. Theresa’s High School, Bandra and then go overseas for higher studies which they excelled in.
The East Indian community kept the faith alive even as the Marathas targeting the Portuguese attacked the region and the Franciscans abandoned their mission there. Among themselves, the Kalina, Vancola, Sahar and Vile Parle East Indian landlords owned huge tracts of land. In fact, all the land occupied by Santacruz and Sahar Airports, Kalina University up to Kurla and the Santacruz Railway Station belonged to them. During World War II, the government under Defence of India Rules acquired all the land towards the north for a 6 pice a yard and later in 1970s the land towards the south was acquired for University Campus, Highways, Bandra-Kurla Reclamation, etc. Destroyed were the mini orchards of mango, guava, chickoo or jambul trees, fields and vegetable patches, the idyllic Mithi river which was the life of belt was encroached upon and tarred roads led to the concrete jungle that Vancola is today.
The Mithi River was not the sewerage nallah for garbage and waste to be dumped, that it is today. It was a scenic water body with local fisher-folk (Kolis) who earned their livelihood from it or to transport others who wanted to travel across. The dominant East Indian communities included – Kunbis (farmer), Bhandaris (toddy tappers) and Agris (salt-pan workers), besides those who assisted in fox-hunting. The East Indians of Vancola continued to fulfill their religious obligations at Our Lady of Egypt Church in Kalina as it was the very few churches that escaped being raised to the ground by the Maratha attack and occupation of 1739. The Franciscan missionaries abandoned the area and the Secular priests took over. For schooling, the Vancolite children went to Saint Mary’s School in Kalina, founded in 1876 and called ” The Little Portuguese School “, when Fr. Custodio Fernandes was the Vicar or Parish Priest then.
‘V’ Badminton Club
The East Indian of Vancola have been active in sports and it was in 1940 that the ‘V’ Badminton Club was founded – 80 years ago. It was soon after the outbreak of World War II that a group of 15 dynamic men and women formed the Club to promote games in the area. Mr. Arnold D’silva, one of the founding members permitted his compound to practice badminton. Subsequently, Mr. Vazifdar who purchased the property, now called ‘Peace Haven’ continued the use of the compound for the Club activities. Some of the other founder members included Mr. Vincent and Mr. George Rodrigues, Mr. GT Sampey, Mr. Norbert Miranda, Mr. Hector Bocarro, Ms. Lydia Rodrigues, Mr. Manuel Miranda, Ms. Esther Bocarro, Mr. D D’souza, Mr. Vazifdar and family, etc.
A few years later, an RCC badminton court was constructed in the compound with generous contributions received from the members. To raise funds and also for social entertainment, the Club held Whist Drives, Housies, Dances and hosted renowned musicians including Goody Seevai, Nellie… The music and dance was co-ordinated by the youngsters – Joe, Harry, Labs & May Theodore as they used to perform for the Bombay Symphony Orchestra at Cawvasji Jehangir Auditorium, near Churchgate in town. Mr. Eddie D’souza from Dadar provided the best recorded sound systems.
The Club could also purchase their own chairs and tables (Sunder brand) as hiring them proved expensive. Each chair cost Rs. 11 /- and each table was brought at Rs. 20 /- which was a lot of money at that time. The members also purchased 8 – 10 dozen glasses (American brand) at Rs. 4 – 6 /- for a dozen. The Sampey family, who are parishioners of Vakola have a set of these still preserved as mementos. The Club made its mark on the city’s badminton scene winning at tournaments and playing friendly matches held by the Goregaon Gymkhana, Cusrow Baug (Colaba), Malcom Baug (Byculla), Khar Gymkhana, etc. In 1948, Mr. GT Sampey and Archie Miranda reached the quarter finals of the Bombay Suburban Badminton Championships and the Club in 1965 celebrated its Silver Jubilee with 55 members on its rolls.
The Golden Jubilee was celebrated with a 3 day picnic to Silvan Hotel, Matheran with a grand meal prepared by the son of the proprietor, Mr. Francis Xavier, who was also a known ‘Shikari’ and President of the Matheran Municipality. To support development of St. Anthony’s Chapel into a Church, the Club assisted the Parish Priest by conducting fund raising activities. It was for the first time that the Christmas Tree was organized for the parish children and Santa Claus (Mr. Vivian Noronha) came riding in a East India horse chariot (Renkla) with two white horses owned by Mania of Vakola Village and gas balloons going up in the air. Encouraged by the Club, one of the parishioners, Mr. JC Rodrigues won the Gold Medal in the 400 meters hurdles at the All India Sports Meet held in Punjab and was also champion of St. Xavier’s College and Inter-University Athletes, besides other honours.
Mobai Gaothan Panchayat
Mobai Gaothan Panchayat (MGP), is an initiative by the three founding stalwarts – Mr. Alphi Dsouza (Vakola parishioner & father figure of the EI community), Gleason Barretto and Walter Murzello and a strong MGP team – who are like-minded visionaries to bring all Gaothans of Bombay (Mumbai) together and fight for our basic rights. The aim is to have a panchayat style of functioning. Every village is to have a Sarpanch and a Deputy Sarpanch who works in their individual gaothan (village). There are 189 Gaothans in Mumbai and being the Original Inhabitants of Mumbai they are united in their demands as the true Children of the Soil.
Rossie D’Souza, 32, sarpanch of Gorai village, is one of the few who has retained his land and his clout. He is the proud owner of six acres of land within the administrative area of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation or the city municipal corporation of Mumbai. “I had to stand up to the pressures of the real estate mafia, which I did. I didn’t want to give up the land that my forefathers had so dearly earned,” he says.
It is battles such as these and the fear of being relegated to history books that prompted the community to open an East Indian Museum on May 26 in Manori, Mumbai. The museum is housed in an abandoned family home of one of the members and displays several original artefacts like traditional wine glasses, utensils, dresses and jewellery. “The East Indians have a peculiar culture of wine drinking,” says Desmond Pereira, 45, who has donated some wine glasses to the museum. “The glasses were made from clay and used to be the size of the tequila shot glasses today,” he smiles. Wines from currants, beetroot, ginger and rice are all delicacies in their culture. “But for the museum none of this would have survived,” he adds. “No one drinks wine in such glasses anymore.”
Some of the projects and activities are:
- An Official East Indian Bhavan
- Showcasing EI Traditions for Tourism
- No SEZ / SRA or High Rises in Gaothans
- Online Radio, Social Media & Audio-Visuals
- Publications to Record & Revive the EI Culture
- Campaign for Special FSI & Facilities in Gaothans
- National Recognition for Freedom fighter, Kaka Baptista
- Regularisation of Crosses & Free Access to Old Churches
- One Window Permissions & Subsidies to Preserve Heritage
- Gaothan WAY(Women And Youth) Project to Empower Them
Mobai Gaothan Panchayat thanks Theresa and Family for providing us their property at Manori to be used as the Mobai House, dedicated to the East Indian community. It is located in Manori at Theresa Villa on the Manori-Gorai Road, about five minutes travel from the Manori Jetty. A place where one goes back in time and experiences the way things were done by the EI forefathers. The place looks like a mini East Indian village replete with a tiled house and surroundings consisting of artefacts, bullock cart, fishing boat, a well with pulley to draw water and a cross for prayers. The food mostly cooked in earthen vessels on fire from the choola and ladies dressed traditionally present on site to serve you. In the background, is also light music from the Ghumat to get you in mood. It has a huge section on East Indian cuisine. Several huge photos of the most famous delicacies adorn its walls.
Vakola East Indian Association
In 2003, the local East Indians feeling the need to organize themselves together to preserve their cultural identity, under the leadership of Douglas Lobo (President), Ivan Lobo (Vice President), Alphi D’souza (Co-ordinator), Christopher & Roy Miranda (Treasury & Accounts) initiated the Vakola East Indian Association. It celebrated its first anniversary with a grand Cultural & Food Festival encouraged by Parish Priest, Fr. Agnelo Fernandes on 31 October 2004 with His Grace, Bishop Thomas Dabre of Vasai in attendance. Since then, the Vakola EIA has been growing from strength to strength. Annually for the last almost 20 years, it has been organizing the East Indian Singing Competition for EI singers, especially from various gaothans (villages) like Andheri, Bhiwandi, Irla, Juhu, Kalina, Kurla, Khar, Kharodi, Kirol, Versova, Worli, etc. Outstanding EI students and achievers are felicitated and honoured. The festival sees a spread of mouth-watering EI cuisine like – Duck Moile, Mutton Khudi, Chicken Frithad, Pork Sarpatel/Vindal, Bombil Atwan/Masala, Wedding Rice, Carrot & Papaya Pickles, Meat Loaf, Breads (Hand Aapas, Fugias, Varias & Chitaps), Tongue Roast, Sweets (Letri, Aitola (snow balls), Umber, Gavle, Pancakes, Guava Cheese…) and many other culinary delights.