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LOCATION: India (primarily Maharashtra and Gujarat states)
POPULATION: About 12 million
LANGUAGE: Dialects of Marathi or Gujarati, or the language of the region of India in which they live
RELIGION: Hindu; small numbers of Muslims
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Hindus; People of India; Vol. 4: Muslims in South Asia


Koli is a vague term covering the tribal populations living in parts of western India. Although traditionally classed as a tribe inferior in status to the Kunbis, the cultivating caste of the region, Kolis have now been designated as a Hindu caste in some areas. It is possible that the name of the tribe is derived from the Sanskrit kula, meaning "clan." There are numerous groupings and sub-groupings among the Kolis, who tend to be endogamous, i.e. they do not intermarry with the Kolis of other regions. Kolis are thus a group of tribes or castes, rather than a monolithic entity. Some writers suggest that the English word coolie, meaning porter or hired laborer, comes from Koli.

The origin of the Kolis remains a matter of debate. One view holds that they entered the region from Sindh and were part of the White Huns. Another theory links them to the Kol and Munda tribes of east-central India. One branch of the Kolis, the Son Kolis or Sea Kolis, are thought to have settled in the region of Bombay (Mumbai) during the 12th century ad, where, today, they are usually fishermen. The other branch of the Kolis, the Hill Kolis, acquired a widespread reputation as "hill robbers." Kolis are generally held to be of low social status and are classified either as Dalits ("Untouchables"), Sudras or as a Scheduled Tribe. In some localities, however, Kolis claim Rajput blood, follow Rajput customs, and have a relatively high social position. Thus the Khant, Bariya, and Thakore Kolis of Gujarat give brides to Rajputs, converted Rajputs, and Muslims, but never give their daughters to lower caste Kolis such as the Pagis and Kotwals.


The Kolis form one of the largest tribal groups in the western part of India. A current estimate of total Koli population is about 12 million, though this figure may well include groups that once were Koli but are now considered as other castes. Kolis are spread through the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, with small communities also found in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Orissa. The Son Kolis are concentrated in the coastal areas around Bombay. Other Koli groups are found in the interior of Gujarat and the upland regions of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Kolis are also found in Sindh and areas of the Thar Desert east of the river in the lower Indus Valley in Pakistan. They are primarily Hindu, a relic of pre-Partition days, and culturally and linguistically they are very similar to the nomadic Rabari and other peoples in the region. Kolis in that region of Pakistan include the Parkari Koachchhi, the Wadiyara Koli, the Kutchhi Kohli (or Lohar), and the Tharadari Koli. Koli communities in Pakistan also view their social standing somewhat differently. Thus the Kutchhi Kohli, even though they are classed as a Scheduled Tribe in Gujarat State, consider themselves to be superior to other Hindus, and at least equal with Brahmans.


Kolis speak the language of their localities. Thus, most speak one of the numerous dialects of Marathi or Gujarati, both of which belong to the Indo-Aryan language family. These languages are written in the Devanagari and Gujarati scripts, respectively.


According to legend, the Kolis are the descendants of the black dwarf who is believed to have emerged from the body of King Vena. The Mahabharata and other ancient texts tell that Vena was a wise and just king who ruled many tribes and peoples in eastern India. However, he became corrupted and abandoned the true faith, prohibiting all worship and sacrifice, except to himself. His religious advisers tried in vain to reason with him, but to no avail. Finally, in exasperation, they killed him with blades of the sacred kusa grass that miraculously became swords in their hands. To secure a successor to rule the country, the rishis rubbed Vena's thigh and there emerged a dark, dwarfish man, representing the evil nature of the King. This dwarf is said to be the ancestor of the Kolis.


Except for a small number of converts to Islam, Kolis are Hindu and their religious practices conform to Hindu norms. They retain, however, many aspects of their former animism. For instance, the Talapada Kolis of Gujarat worship numerous devi or goddesses who appear tribal rather than Hindu in origin. These goddesses protect against various kinds of diseases and ailments, and their help is sought in making decisions in daily life. Goddess-worship has acquired aspects of the sakti cult, and every household has its family goddess or Mata. These family goddesses may be known by different names, but they are all represented by terra-cotta figures that are basically triangular in shape and smeared with red coloring. Swords kept alongside the figure are supposed to belong to the goddess, being used by her to drive away evil. In Gujarat, individuals known as bhua go into a trance and are thought to communicate directly with the goddess, answering questions put to her by the gathered audience. The bhua are also consulted in the case of sickness, as the Kolis believe that disease is caused by malevolent spirits.

Regional deities are of some importance. The Son Kolis of Maharashtra, for instance, worship the god Khandoba, who is believed to be an incarnation of Shiva. The Kolis of Nimar in Madhya Pradesh worship the goddess Bhawani, and every family has a silver image of the deity in the house.


Kolis celebrate the important festivals of the Hindu calendar cycle. In addition, they observe various festivals that are agricultural in nature. There are, however, festivals that are exclusively Koli. Among the Talapada Kolis of central Gujarat, for instance, Attam is the occasion when special foods and prayers are offered to the family goddess. People gather at the family math or shrine, which is redecorated for the event. Special food (molasses, rice, lentils, wheat, and peanut oil) are offered to the deity and then cooked for a family feast. Coconuts are broken open to ensure health and prosperity for the family. Other Koli celebrations, such as Hutasni, are Hindu festivals to which the Kolis have attached their own beliefs and rituals.


No special diet or restrictions are imposed on Koli women in Gujarat during pregnancy. The child is delivered with the aid of the village midwife. After delivery, the umbilical cord is cut with a sickle, and the afterbirth is buried in the courtyard of the house along with some salt. Mother and child are subject to a period of ritual pollution (sutak) lasting 37 days, after which various purification ceremonies are undertaken. Subsequently, the child undergoes the naming ceremony and the ear- and nose-piercing ceremony. It is common for both boys and girls to be tattooed, usually between the ages of 8 and 12, but definitely before marriage.

After death, the corpse is bathed. A sacred tulsi (basil) leaf and a piece of silver are placed in the mouth to purify the body. The body is dressed in white clothes and, if the deceased was unmarried, anointed with turmeric as a ritual of marriage. Marriage is necessary for the departed to be a full-fledged member of the community. Those who have not achieved this status are symbolically married as part of the funeral rites. The body is carried to the cremation grounds and placed on the funeral pyre facing north, the direction in which Paradise is believed to lie. On the eleventh or thirteenth day after death, the final rites of karj are performed. This expensive ceremony requires that various goods such as food, cooking utensils, clothes, and household items be offered to the deceased through a Brahman priest. It is through the Brahman, the purest of caste, that these goods will reach the dead. The funeral rites are completed by a lavish feast for friends and relations. The eldest son feeds a crow delicacies prepared on this occasion. It is thought that this bird is the only creature that can reach the city of the dead.


Although Kolis are often forced to leave their native villages in search of employment, they exhibit strong kinship ties with deep roots in the worship of family deities. It is usual for family members to return to the family home at the time of festivals honoring the family goddesses.


The typical Koli house is enclosed by four high walls, with access from the street through a wooden door that opens into a courtyard. Along one side of the yard is a shed for cattle and other livestock, and areas for storing fodder and the cowdung cakes used for fuel. On the opposite side of the courtyard from the cattle sheds, steps lead up to the family's living quarters. The focus of this is the math, the shrine where the family gods and household idols are kept. In addition, there are the kitchen and rooms used for living and sleeping. Most rooms in Koli houses are lined with shelves holding household utensils. Wooden cots (charpai) are used for sleeping and resting. Women are not segregated to any particular part of the house, and married men sleep with their wives and children in the same room. Daughters-in-law maintain purdah (seclusion) from male members of the family by covering their face.


Kolis are divided into numerous branches such as the Talapada Kolis, the Mahadeo Kolis, and the Dhor Kolis. These are essentially regional groupings that are endogamous and do not intermarry. Each endogamous group, however, is organized into exogamous clans. One does not marry within one's clan, and before a marriage Kolis ascertain that the families are unrelated up to four ascending generations. Marriages are arranged, and girls marry at a young age. The actual ceremony is performed by a Brahman and in general follows Hindu rites. A bride-price is commonly paid to the family of the girl. Sometimes a wealthy father refuses to accept the bride price, an action that raises his social standing in the community. The new bride enters the household of her husband, where she assumes her role as the dutiful daughter-in-law.


Koli clothing reflects regional patterns in dress. In the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, for example, Koli men wear pants like pajamas that are skintight from the knee downwards and loose and baggy above. A sleeveless waistcoat called a bandi is worn in the summer. In the winter, however, this is replaced by a full-sleeved, high-necked blouse. This is fitted under the armpits but then flares out to the waist in pleats. This dress, which is typically Gujarati, is invariably white in color. A white turban or pagri is worn on the head. Men wear heavy leather shoes, with pointed toes, that are heavily sequined with brass.

Traditional dress for Koli women consists of a blouse and a full-length, slitted skirt with an embroidered edge. A length of cloth 2.5 m (8 ft) long known as odhni is tucked in at the waist and drawn over the head. Sometimes women wear the traditional Indian choli and sari. Koli women are fond of jewelry and cosmetics and wear an assortment of ornaments in the ear and nose and bangles on the arms and legs. The most prominent feature of Koli personal adornment is tattooing, although this is more extensive on women than on men. The motifs vary from flowers, birds, and figures of gods and goddesses to geometric designs. A girl who is not tattooed before marriage reflects poorly on her family.


Kolis in Gujarat eat a light breakfast and two meals during the day. Breakfast, taken in the early morning, consists of bajra-kiroti (unleavened millet bread) left over from the previous evening's meal and tea. Goat's milk is used for the tea because it is cheaper than cow's milk. The afternoon meal consists of millet bread and vegetables. Poorer families eat a paste of garlic and chilies with the bread rather than vegetables. In the evening, khichri (a dish of lentils and rice boiled together) is eaten with the bread. If available, buttermilk is taken with both meals. For festive occasions, puris—deep-fried bread made with wheat flour and stuffed with potato curry—are prepared. In Gujarat, most Kolis are vegetarian, but elsewhere they eat meat. Kolis eat chicken and pork but usually abstain from beef. The Dhor Kolis, however, eat beef and carrion. Fish is a significant element in the diet of the Son Kolis. Fermented liquor and opium are used by Koli men.


The traditional concept of education among Kolis was essentially functionally oriented. Boys were given full freedom to play until they were about five years, at which time they were sent to school—assuming the village had a school and the parents wanted a formal education for their child. Even then, boys were allotted domestic duties, which taught them the basics of cultivation. When farm work became heavy, they used to leave school and work in the fields. As girls were to be married, education for them was deemed superfluous. They used to stay at home, carrying out domestic chores.

Educational levels vary among the Koli tribes, depending on their location and their status. For example, even though literacy among the Dhor Koli (or Kholi Dhor) group in Dadra and Nagar Haveli, a Union Territory on India's west coast, has improved over the last few decades, it is still quite low, especially among females. The Koli in Dadra are classed as a Scheduled Tribe and female literacy among Scheduled Tribes is only 27%. By contrast, literacy among the Mahadeo Koli in Maharashtra is 62.8%, and among females, the 52.9% literacy recorded by the 2001 Census is the highest among the Scheduled Tribes in the State.

Figures for attendance at school are generally quite low for Kolis—in Gujarat State this is 33.4%, the lowest value for any of the Scheduled Tribes. Even though free schooling is provided by the state through the secondary level, for many Koli it is more important to have children help in the field. In Gujarat literacy levels among Kolis are also very low according to the 2001 Census (38.4% and 12.8% for males and females, respectively).


The Kolis have their own traditions of song and dance and also share in regional cultural traditions. The Kolis of Gujarat, for instance, have incorporated the Gujarati garba and dandya ras dances into their religious and social ceremonies. Unmarried girls participate in the garba, dancing in a circle while balancing a lighted oil lamp on their heads and singing garba songs. Dandya ras is a stick dance usually performed by men.


The Kolis fall into two main groups: the Son Kolis, who are skilled fishers, and the Hill Kolis, who engage in numerous occupations. The Chunvalia Kolis were once known for their criminal activities but today are mainly engaged in cultivation or work as agricultural laborers. The traditional occupation of the Dhor Kolis is the tanning of animal hides. Some Kolis have taken to occupations as domestic servants, village watchmen, baggage-handlers, and porters. A few, who have some education, work in government offices and schools.


Games played by children include blind-man's bluff, skipping, and "jacks" played with pebbles or stones. Boys enjoy fighting with bamboo sticks. Males play various board games with cowry shells as game tokens. The "boards" are often just drawn with the fingers on the ground. Hockey and cricket are popular games learned by children in school.


Mass media such as radio, television, and movies are available throughout India. However, access to this entertainment is often limited by economic resources. For many of the poorer classes, and especially those living in more isolated areas, the main forms of recreation are still to be found in festivals, folk traditions, and social events such as marriages.


Koli women are particularly adept at embroidery. Girls are taught various types of stitching at a young age. They decorate clothes and make mirrored wall hangings. They also engage in decorative beadwork.


While some Koli groups are successful peasant cultivators, many suffer the problems of the depressed classes in any developing society—landlessness, poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, the burden of rural debt, and lack of the means to escape their situation. Some have left their villages and joined the migration of the rural poor to cities such as Bombay, where they swell the ranks of the urban underclasses. However, a recent study in Pune in Maharashtra State suggests that some Kolis have bettered themselves by moving to the city. The sample Koli population studied in Pune was characterized by a higher standard of living, effective use of birth control, better educational levels, and better nutrition than other groups. While this suggests that for some the flight to the city may be a positive move, it remains to be seen whether this is the exception to rule. The Kolis remain a tribal community ranked near the lowest economic and social levels of Hindu society.

Although Kolis are primarily agricultural, in Bombay the fishing Kolis face competition from other fishing groups. Thus in the spring of 2004 several fish vendors from the north of India brought a legal suit in the Bombay high court claiming that Koli women did not allow them to enter Bombay's wholesale fish market and that the police had failed to redress their grievances. The Koli Mahila Sangharsha Samiti, a Koli women's organization, had launched an agitation in Mumbai demanding the boycott of North Indian fish vendors at the city's wholesale fish markets. Koli women observed a day-long strike and held several meetings to protest against the entry of the North Indians into the trade.


The relative position of Koli women varies from place to place. In states where Kolis are classified as Scheduled Tribes (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, and the Union Territory of Dadra & Nagar Haveli), Koli women are better off than amongst groups that have been Hinduized. They reap the benefits of being classed as a Scheduled Tribe for which they are eligible (whether or not they take advantage of this) and are generally much freer in their personal lives than their Hindu counterparts.

Even so, marriages among the Koli are usually arranged and the females are often legally children, being married below the age of 18 years (the traditional age for Koli marriage was 5 to 10 years for the girl). Since a bride price is paid to the girl's family it is important that the girl is appropriate and that her family is in good economic standing. In Pakistan even Hindu Kolis adopt purdah, and there is considerable friction between the Muslim and Hindu communities.

Hinduized Kolis tend to show patterns of behavior that reflect society at large. Thus there have been reports of bride burning amongst the Kolis, often for failing to bear male children. In 2005 the press reported a case of a pregnant Koli woman who was burned to death because her unborn fetus would have been her third girl child. The husband and mother-in-law were subsequently arrested for murder. Even among Christian Kolis, bigamy—for the purpose of having a son—is not uncommon.

The central government passed the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act in 1996, but abortion of females is still a major issue amongst Kolis. The 2001 Census of India show the Koli Mahadeo to have the lowest sex ratio for over 6 year-olds (964 women to 1000 males) of all the Scheduled Tribes in Maharashtra State, this despite the state passing legislation in 1988 banning selective sex abortion.

Poverty, illiteracy, low socio-economic standing, and cultural norms remain the main obstacles facing Koli women in their attempts to better themselves.


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Ghurye, G. S. The Mahadeo Kolis. Bombay: Popular Book Depot, 1963.

Ferreira, J. V. The Koknas and the Malhar Kolis of the Thane District: A Case Study in the Larger Socio-Cultural Context. Bombay: Dept. of Sociology, University of Bombay, 1982.

Punekar, Vinaja B. The Son Kolis of Bombay. Bombay: Popular Book Depot, 1959.

Roy Burman, J. J. Sacred Groves among Communities: the Mahadeo Kolis and the Kunbis of the Western Ghats. New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2003.

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Singh, K. S., ed. "Koli." In People of India. Vol. 3, The Scheduled Tribes. Delhi and Oxford: Oxford University Press with the Anthropological Survey of India, 1994.

—by D. O. Lodrick