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.

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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 *

In Need of a Wedding Gown?

The other day, I received a comment from Joyce – a bride-to-be in Mangalore. She ties the knot in a few months and is hunting high and low for Christian bridal gowns in Mangalore. If any of you people reading this are from Mangalore and know how to help her out, it would be highly appreciated.

An update: Buttercup, a reader, has kindly contributed a website that should be of help to brides looking for a bridal gown tailor in Mangalore. Visit Concetta Bridals to view the beautiful gowns up there.

I have never been to Mangalore, and know less about how weddings proceed out there. When I think about the difficulty in finding the right accessory, fabric, decor, caterer, etc. over here in Vasai and even in Mumbai, I wonder what Christian brides and grooms who are looking for all these things and more go about it in other parts of India.

I wore a bespoke gown for my wedding

Sure, we have the internet these days for everything, but some of the best wedding vendors out there are unlisted in wedding directories and barely a small fraction have websites of their own. This is very sad, as it would be of tremendous help to Christian couples looking for quick, affordable and quality solutions to their wedding if all these wedding vendors were listed somewhere on the Indian interwebs.

Christian brides in India almost always go for a bespoke bridal gown. Not many prefer vintage or second-hand gowns as they are viewed as hand-me-downs. A pity, since lace and fabric back then were divine as were some of the styles.

If you would not mind a second-hand or vintage wedding gown, I would suggest you try a place like David & Company in Dhobi Talao at Marine Lines, Mumbai. I remember a dreamy concoction of flowing pink lace fading into white I once came across out there. I wowed to wear a gown like that for my own wedding but yes, I eventually went for a simple number.

If you don’t find what you are looking for there, you could always ask them to direct you to other retailers who stock second-hand gowns. Do take a quick stroll down Crawford Market before you try elsewhere and pay close attention to the shops that line the start of the lane. They stock ready-made gowns and if you are lucky, you may find a seamstress who will agree to stitch one for you in a short time.

From what I hear, Inspirations, the bridal and floral accessories boutique at Amboli in Andheri West is another place that has recently started stocking ready-made gowns. The quality maintained at Inspirations is fantastic and along with a gown, you will find yourself stocking up on button-hole flowers, tiaras, corsages and some exquisite wedding jewelry.

Silver Pages, a Christian wedding information directory dedicated to listings of wedding-related services is another brilliant resource you can consult. I am not sure about their website, but I have been told that you can obtain a copy at Snehalaya at Mahim West in Mumbai.

If a trip to Mumbai is impossible, I would suggest you ask any women’s group in your local parish for pointers on the best bridal gown tailor in your area. Never doubt the solid information to be found in a group of women I say!

Failing that, I list down some excellent dressmakers abroad that you can check out if there is no other solution but to order a wedding gown online. These are Indian pocket-friendly, and I know of a few brides who have been happy with their gowns:

David’s Bridal

Pre-Owned Wedding Dresses

Once Wed

Be wary of purchasing a wedding gown from websites that offer wholesale wedding gowns or discount gowns as returns/alterations/shipping etc. could turn out to be a painful process. Unless you know of anyone who has made use of the service, it would be inadvisable to get a wedding gown via them.

Cross Renovations

As you saw from the earlier post, the cross in our garden has been around since the 80’s. That was when the grandparents and my parents decided to separate from the main family unit (consisting of nearly 80 people living in a single house) and build their own house.

It was a big decision and from the basic look of the cross, you can deduce that not only were tiles popular as grotto decor, but they also didn’t detract much from the true purpose of a cross – a religious symbol.

A handful of our neighbours who constructed the crosses in their gardens back then, used similar basic materials. Even grottoes depicting scenes like the Miracle at Fátima, Mother Vailankanni, the Pietà, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, the Infant Jesus, etc. were sparse in design and aesthetic value. They were simple and functional.

The 90’s and noughties saw a surge of Gulf and cruise ship money and suddenly you began finding houses in Vasai that boasted an adherence to primarily Western influences like faux tiled roofs and lush lawns. Crosses and grottoes underwent a similar transformation.

Today, you will find a diversity of crosses and grottoes in Vasai – right from specially commissioned wooden crucifixes to minimalistic stainless steel or decorative cement-work crosses. Some are beautiful and elegant while some merely frivolous and mildly grotesque.

Whatever these new trends may mean, there is a definite need for breaking out of the old ways and ideas while not forgetting the age-old traditions. This may very well be the new Vasaikar.

Ruminations aside, the cross in our garden is due for a renovation and simply thinking about all the new-fangled cross designs that abound gardens in Vasai these days is enough to confuse the true need for a cross with the need to have a cross that is easy on the eye.

A cross, before anything else, is a symbol of torture and after that, a symbol of one of the greatest beliefs of Christianity – redemption from sin.

I feel people really need to think hard about these before constructing or fashioning a cross for the primary and only use as a medium of worship. Hopefully, our garden can sport a cross like this one.