I heard about Khotachi wadi for the first time in a discussion with an old acquaintance - Sujata Pilinja Rao, proprietress of the charming 71-year-old ‘New Vasantashram boarding and lodging home.’
I told her about my new hobby of exploring Mumbai by cycle and discovering all kinds of amazing places - and she recommended that I should check out the old East Indian village of Khotachi wadi. ‘It has an amazing old world charm’ she told me. ‘Go and see it while it still lasts.’
I was always on the lookout for new destinations for my Sunday morning cycling - so I duly set out to discover the place. ‘Khotachi wadi’ - literally means a garden or village belonging to a ‘Khot’ - in case a certain ‘Dadoba Waman Khot’. This was a little rustic village at the time - and the land was bought by a bunch of ‘East Indian’ families from this Khot dude.
The nomenclature of ‘East Indian’ - rather foxes us Indians...because most of the ‘East Indians’ are living on the West coast of India, and should be called ...er… West Indians? It took me several years to realise that they were ‘Eastern’ on a global scale! Columbus had set out from Portugal to discover a sea-route to India - and had discovered America instead! To be precise, he discovered a bunch of islands in the Caribbean sea - not even the mainland of America. He - naturally - did not know of the existence of a continent called America, and he thought that he had discovered India!
WOOHOO! I have discovered India… I will call these islands the ‘Indies’!
Columbus was a lost old fool - but he had discovered a new world, after all, so no one had the heart to correct the naming he did - and those islands continued to be called the ‘Indies’ even after it was conclusively proven that it was not, in fact, India… and native Americans continued to be called ‘Red Indians’ … later corrupted to ‘Injuns’ … in spite of the fact that they were not - in fact - Indians.
Even Later, when Vasco Da Gama landed in Calicut and ‘discovered’ India - they still wouldn’t change the name of the Caribbean islands - they stubbornly continued to call them the ‘Indies’ - only now they added a descriptor and called them the ‘West Indies’. The locals there were called ‘West Indians’ - and the actual Indians in India were called the ‘East Indians’.
And of course, the Portuguese only counted the Christian population - that too the Catholics only! No protestants, Anglicans, Jesuits, Presbyterians, Adventists etc - were considered worth counting!
Therefore the Roman Catholic population descending from the Portuguese conversion of Indian people are called the ‘East Indians’.
And the calypso dudes living in the Caribbean islands - on the exact opposite side of the world - are called the ‘West Indians’.
Thus one can call the whole world an ‘India sandwich’.
Anyway - so a whole bunch of East Indian families bought land from this Khot and settled there, and the name of the place continued to be called Khotachi wadi.
The villagers might have moved from Goa - or might have been locals! After all, the Portuguese were in Bombay hundreds of years before the British and built forts all over the place - Bombay island, Bandra, Sewri, Madh etc - and a whole string of forts all along the western coast - from Goa to Diu. The Portuguese city of Bassein (Vasai) was huge and prosperous - and rivalled Goa in glory before it was conquered and destroyed by the Maratha forces under Chimajiappa.
You had a whole bunch of Portuguese/ Goan style villages all over the place - many of which are still existing - Bandra, Khar, Santa Cruz, Orlem, Vasai, Virar etc. The Portuguese brought with a sense of style and sophistication and good living - which reflected in the lovely design of the cottages, the clean and systematic layout of the villages, the amazing food, the taste for good and happy living - Singing, Dancing, playing the guitar, drinking good hooch, cooking amazing stuff like chorizos, vindaloo, Bebinca etc and having a susegad siesta! These guys really enjoyed life!
After the British takeover and the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of Bombay there was a rapid homogenisation of people - dresses, food, houses, language - all started to lose their individuality and become an amorphous mass.
It became much worse after independence when bribery and corruption, poor municipal management, tanking economy, rampant criminalisation and money-mindedness turned the city into one large mess - and now only a few vestiges of the grand history of the city are left untouched.
Khotachiwadi has managed to keep the soul of the old East Indian village alive - as can be seen in the beautiful old houses, the tasteful decor and the guitar-plunking locals. I loved the graffiti on the walls and the beautiful little nooks and crannies which the locals have kept alive.
Alas - this flame is flickering… the biggest hazard to the history of the city are the rich Gujarati seths and the money-mad builders. The Gujjus buy their way into the neighbourhood and use their money power and closed-mindedness to bully everyone else out. There used to be an iconic old hotel called ‘Anantashram’ which served the most amazing food - but it was forced to shut down because the militantly-vegetarian gujju jains objected to the non-vegetarian cuisine. Arre bhai - the hotel was there first - you came in later. It should be you who should adjust - why come here at all if you have such strong vegetarian values? The whole of South Bombay suffers from this nouveau-riche gujju menace.
The other danger is the rapacious builders, who are always lusting after these valuable properties in the heart of Girgaum. There used to be 65 old bungalows here - now only 26 remain! The old guys had to sell out - whether by temptation or force. The most ironic part is that the builder will destroy the old houses and then charge a premium for their new building for being in the heart of Khotachiwadi
And of course, we have the bribable municipality- The village was declared a protected historical precinct in 1995, but the order was reversed in 2006 – a decision with much opposition from the residents and activists - but you can just hear the builder lobby giggling away.
But at least one can enjoy what is there today - A series of old, Portuguese-style houses strewn across narrow lanes and a chapel welcome you to one of the oldest establishments in Mumbai. You’ll feel like you stepped into a time machine and have been transported back in time or have been transported to Goa. There is little doubt that right from the start you will be in awe of the beautiful colourful houses of Khotachiwadi. Many of these houses have verandas, intricate column designs and arched doorways.
There is a chapel at the beginning of one of the lanes, which, at one point, had a small crib depicting the scenes when Jesus was born. A mural of the Virgin Mary with infant Jesus and two stone benches accompany the chapel. The chapel was constructed in 1899, as an offering of thanks, by the villagers who survived the Great Indian Plague epidemic of 1870!
If you come at a more civilised hour you can meet the denizens of the place - a musician called Willy Black, a designer called James Ferreira, the original ‘Ideal wafers’ shop - or just join a conducted tour and spend an hour or two strolling about the place.
I obviously was not there at a civilised hour - and no colourful denizen was on the road...or if they were, they made sure to keep their distance from a sweaty fat cyclist in tight pants!
But I was really happy at being able to experience this place in the early morning freshness and empty roads. What a pleasure to meet you Khotachiwadi...may you live long and prosper.
I mounted my cycle and rode back home. That was another most satisfying Mumbai exploration on cycle.
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!