ETHNONYMS: Hill Kolis, Sea Kolis, Son Kolis
The name "Koli" (from which is derived the English word coolie ) is explained in a dozen ways, among which the most plausible is that it comes from the Sanskrit word kula, meaning "clan." The Koli numbered only 336,000 persons in 1911, but their numbers were estimated at 1.5 million in Bombay State alone in 1969. The Koli constitute a tribe with many branches and two main subdivisions: the Hill Kolis; and the Sea Kolis or Son Kolis. The most popular explanation for the origin of the term "Son" is that turmeric, which is very sacred to Dhandoba, the family god, is son —"golden" or "yellow" in color. The Son Kolis represent the highest group of the many subgroups, and the Dhor Koli are generally considered the lowest. The Son Kolis traditionally inhabit the area in and around Bombay, which lies between 18° and 19° N and 72° and 73° E, on the west coast of India. The Hill Kolis are found in Madhya Pradesh and include the Suraivansi, Malhar, Bhilaophod, Singade, Magadeo (who are further subdivided into the Bhas or "pure" Kolis and the Akaramase or "impure" Kolis), Dshatreiga, Naiks, Nimar (soldiers), the begging Kolis, Watandars (village sentries), and the Mohammedan Kolis.
The native tongue of the Kolis is Marathi, an Indo-European language, of which there are many different dialects spoken among the different subdivisions of the tribe.
The origins of the Kolis seem to have been forgotten. One theory suggests they emigrated from Sind and were part of the White Huns; another says they are a western branch of the great Kol or Munda tribal group. In Nimar the Kolis, like the Bhils, made a reputation for themselves as bandits during the unsettled times of the eighteenth century, and hence the term "hill robbers" was used to designate them as a class. Among the Nimar Kolis there is a saying: "The Koli were born from Shiva's wallet." The Son Kolis whose headquarters is in Bombay are believed to have been there from very early times. The Mahikavatichi Bakhar (see Punekar 1959, pp. 3-4) refers to the Kolis and several other tribes as having moved onto the land in a.d. 1138, at the time Pratap Bimb invaded Mahim (now a suburb of Bombay).
Standards of housing differ from region to region, varying from simple shacks of thatched roofs, mud walls, and mud flooring to decorated homes with tiled roofs, brick walls, and paved or cement flooring.
As already stated, the Koli tribe is composed of two main subdivisions: the Son Koli, who are a fishing community; and the Hill Koli, who have many hereditary occupations. In the Burhanpur Tahsil and the Satpura Hills area many Hill Koli are village servants, village sentries, and baggage handlers. Most of the different subdivisions of the tribe eat fish, fowl, and pork, but abstain from beef, and drink liquor. The social status of the tribe is considered low but not impure, as indicated by the fact that many higher caste groups, such as the Gujars, Kunbis, and some Rajputs, accept water from them.
The tribe has exogamous septs. A man is forbidden to marry a girl of his own sept or the daughter of his maternal uncle. Girls generally marry at an early age. A Brahman performs the marriage ceremony, which is conducted at sunset; a cloth is held jointly by the couple, and as the sun fades it is removed and they clasp hands. Afterward the couple march seven times around a stone slab surrounded by four plow yokes. The remarriage of widows is allowed, the ceremony simply being the tying of a knot in the cloths of the couple. Divorce is permitted for a wife's misconduct, and if she marries the adulterer he must pay to the husband the sum spent on his wedding.
Most Koli are Hindus, with a small percentage being Islamic converts. The principal deity of the Kolis of Nimar is the goddess Bhawani, and nearly every family has a silver image of her. There is an important shrine dedicated to the goddess in Inchirapur, where members of the tribe Traditionally perform the hook-swinging rite in honor of her. Centuries ago this ceremony was practiced with a human being; today, however, a bundle of bamboos covered with cloth is swung. Among the Son Kolis the god Khandoba is considered by some as an incarnation of Shiva. As fishers, the Son Koli consider the sea itself to be a deity. The Koli customarily either bury or burn their dead, although the former is more common.
Enthoven, R. E. (1921). "Koli." In The Tribes and Castes of Bombay, edited by R. E. Enthoven. Vol. 2, 243-360. Bombay: Government Central Press. Reprint. 1975. Delhi: Cosmo Publications.
Punekar, Vijaya (1959). The Son Kolis of Bombay. Bombay: Popular Book Depot.
Rose, H. A. (1970). "Koli." In A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Provinces. Vol. 1, 553-557. Patiala: Punjab University Languages Department.
Russell, R. V., and Hira Lal (1916). "Koli." In The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, edited by R. V. Russell and Hira Lal. Vol. 3, 532-537. Nagpur: Government Printing Press. Reprint. 1969. Oosterhout: Anthropological Publications.