Who are these East Indians you speak of?

General confusion over our origins is something every East Indian is intimately familiar with.

For a community with roots planted firmly in Bombay, it is difficult explaining people that we are not – as the name points out – from the East of India. We are not (well, most of us at least aren’t) descendants of the employees of the East India Company – British or otherwise.

Two ladies from Uttan wearing lugdas

The East Indians of Mumbai are essentially the native residents of Bombay (of course, it wasn’t known as Bombay back then) converted to Christianity many years ago – back when St. Bartholomew himself visited the Western coast of India (2nd Century AD).

Our Lady of the Sea Church, Uttan

It is to the Portuguese however, who came much later, that we owe much of our traditions, architectural styles, cuisine and various dialects. It was the Portuguese after all, who gathered the Christians already thriving in the area and were responsible for ensuring the continued existence of parishes and churches.

Had the British not been such a dominating influence on Indian politics and society, the East Indians would have probably continued using the moniker Portuguese Christians.

A selection of the traditional 9-yard East Indian sarees called lugda

Over the years, the East Indians have kept alive the traditions that were carried out before Roman Catholicism and Latin took over our religion and language. Coastal Konkan foods like sanna (soft rice flatbread), bombil (Bombay Duck) fry and rural Maharashtrian foods like dried mango fish curry and cucumber cake, to name a few, find their way on to our tables.

The caste system exists in our community and while it no longer holds as much power over modern East Indian society, it does help differentiate the various dialects, cultural traditions, customs and even the kind of masalas and pickles we make!

East Indian pork Indyaal (vindaloo) cooking over a slow wood fire

Marathi however, is considered the mother tongue of our people and for written communication we use the Shudh (pure) Marathi prevalent in the state of Maharashtra. The dialects however, differ from region-to-region and caste-to-caste.

Making foogyas – deep-fried balls of flour fermented with palm toddy

For instance, in Vasai (Bassein) alone, there are the Valkar, Vaadval, Kaado, Koli, Paanmaali, Maankar, etc. – each with their own dialect and with subtle but definite differences in wedding customs, cuisine and jewellery among other things.

I shall use my own people (Valkar) and my husband’s (Vaadval) as an illustration of this difference.

Differences of dialect: 
English – Where have you been?
Valkar – Kaila gelti/gelta?
Vaadval – Katey geli/gela?

{The East Indian Kolis, to mention another group, have a more lilting way of speaking and the sibilant sounds are more stressed.}

Jewellery:
The Valkar gold jewellery is more reminiscent of delicate floral and geometric patterns, while Vaadval gold jewellery is chunkier and heavier in design and pattern.

Aanjelanchi Kaadi – a traditional headpiece made from gold foil, pearls and coral

It is taboo these days to get into details about the caste divisions, and rightly so. But just to illustrate a point, back in the days of the British, the Valkars tended to pursue clerical/office jobs while the Vaadvals were landowners and farmers – these occupational details further shaping the dialects and certain customs.

Wearing the traditional poth (long chain) made of gold and coral over a shawl and a lugda

Our homes were all built the same way though – cow dung-floors, tiled roofs, wooden beams supporting the roof, a proper hearth in the kitchen, a verandah with enough space for a wooden swing and a pit or two in the floor to pound spices. These homes are rare now and are uninhabitable, except for ones in the deepest gaothans (villages).

Today, the East Indians are just one of the many minorities living in their home state and largely forgotten by the rest of Mumbai.

The traditional morlis are still in use for slicing onion, grating coconuts and cleaning fish among other things.

But we are present in Vasai, Uttan, Gorai, Mazagaon, Mahim, Vakola, Kalina, Marol, Chakala, Bandra, Parel, Parla, in every ‘Galyan saakli sonyaachi‘ sung, in the beats of the ghumat at weddings, in piping hot, soft foogyas, in spicy pork indyaal (vindaloo) made using the East Indian Indyaal Masala, in the famous Bottle Masala, in the weave of vivid, bright lugdas and in a lot of Fernandes’, Pereiras, Mirandas, Almeidas, Sequeiras, Rebellos, Lopes’, Furtados, D’mellos, Gonsalves’ and D’souzas.

These last names may be shared by a lot of Goans and Mangaloreans as well, but look closer and you just may be able to tell an East Indian from the other Christian Indian ethnicities.

Note: While I am no scholar on East Indian lore, I have tried my best to present a legitimate summary of my community from everything I’ve learned growing up as a girl in Vasai. If there are any points you feel must be included or corrected, I invite you to email me at almeidareena at gmail dot com. I would appreciate your inputs towards presenting a more accurate picture of the East Indian community of Bombay.

EI Alert: East Indian Exhibition

Terencia Kinny, a student of architecture has been working for a while now on her Design and Research thesis on East Indians. An East Indian herself, she contacted me a couple of months back inquiring about Teddy Rodrigues book on East Indian history and culture – Trace.

The reason she was seeking the book caught my attention and I couldn’t be happier to speak about it here.

Mark out Saturday, 16 April 2011 as a day to soak in some of the best East Indian culture has to offer. The Mobai Gaothan Panchayat (MGP) is organising the East Indian Exhibition – the first of its kind to be held in Mumbai – with the theme, ‘Amhi Mobaikar‘.

The exhibition commemorates a community regarded as one of the original occupants of the city and promises artifacts, photographs, articles, cuisine and information on the rich culture and tradition of the East Indian people.

A must-visit event for East Indians in the city curious about their roots and traditions, I strongly recommend other communities have a look-see about a culture steeped in Old Bombay and the group of islands once known as just Salsette-Bassein.

Don’t forget to bring your cameras and questions!

My grandma (second from left) with her sister and friends

Event
East Indian Exhibition

Date
Saturday, 16th April 2011

Time
2:00pm to 8:00pm

Venue
Veneration Hall, Opposite Irla Church

Organisers
Mobai Gaothan Panchayat

For more information, contact
Alphi D’souza, CEO and Spokesperson for MGP +91-982-008-7771

Prem Moraes, MGP Exhibition Spokesperson +91-986-736-8669

Terencia Kinny +91-992-099-7944

* The exhibition aims at creating awarenesss about East Indian culture and traditions *

* Various artefacts used by East Indians will be on display *

* Pictures will be used with descriptions on their specialty *

* Families who donate East Indian artefacts will have their family name tagged on them. These articles will then be permanently displayed at the special East Indian Exhibition space at Mobai Bhavan, Manori *

Rosaries in a Vasai Village

The catholic East Indian community is deeply embedded within the ethos of Vasai and so much a part of the original culture of the place, that it is at times hard to distinguish between us and most Maharashtrians.

Take our churches – decorative elements, sculptural styles and even the Eucharistic service itself are redolent of the original culture of the land. You will find floral motifs like the kamal (lotus), daasungi (hibiscus), aamba (mangoes) mingling freely with vines and roses. Idols of saints sport clothes with a strong Indian character and the hymns and prayers rely heavily on Indian musical elements like raag and are often accompanied by the peti (harmonium), tabla (drums) and in the case of a few rare churches, the sitar.

Our Lady of the Sea Church, Uttan

To attend a feast mass is to take part in a true indulgence of the senses with elements like the aarti (veneration using incense and unguents), the prayer dance and melodious instruments and singing. Even the Passion of the Christ is enacted in Marathi on Good Friday in a similar (albeit less festive) vein.

In fact on Good Friday, some of the churches in Vasai are known to invite members of the Sangh Parivaar. I may be wrong here, but from what I gather, inviting the Sangh Parivaar is a recognition and sign of acceptance of the hindus populating Vasai. I suspect a delegation of catholics are similarly invited to Hindu festivals and gatherings.

A rotating statue of Our Lady of Fatima

The point is, the East Indians in Vasai perhaps have more in common with the hindu culture and way of life than the ones elsewhere.

This has percolated into our daily lives to a great extent ever since the old days.

In our kitchens, we cook nevries or karanjis for our festivals and pickles and papaddums are prepared in much the same manner.

In our fields, old farm technologies like the raath are still very much in use.

The older menfolk in some areas still wear dhotis and some of the women folk still mark the center of their hairline with sindoor or kumkum.

The elaborate gothas or cribs (nativity scenes) constructed by some of the younger folk during Christmas time usually incorporate these similarities in culture and if you ever take a walk in the villages during Christmas, you will know the true extent of this marvellous assimilation.

The Cross in my garden

Our gardens are homes to a similar quintessentially Vasai East Indian feature – grottoes and crosses. Most houses – big or small – feature at least one cross or grotto in their gardens. Nearly every village has at least one main cross – which also functions as a cross to halt at during a parish-wide Station of the Cross procession on Good Friday.

Sacred Heart icon designed in a traditional style

The months of May and October especially, are dedicated to rosaries and prayer ceremonies conducted at the cross or grotto in the garden. Friends, neighbours and relatives are invited on these occasions for a 30-minute rosary or prayer service by the family conducting it and then treated to sherbet (cold-drinks) and baafleley channey (boiled grams) and if it is summer, cake and kulfi (Indian iced-gelato on a stick).

The garden at my maternal home has a cross that was erected by my grandparents around the time my parents built the house. Usually, each family has a fixed day on which they conduct the house or cross rosary – ours was conducted on the day of my grandfather’s birth and usually in the evenings, after most people returned from work.

Preparations for the rosary would start a day or two in advance with mum buying grams and dad stocking on Rasna (a brand of mix-at-home sherbet) and sugar.

The next day my sister and I would be put to work to mix all that Rasna and sugar with water (tiresome I tell you!) to make the concentrate syrup. The retro glasses (every family had at least two sets) would also need a scrubbing for the occasion and guess which two girls had to do the honours?

My uncles would then mix this concentrate with water or soda on the day of the rosary to serve to the guests. This was back in the days when Sprite and Fanta were considered deluxe drinks and people were willing to completely disregard convenience.

On the rosary day, my sister and I would be dispatched to the far corners of the village and to the houses of our many relatives in the neighbouring villages to invite people personally for the rosary service. We would set out on borrowed bicycles (when we didn’t have our own) and visit each catholic house in the village to invite people with a carefully rehearsed invite. Village friends our age would be similarly deployed by their parents or uncles and aunts for rosaries in their families.

A grotto outside the church at Uttan

A decade ago, when the rosary attendance in the village fell really low, the (catholic) village heads introduced a rule where at least one member from each family was required to attend any rosary services that a family conducted. Families that failed to do so were fined at yearly meetings. It worked.

A regular rosary service is made up of the main rosary (Our Father, Hail Mary-Holy Mary, the Glory) and is interspersed with hymns – all in Marathi in a traditional East Indian household like ours. This is followed by a bible reading, prayers of the faithful and finally – when granddad was alive – a hymn in Latin.

The drinks and grams were then served by the children of the family and leftover grams were wrapped up in newspaper pudis (packets) and handed to each family. There were always leftover grams and nobody said no – no matter how badly the channas were cooked.

Little traditions are what communities are built on and sustained on and the cross or grotto rosary is one such staple that the East Indians of Vasai religiously cling to and enjoy. Even in this age of Sprite and plastic cups and 15-minute prayers. The style may have changed, but the spirit remains the same.