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 have descended from those native residents of Bombay (of course, it wasn’t known as Bombay back then, and nor were we known as East Indians either) who converted to Christianity – 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. However, to differentiate them from the other Catholic communities who had flocked to the city, they assumed the name ‘East Indian’.

A selection of the traditional 10-yard East Indian sarees called lugra

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 class 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 Official Marathi prevalent in the state of Maharashtra. The dialects however, differ from region-to-region.

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.}

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 class 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 most 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.


3 thoughts on “Who are these East Indians you speak of?

  1. There are many versions of the history of East Indians… Whether we are converts from the 6th century or 15th Century…? There is however no debate that we are the original inhabitants of Bombay, Salsette and Thana… (also combined to be known as North Konkan).

    Now why would a people call themselves ‘East Indians’ when they have lived, do live, and look like they will continue to live in the West of India? A pertinent question! The answer to this one must take us through a good portion of their history, and it will bring the Goans on the scene too. But let’s start from the beginning.

    Some researchers hold that St. Bartholomew (one of the Twelve) brought the Gospel to North Konkan. Quite a few have disagreed with this. There is, however, ample evidence for the presence of Christians in this region as early as the 6th century A.D. The finding of a Gospel of Matthew (written in the Hebrew language) left with the Christians by Bartholomew is a very strong evidence to the existence of a Christian community in India especially in North Konkan, in the first century. Amongst the evidences are those of Kosmos Indicopleustes who reports having seen a flourishing community in Kalyan in the 6th Cent., and of Jordanus – a Friar – who in 1320 reported to his fellow missionaries in Europe, that Sopara (now called Bassein or Vasai) was an important missionary centre.

    Then come the Portuguese. The whole policy of the Portuguese, who came to India in 1498, was to bring the Indian Christians under their concept of Roman Catholicism. The Brahmins, Prabhus and other high-class Hindus who were prudently and ceremoniously converted were treated by the Portuguese with honor and distinction while the old Christians who were engaged in cultivation, fishing and other rural occupations were given neither education, nor proper instructions in the dogmas and doctrines of the church. Among the converts the Portuguese made, it cannot be denied that a large number of them were descendants of the early Christian Community founded by Apostle St. Bartholomew.

    The converts were initiated into the European dress, the Portuguese language, and a new mode of living and thinking – they were uprooted from the traditional rhythm of Indian Life, and in the course of time came to disown their own customs. At least partially. Also the cuisine remained what they always ate but was partially blended with the Portuguese.
    There were inter-marriages between the Portuguese and the Indian Christian as centuries of mixture with the culturally superior Moors had accustomed the Portuguese to brown skin.

    By contact with the Portuguese, the converts grouped themselves into a casteless Christian society. This casteless class has been referred to by European writers as the ‘Salsette Christians’ – though no territorial significance was attached to the name ‘Salsette’ and it merely meant a Christian of the North Konkan region who knew how to read and write Portuguese and had adopted Portuguese culture. The Portuguese however welded them into one community. Ever since then, this community has remained a separate entity, without becoming one with any of the other Christian Communities. In certain instance, they were even referred to as `Portuguese Christians’ and this effectively culled them out as a separate community. Significant “reforms” were made to the pre-existing Indian Church which was “steeped and soaked in Indian love and prejudice, Indian song and architecture, Indian thought and ceremonies” The syriac language was replaced by Latin.

    An upshot of this rather twisted way of spreading Christianity was that all political and economic preferments were bestowed upon the Christians. The rest were harassed and suppressed. The Hindus were taxed while the Christians were not. The last straw was when the Hindus were stopped from worshipping in public. They fled to take refuge with the neighbouring Marathas. Thus it came to be that the Christians had the lands of Bassein and Salsette for themselves.

    Later, the area was conquered by the Maratha Empire, and the Marathi language was forced on the people.

    With the defeat of the Portuguese at the hands of the Marathas and later on the advent of the British, there came a lot of change. It is believed that the Portuguese conquered the seven islands that became Bombay. The English acquired Bombay from the Portuguese as part of Catherine Braganza’s dowry when she married Charles II in 1661. In 1698 the East India Company leased Bombay and its adjoining hinterland for ten pounds per year. Fortunately, for the Portuguese Christians, they were the only people in the region, who were able to read the Roman characters, and it was from this class that the British drew its supply of clerks, assistants and secretaries. Many Christians went to work for the company.

    From the early days of the East India Company, there were no other Indian Christians in the North Konkan except the Christians of the soil. Employments that were intended for the Christians, was the monopoly of the Indian Christians of the soil. With development, came in railways and steamship, a boon for the traveling public. And with that came a number of emigrants from Goa which were also known as Portuguese Christians. The British found it fitting to adopt a designation which would distinguish the Christians of North Konkan who were British subjects and the Goans who were Portuguese subjects.
    Accordingly, on the occasion of The Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, the Christians of
    North Konkan, who were known as `Portuguese Christians’ or ‘Salsette Christians’ (also called as Bombay Portuguese) discarded that name and adopted the designation `East Indians”, (purportedly after the British East India Company), in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the British, and as locals of Bombay as distinguished from the Goans.
    By the adoption of the name `East Indian’ they wanted to impress upon the British Government of Bombay that they were the earliest Roman Catholic Subjects of the British Crown in this part of India. Bombay, by its cession in 1661, was the first foothold the British acquired in India. As the children of the soil, they urged on the Government, that they were entitled to certain natural rights and privileges as against the emigrants.

    There are three different communities of East Indians that once inhabited the seven islands (which is now Bombay) viz., the kolis, bhandaris and kunbis. Their traditions vary according to their trade. The Kolis are a group of Christian fisherfolk, whose customs are not unlike those of their Hindu brethren. Sometimes they follow age old Hindu customs closely. East Indian Bhandaris are toddy tappers who collect and sell toddy and targola. While Kunbis — Christian farmers — grow crops and till the land.

    The five Broad Cultural Groups are the Samvedi Christians, Koli Christians, Vadvals,
    Salsette Christians and the urbanized section.

    It is nevertheless quite clear that the modern Christians of the North Konkan owe their legacy to the Portuguese who, in the 16th century A.D., had brought not only a religion (which might have already been present!), but also a culture. Of course a culture was already present; and the result was an amalgamation of the two that has resulted in a community today known as the East Indians.

    As Indian as any of the people in India, though very different for the intimate contact with a very Western People.

    So we have the East Indians today with their vindaloo and sorpotel, and fugias, (and not to forget the bottle masala) and their strange accent and their dances…..
    They have their own Marathi dialect, laced with Portuguese words, a variant of the nine-yard Maharashtrian sari, unique architecture which is a blend of the local and Portuguese styles and their food, again a blend of local and Portuguese styles.

  2. This is simply awsome.Well I ain’t an East Indian Catholic but I wanted to know more about the East Indians because my favorite teacher in college is an East Indian Catholic.l know it’s a little silly 😛 Your write up has helped me alot 🙂

  3. Nice blogs on East Indians 🙂 I’m a Kumari from Gass but living now in Brussels… This post takes me back to EI wedding – I’ve not been to one in some twenty years!

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