A new museum showcases the 500-year history of a community said to comprise the original inhabitants of Mumbai, Thane and Vasai.

About 10 km off Mira Road, in the northern corner of Mumbai, is a cluster of villages in strict contrast to the over-populated, cosmopolitan city. Relatively large houses are scattered across these villages; greenery and churches by the coast complete the picture.

These villages are predominantly inhabited by simple fisher-folk. They are Roman Catholic and speak a dialect of Marathi that has words borrowed from Portuguese. Despite living on the Western Coast of India, they call themselves East Indians and claim to be the original inhabitants of Bombay, Thane and Vasai.

Sitting on the porch of his tile-roofed home in Manori, Alphi D’Souza, president of the Association of East Indians, recounts the oral history of East Indians. “We trace our roots to those who converted to Christianity in the 16th century when Portugal took over Bombay from Bahadur Shah of Gujarat,” he starts. His well-practised narration expertly paints the picture of the journey undertaken by this community over the last 500 years.

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. This was also when Mumbai’s history as a great cosmopolitan port began. In order to differentiate the ethnic community of Bombay from the migrants, they began to call themselves the Original East Indians, after the company.

Today, there are about 600,000 East Indians residing in Mumbai, Thane and Vasai. “There would have been many more,” says D’Souza. Several East Indians have migrated to other parts of the country or the world. This takes them away from their unique culture, language, praying traditions and marriage rituals. Thus they integrate into the Catholic communities wherever they are and the East Indian culture is on the brink of extinction.

Most East Indians owned acres of land in the Bombay-Thane region, which made them prime targets for real estate developers. High property prices gradually moved them to the outer reaches of these districts. 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.”

The museum has a huge section on East Indian cuisine. Several huge photos of the most famous delicacies adorn its walls. “After all, why would we not showcase what we are famous for!” asks Alphi D’Souza. Saayba and Gajalee are two of the places in Mumbai that serve coastal East Indian cuisine. Bombay Duck or Bombil is a special dish during most celebratory occasions. Wine and liquor play an important role in the cuisine. “Most East Indians know how to make toddy,” says Rossie D’Souza. “I remember my father teaching me how to climb a palm tree and tap arrack.”

An online radio channel has ethnic East Indian songs available for download. Songs that are sung during weddings and other ceremonies have been compiled.

Ironically, the opposition to this ethnic community comes from within. “The East Indians realised that calling themselves the original inhabitants or ‘adivasis’ of Mumbai would fetch them some privileges in this country,” says Maria Patel, an East Indian who owned four acres of land in the BMC area until seven years ago. The Constitution of India reserves certain land and other rights to ethnic communities. “Therefore they have organised themselves into a group and are fighting for their rights. If preserving their culture was their main reason, they would have done that several years ago and wouldn’t wait until the culture is almost gone,” she adds.

Members of the association claim that they came together as they were pushed to it. “We had to come together, else we would have nothing to share with the future generation,” says Alphi D’Souza.

The shortest way to reach Manori, where the museum is located, is by taking the ferry from Marve beach near Malad, Mumbai. The government is contemplating replacing the 30-minute ferry ride with a bridge that will bring industry and commerce to Manori and surrounding villages. “If that bridge is constructed, we will be washed down the ocean forever,” says Alphi D’Souza.