Visiting a Historic, and Hidden, Area of Mumbai

Khotachiwadi, a historic area of Mumbai, is like Platform 9 3/4 in the Harry Potter series: invisible to all but those who know exactly where it is or are determined to find it. The narrow lane leading into the wadi, or hamlet, does nothing to inspire confidence and, like Harry and his friends, you need to take a leap of faith and enter.

Read more about Khotachiwadi here – my first piece for the New York Times travel blog…

A pocketful of history

Published in the February edition of FlyLite, the inflight magazine of JetLite. (not all these photographs were published in the article)

A few years ago, Anantashram, the only restaurant inside Khotachiwadi went temporarily out of business. While most loyal patrons were dismayed at the news, I knew a few who felt that it was only a question of time before this happened. A friend of mine who eats there frequently said – I think the Anantashram waiters are trained to ignore you. He went on in this vein, complaining of what he thought was their indifferent attitude towards patrons. They just live in a different world, he ended, shaking his head in amazement.

That actually describes Khotachiwadi itself.

Khotachiwadi must be one of modern Mumbai’s best-kept secrets. One minute I am in the midst of the din and chaos that is South Bombay and the next, as I turn off the main road into the narrow alley, I am in a different world. A more colorful but quieter world. Without really intending to, I find myself speaking in softer tones, the only other sounds there being that of a group of children playing with their kites.

Playing

Playing

As soon as I enter, I come face to face with a shrine to Jesus, and I remember a sign that used to hang in front that read, don’t park here, for god’s sake. The tone of this board seems to be in tune with the wry humour with which the inhabitants have taken to looking at their own world, and the larger world outside. The house next to the church has a colorful mosaic of tiles on its walls and floor that calls out to the passerby. As I stand hesitantly at the gate, the man sitting inside on the stone stool invites me to come in and have a look. He points out the birds and the fish, proudly showing off the newest entrant, the parrot all the way from Nepal. The house belongs to his nephew, and the family had moved to Mumbai from Goa many many years ago. By the time we leave, a small crowd has collected around us, the local residents wondering what the fuss is all about.

Inside

Inside

Girl

Girl

The origins of Khotachiwadi

There are several wadis in Mumbai, such as Bhangwadi, Popatwadi, Dabholkarwadi and Khotachiwadi. Wadis are typically defined by the cultural flavours of the dominant ethnic groups who live there. The ethos of Khotachwadi has been shaped by two major communities: the Pathare Prabhus and the East Indian Christians. Inside the narrow lanes of the wadi, the informed eye can spot the unique architectural and cultural symbols of both communities. Other than the wood used as the primary building material, the typical architecture elements include large overhanging balconies on the first floor and winding staircases in front of the house.

Seat

Seat

Steps

Steps

The name Khotachiwadi can be traced to the original Mr. Khot (land owner) – it literally means the hamlet of the khots. The khots leased the land out to the East Indian community, whose forefathers worked with the British East India company. Members of this community who had so far lived in the Northern districts of Mumbai, such as Gorai and Manori, moved up to this part of Girgaum and built their houses. These houses with their wooden balconies and latticed windows today sit there, with the feel of museum pieces, forgotten and neglected by the larger world of skyscraper concrete. Others before me have compared it to a piece of old Goa, even a forgotten piece of Portugal. But Khotachiwadi is inherently a piece of Bombay, as a conversation with any resident will make clear.

As I walk into Khotachiwadi, I am suddenly reminded of the fact that Bombay was once nothing but a collection of villages. The leisurely pace of life inside Khotachiwadi is reminiscent of a different – to my weary eyes, better – way of life. I remember a question a journalist friend had asked in his essay about the original Bombay villages – When in its life-cycle does a place, a locality, make the transition to cliché? The same clichés he had written about flow fast in my mind before I can stop them – old world air, time stands still, and so on.

Waiting

Waiting

There may be a sense of anachronism inside the space that defines the limits of Khotachiwadi, a fairy tale feeling to the bright yellow and blue houses and cheerful balconies. However, it is not true that Khotachiwadi is caught in any kind of time warp. The residents are only too aware of the pace and style of life in the Mumbai that they go out to work in everyday.

In 1995, Khotachiwadi was declared a heritage precinct and is today a ‘gated colony’ fighting to keep going in the face of modernization. It was again in the news a few years ago, when the Khotachiwadi Welfare and Heitage Trust was formed, to fight in a more organized manner against proposed “development” of the area by builders. That only means one thing – the demolition of these heritage structures and concrete monstrosities in its place. At present, only over twenty of the original bungalows survive inside the colony, and even among these only a few wear fresh coats of paint. And the battle is getting tougher; more and more residents ready to give up their land for a more convenient and economical dwelling.

Ideal

Ideal

Today Anantashram is back in action and is just the same, with customers willing to ignore the grumpy waiters and strict timings (it remains closed on Sundays!) for the famous Goan – Malvani food it serves. However, who is to say what the future holds – both for Anantashram and Khotachiwadi?

General Information

To go to Khotachiwadi, take a train on the Western Line heading to Churchgate and get off at Charni Road station. Just down the road, at St. Teresa’ Church, turn towards Jagannath Shankatsheth Marg and ask for Khotachiwadi.

Bombay Heritage Walks conducts walking tours inside Khotachiwadi. For more details, visit their website [http://www.bombayheritagewalks.com] – or call them at 91-22-23690992/ 26835856.