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Story Of India’s Historic People
- The Kolis
About the Article
A time comes when each one of us asks, ‘Who am I? Who were my forefathers? Where did
they come from? How did they live? What were their triumphs and tribulations?’ These and a
number of others are some of the fundamental questions that we must find answers to, to get
to learn about our roots.
This article is an attempt to help remind us of the stories we have heard and to go over some
of the details that our scholars have gleaned from their studies to explore our roots.
Let us go back and dig deeper into our background.
In studying the aboriginal tribes of India, scholars have consulted our most ancient records
and documents - the Vedas, the Puranas, the epics in different languages, many archaeological
records and notes, and various other publications.
Students of history and anthropology have found numerous instances recorded in all
prehistoric and established history of India, of a glowing past of this ancient tribe of India and
more is being uncovered as research continues.
Over the centuries, various scholars have written about their findings on this subject and
various treatises in a number of Indian languages by different scholars are in circulation.
The Koli tribe, which in its various subgroups forms about 20% of the population of present
India is mentioned continuously through the centuries - way back to Mohanjo Daro and
beyond. Historians and scholars find that Koli tribe, a ruling Kshtria Caste, was spread far and
wide all over India. Their heroic exploits and learned reputation and relationships with the
most powerful of those times regarded them with awe and respect.
This article is based mainly on three publications written in Gujarati. 'An ancient Tribe of
Bharat - The History of Koli Tribe' a book edited by Shree Bachoobhai Pitamber Kambed and
published by Shree Talpoda Koli Community of Bhavnagar (First Edition 1961 and Second
Edition 1981), an article by Shree Ramjibhai Santola published in Bombay Samachar in 1979
and a lengthy paper prepared by Dr. Arjun Patel in 1989 for presentation at the International
Koli Samaj Conference in 1989
The Historic Heroes of Our Tribe
Historical findings suggest that our ancestry has left behind an illustrious record of their
achievements that we can be proud of.
The most ancient King Mandhata, a supreme and universal ruler whose reputation spread far
and wide throughout India and whose stories of valour and yajna were described in the stone
carvings of Mohanjo Daro, belonged to this tribe.
The most ancient and revered sage Valmiki, the author of Ramayana belonged to this tribe.
Even today Ramayana is referred to as Koli Valmiki Ramayan in Maharashtra State. Teachings
from Ramayan form the basis of Indian culture.
The great king Chandra Gupta Mourya, and his line of descendent kings belonged to the Koli
Lord Budhha's mother and his wife belonged to the Koli tribe.
Sant Kabir, a weaver by trade, ended several of his ‘bhajans’ as ‘kahet kabir kori’ was a self-
confessed Koli. Bhaktaraj Bhadurdas and Bhaktaraj Valram from Saurastra, Girnari Sant
Velnathji from Junagadh, Bhaktaraj Jobanpagi, Sant Sri Koya Bhagat, Sant Dhudhalinath,
Madan Bhagat, Sany Kanji Swami of 17th and 18th Century all belonged to the Koli tribe.
Their life and reputation were described in books of their life and in articles published in
Mumbai Samachar, Nutan Gujarat, Parmarth etc.
In the State of Maharashtra, Sivaji's Commander-in-Chief and several of his Generals belonged
to this tribe. ‘A History of the Marathas’ note with pride the bravery of Sivaji’s army
consisting mainly of Mavalis and Kolis. His General, Tanaji Rao Malusare, who was always
referred to by Sivaji as ‘My Lion’ was a koli. When Tanaji fell fighting for and winning the
‘Kodana Fort’, Sivaji renamed the fort as ‘Sinhghadhh’ in his memory.
In the 1857 uprising a number of Koli women fighters played an important role in trying to
save the life of the ‘Rani of Jhansi’. Among them was a very close colleague of the queen
named Zalkari. The Koli Samaj, thus, has given India and the world, great sons and daughters
whose teachings are of universal import and of relevance to modern day living.
Legend of our Ancient King Mandhata
Archaeological findings of Mohenjo Daro are estimated to date back to 5000-3000 B.C. The
stone inscriptions there describe the great Koli Kings and their Pyanchayet method of
administration in their kingdoms. References to the Great King Mandhata are found many
times and the various aspects of his life, deeds of valour, and yajna are described in a number
These details described here are a condensed version of an extended article written in Gujarati
by Shree Raghunath Brahambhatt and published in ‘Akhand Anand’ in June 1964.
‘King Mandhata is estimated to have lived some ten thousand years ago. Long after him were
born such great souls as Shree Ram, Shree Krishna and Lord Buddha. Yet the greatness of
King Mandhata’s achievements were such that a household phrase came into universal use to
this day when comparing others to ask – ‘Was he as great as Mandhata?’ Mandhata has been
compared as the brightest star in the Sun Dynasty and was born in the 15th generation of
Brahma. The great Manu was of the 5th generation and 10th generation after Manu was
Mandhata. Shree Ram is said to born as 25th generation after Mandhata. Ishvaku was another
great King of the ‘Sun Dynasty Koli Kings’ and so Mandhata and Shree Ram were said to be
of Ishvaku Sun Dynasty. This Dynasty later got divided into nine major sub groups, all
claiming their roots to the Kshtria Caste. They are: Malla, Janak, Videhi, Koliye, Morya,
Lichchhvi, Janatri, Vajji, and Shakya.’
There is a strange story of the birth of Mandhata.
King Yuvenashawer, Mandhata’s father had hundred wives but no male child was born to
them. He consulted many Rishis and finally came to Bhargav Rishi who agreed to perform a
yajna to beget a son for him. At the end of the yajna, a pot of mantra-charged-water was put
aside for the king to be taken to his queen the next morning. During the night, the king
became thirsty and went looking for water in the Ashram. He saw the pot and quenched his
thirst with this potent water. In due course, a son was delivered by cutting open the King’s
abdomen. God Indra heard of this unique incident and came to see the infant. To the question
who will feed and protect the child God Indra put his thumb in the child’s mouth and said ‘Ma
thasyati’. Thus the child was named ‘Mandhata’ and later learned the art of warfare from God
Indra and acquired his unconquerable Bow.
King Mandhata with his superior strength, knowledge and well-equipped army conquered vast
areas and many surrounding kingdoms. He would reinstate the defeated kings. Such a king
would be made to agree to the payment of an annual tax. An ambassador would be posted in
each such kingdom to ensure compliance and good governance. Such a king would also enjoy
the protection of Mandhata. To fulfil this promise he once had to fight his own Godfather
Indra, who when defeated, challenged Mandhata to fight Lavnasur, a demon king. Soon an
opportunity for a battle with this demon king arose.
For an ever-victorious King Mandhata, this encounter proved to be an anticlimax end to his
life. The King and his army marched right into Lavnasur’s kingdom but no resistance was
forthcoming. Evening was approaching. King Mandhata decided to camp for the night,
confident of capturing Lavnasur the next day. Lavnasur’s agents however infiltrated the camp
in the night and killed the sleeping king.
Archaeological findings, when pieced together, show Mandhata as belonging to Ishvaku – Sun
Dynasty and his descendents were known as ‘Sun Dynasty Koli Kings’. They were known to
be brave, illustrious and just rulers. Buddhist texts have numerous references proving this
beyond doubt. The descendants of Mandhata played a vital role and our ancient Vedas, epics
and other relics mention their important contributions in the art of war and state
administration. They are referred to in our ancient Sanskrit books as Kulya, Kuliye, Koli Serp,
Kolik, Kaul etc.
Early history – After Buddha
It was during the year 566 BC, when the Hindu religion became cruel and thoroughly
degraded that Prince Gautam, later known to the world as Buddha (the enlightened one) was
born in a little Kingdom by the river Rohini in a Himalayan valley in northwest India. Lord
Buddha's mother, Maha Maya was a Koli princess.
When Gautam, the prince, who was later to become Lord Buddha, described the qualities of a
princess he would be prepared to marry, his parents decided that such a princess could only
be found in a Koli kingdom. Gautam went on to marry Yashodara, one his cousins. A son
called Rahul was born to them. Soon after that at age 29, Gautam left home to find an answer
to the ills of the world.
After years of severe penance, study and meditation he became the enlightened one - Buddha.
The teachings of Lord Buddha were seen as a threat to vested interests of the upper-caste
Hindus. Soon, the teachings of Buddha was completely banished from India.
It appears that Koli Kingdoms with their relationship and affinity to Buddha suffered most
from this persecution. Although the vast majority never embraced Buddhist teachings, they
been cold shouldered by others and suffered neglect from the rulers.
2000 Years After Lord Buddha
The upheaval must have proved too much for the Koli kingdoms. It appears that because of
prolonged depravations in the highly complex Hindu society, a once powerful tribe,
hardworking, skilled, loyal, self-sufficient but easily provoked into war, lost its central
position. A tribe that founded and built Bombay - named after the name of their Goddess,
Mumba Devi, finds it hard even to this day to get into positions of political or academic
influence. For centuries now, other tribes have looked down upon them and the resulting
psychological effects were devastating for this entire community of Kshtrias.
On the whole, conditions of Kolis were humiliating and little better than being on the bottom
rung, even as late as the late 18th century. Majority of the people being powerless and
property less, were constantly in search of labour and almost always in debt. Having fallen
into this cycle of poverty, they were fully taken advantage of by the upper castes. Generations
were tied to bonded labour and treated just as bad. For a once proud people, their reaction
was uncompromising. Frequently they engaged in gang robberies, plundering and looting.
They got involved in piracy on high seas. The British, who faced these forays a long time,
eventually subdued them. They much appreciated these ‘misguided’ but secretive, loyal and
trustworthy band and lavished praise on them saying, ‘In these plundering parties they often
display a very desperate courage; and it is to their honour that, rude and lawless as they are,
they do not apparently delight in blood for its own sake, and neither mutilate, torture, nor burn
the subjects of their cupidity or revenge like the far worse ‘dacoits’ of Bengal or Ireland.’
Records suggest that the years between 15th to 18th centuries were the most deprived and
degraded years for Koli.
In present day India, Kolis are found from Kashmir to Kanya Kumari and are known by
slightly different names according to the languages of the regions. The following are some of
the major groups: Koli Kshtria, Koli Raja, Koli Rajput, Koli Suryavanshi, Nagarkoli, Gondakoli,
Koli Mahadev, Koli Patel, Koli Thakor, Bavraya, Tharkarda, Pathanvadia, Mein Koli, Koyeri,
Mandhata Patel etc.
As an original tribe of India preferring to live in open agricultural landscape and coastal regions
as clansman, the present day Kolis are a product of much intermarriage. It has been estimated
that there are over 1040 subgroups all lumped together as Koli in the population census. Vast
majority have very little in common except that they are Hindus, that the upper class Hindus
have always accepted that a Koli’s touch does not defile and Koli chiefs of pure blood are
difficult to distinguished from the Kshtria Rajputs among whom there are regular intermarriage.
Kolis of Gujarat
Writers Anthovan and Dr. Wilson believe that the original settlers in Gujarat were Kolis and
Adivasi Bhils. Ravbahadur Hathibhai Desai confirms this to be so at the time of ruler Vanraj
some 600 years ago. The very diverse ethnic groups represented now in the Gujarati
population is said to be Vedic or Dravidian. These include the Nagar Brahman, Bhatia, Bhadela,
Koli, Rabari, Mina, Bhangi, Dubla, Naikda, and Macchi-Kharwa tribes. Parsis, originally from
Persia, represent a much later influx. The rest of the population is the adivasi Bhil tribe.
It must be accepted that centuries of intermixing in all the peoples of the world in addition to
natural, environmental and historical upheavals have left not a single race of the people intact
and of pure blood. Untold number of civil wars and even world wars have been fought by
misguided people to prove themselves a super race and practice ethnic cleansing on a large
scale. In Northern Gujarat competent observers have noted that the Kanbi and Patidars castes
have married into Koli caste for generations. And in 1918-19 it was a Patidar who introduced
an Intercaste Marriage Bill to regularise the practice. The social hypocrisy of asserting the
vanity of being of upper class among all Indian groups appears to be for no reason other than
self and group vain glory.
While Kolis and Bhils may have been the original inhabitants of Gujarat they lost ground to the
later arrivals and most likely settled near the coast and hills. Kolis in particular with their
affinity to Buddha suffered severe discrimination in earning a living. As an original Kshritya
fighting caste, their one characteristic of being easily provoked to fight did not help. They may
also be described as ruggedly individualistic more so at that time then now. For majority of
them life even two hundred years ago was one of severe hardship, bonded labour and
indignity. That was the price they paid to submission.
The census of 1931 put the Koli population of Gujarat and Kathiavad to 24% of the total. This
large proportion is said to be because all people settled in the plains and the coastal areas were
treated as Kolis. They represented the five distinct groups who by now had developed
separately and had lost contact with one another but put together as Talpadas.
Kolis of Navsari, Surat and Surrounding Areas
Let us glance at that part of the Koli tribe known as ‘Koli Patel’ and ‘Koli Mandhata Patel’ of
Surat and Navsari Districts of Southern Gujarat.
The census of 1931 for Surat District put the Koli population as numbering 106,321. This was
one sixth of the total. They were mostly residing in eight talukas of Surat and six of Navsari.
Kolis also formed a good part of the adjacent Indian Kingdoms, particularly Gaekwad, etc
spreading to Baroda and the Sachin State, in a total of about 600-700 villages. This cluster is
formed within some 21 districts of Southern Gujarat and is estimated to have 900,000 Kolis.
Among themselves this cluster maintains close social contacts with peoples of nearby districts
Among the higher caste in Gujarat the southern Gujarat Kolis enjoyed both a highly positive
and the generations old negative reputations. Among the positive side, and this is perhaps
within the last 200 years, they were described as brave and courageous, conscious and hard-
working, nationalistic and independent in spirit, reliable and said to be remarkably faithful
when trusted. On the other hand the old picture of a thief, robbers, pirates and plunderers of
the high seas. For this reason Kolis everywhere were looked down upon by the higher castes.
A serious scholar of the peoples of Gujarat, Alice Clarke, believes that it was easy and rather
opportunist to blame the Kolis for criminal activities. Kolis were too simple and were really the
victims of the then prevailing social circumstances. Historian David Hardiman too held the
same opinion. Whatever the truth, the negative reputation stayed with them for a very long
time. The literature of the day described the villain characters in their stories as Kolis, thus
scandalising the whole tribe. Even today the stigma has not fully worn off.
In Bharuch and Surat District Talabdas form the main group. In the south the highest Kolis
are called Mandhata Sororaria or Mansororaria and Koli Patel or Mandhata Koli Patel. Exactly
where they came from to live in the plains and near the coast around Surat and Navsari is not
known. It is possible that they are the decedents of the Thakurs of Gujarat who fled to the
hills in the time of Mahmud Begada’s persecutions and later returned and settled as farmers.
They are certainly said to be distinct from the Kolis of the Deccan Plains.
Right until the beginning of 20th Century their chief occupation was agriculture, and farm
labour. In this employment they were regarded as excellent cultivators and labourers. Most
families had some land, which by this time had been handed down from father to son and as
the supply of agricultural land in the area was limited the farms divided into smaller and
smaller size. People living the coast developed fishing.
Their beliefs as far as is known were built on the stories of Ramayan and Mahabharat and
Puranas enacted by visiting troupes. They worshipped Siva, Ram and Krishna and were prone
to the prevailing superstitions. Yet the simple understanding of their Sanatan Hindu Dharma
kept them God fearing and on the straight path.
As a whole the financial position of this group of people spread over some fifty villages was
poor. They were mostly uneducated and majority of them led a simple life and were often in
debt. For the vast majority of them job opportunity were confined to working on their own
farm or farm labour. The nearest town was Navsari and this was on average 10 miles away.
Surat was the main city some thirty miles away. Transportation was by bullock cart. So
within the limits of finance and geography, life for majority of the population was confined
within the limits of their and a few surrounding villages. A century ago social contacts among
people living ten or twenty miles away was extremely limited. Any parent deciding to give
their daughter in marriage to a far away village may not see the daughter again for years on
end. For a family, marriage, birth of a child and death of a near relation were the main events
in life. These were also a time of stress as such events plunged the families into debt and
worry. Simple religious festivals must have been a relief.
At the turn of the century a slow but sure change was taking place for these people. All of a
sudden it seems a giant has awaken. Slowly at first but picking up speed over the years men
and women found hidden talent and strength. In the thirties and forties men confidently
ventured out not just to the nearby cities but to the far corners of India and particularly
overseas to New Zealand, South and East Africa.
The period between 1910 and 1920s was a period of great awareness for our people. While
the problem of poverty was of personal importance to all our families this was delicately
balanced with the need to make a full contribution in the Independence Struggle. In this
respect the idealism of our youths was unstoppable. Clandestine groups were operating in all
our villages. Network of news and information lines kept people aware of latest developments
and movements of our leaders and their thoughts. Letters and visits from relations in South
Africa kept people informed of developments there.
When on 9th January 1920, Bapu returned to India from South Africa a number of people
who were with him there returned also. Bapu had personal knowledge of the character of our
people. So when the time came to decide the destination of the 1930 Salt March it was no
accident that he chose Dandi, from among a number of choices and pressures from other
interested parties. He was convinced of the courage and the depth of understanding of our
people in completing a project successfully. And so it proved.
During the 1930 Salt March and thereafter till Independence and particularly in 1942 when the
British police opened fire on the peaceful demonstration wave after wave of our people filled
the jails and in1942 three of our young men gave their lives. A memorial in Matvad constantly
reminds us of their sacrifice. Stories of great sacrifices made by Indians at all levels abound in
The story of Koli Patel and Mandhata Koli Patel over the last fifty years is a story of only
partial success. Thousands of young men from our villages had migrated to South Africa and
East Africa and New Zealand and later to Canada and the USA. 1950s saw the wives and
children of these men join them in those countries. In all these three countries they were left
to live their typical Indian way of life. Each Indian group lived their own enclosed life
surrounded by their Gods and ceremonies. Each group found the caste division and the
associated status preceded them in these countries also.
Each lower group found some way of hiding their identity and raising their status in the eyes
of other Indians. Some gave themselves fancy names, mixed with other groups, changed their
diets and pretended to be of a higher caste.
In East Africa the Koli Patels adopted ‘Mandhata’ as the name of our community. We
identified ourselves as belonging to the Mandhata Community and its related Association. Few
however attempted to hide their Koliness or change their diet to pass as holier than thou.
But the ‘Mandhata’ name struck.
Our people who had settled in South Africa were the first to take an enlightened view of the
Community as a whole and took constructive steps to attempt to uplift our people at home.
They set up Transvaal Koli Hitwardhak Mandal, collected donations from our people there,
invested this in a property in Navsari, and set up a Trust to give scholarships to encourage
higher studies. They also funded the printing of a monthly magazine, ‘NavPragati’. This was
indeed an act of far reaching vision. This philanthropic work continues today.
From East Africa no single all embracing venture materialised. What help was given was
organised ad hoc by Gam Mandals for the benefit of their Gam. In the main the financial
assistance sent was sent for the upkeep of the family members in the Gam.
Here it may be worth pointing out that the first generation of our people in East Africa were
almost all labourers or semi-skilled workers. Life there was lived almost exactly as in the
Indian villages. One member of the family going out to work and the family depended on one
wage. After the wives and children arrived, the children studied to perhaps matriculation level
and entered the job market mostly as clerks. Few of our people there had the resources or the
knowledge to start a business. In financial terms the most that can be said is that the majority
of the families lived a frugal, mostly debt free but poor life. Very few had a business and
fewer still own a house. Most of these families had been settled in East Africa for over thirty
years and held British passports.
The period between 1965/70 brought in a sea change. One by one the East African countries
became independent. The eventual aim of these countries was the Africanisation of the jobs
starting with the lower and middle levels. Apart from the businessmen and professionals the
vast majority of the Asians were in the middle level and they were already under pressure.
British Government fearing a big influx of immigrants quickly passed legislation to limit entry
to Britain by a quota allocation. In 1969 the weeks before the quota system was to be
implemented in Kenya there were almost panic conditions to rush to Britain to avoid being
caught up in the numbers game. Thousands just fled leaving everything except perhaps their
prize possessions. Those left behind were struck for over a year in Kenya without jobs or any
And those who were already here were left to their own devices to settle the best they can. It
was to the credit of the genius of the ordinary Indian character that in spite of all the odds of
unfamiliar weather, new conditions and systems, job and home difficulty the Indians managed
to settle in very quickly.
In Uganda there was no immediate pressure under President Obote. He was however ousted
by General Amin. Amin ordered all Asians to leave the country and gave them just two days to
In spite of a very large number of East African Asians having come to Britain in the last few
years British leadership behaved in a very statesman like manner and welcomed the Uganda
Asian and helped them settle. This was indeed a politically very difficult time as various other
leaders like Enoch Powell who were making inflammatory speeches of ‘rivers of blood’ times
to come, etc.
Unlike the first generation of Indians who came to East Africa were mainly labourers, the first
generation of Indians who came to the United Kingdom were educated, well versed in English,
skilled and experienced and many had run thriving businesses. Yet we had to prove ourselves
the hard way in the job market. A lot of the well educated had to take up factory floor jobs to
make ends meet. It was not long however that the employers realised our abilities. One by one
we moved into positions of responsibilities. Our women took up jobs in local shops and
factories and our children settled down to studies and proving themselves par excellent.
Within two to three years of arriving in Britain most of our families, with the help of a
mortgage bought their own homes.
In a short span of time Britain had a large Indian population in most cities. It was as though
East Africa was planted in Britain. The community Associations that functioned in East Africa
started emerging here too. Soon each community was hundreds strong and boldly asserted
their identity. We started celebrating our religious festivals and organised other cultural
Today, fifty years on, we have a new generation of Indians. This generation did not have to
face the hardships and the discrimination that their fathers and mothers had to endure. This
generation is well educated, most of them graduates and professionals, confidently running
their own businesses and practices. A number of them do so on an international scale. In
business and finance Asians are an important force in Britain.
Our own Koli community has not been lagging behind in any way. Within a couple of years
after arriving from East Africa our people set up ‘Mandhata Mandals’ in each of the cities. In
West Bromwich we were perhaps the first community to have bought a church and converted
it to Shree Krishna Temple. A few years on we set up an umbrella organisation, ‘Association
of Mandhata Samaj UK’ to bring together all our people at least once or twice a year. Almost
all our Mandals now have premises of their own, run Gujarati Language classes and other
cultural classes for our children, celebrate religious festivals and generally enjoy all the material
A visitor to UK and other overseas countries is most likely to get the impression that our
community has truly arrived. I have said earlier that our last fifty years in UK is only a partial
success. We may have achieved financial independence, but there is lot more to life that
money and material comforts.
We cannot wholly blame the upper castes for our present conditions. History records with
unceasing regularity the downfall of once powerful people who may have completely
disappeared or reduced to pittance. In a world where survival of the fittest is the norm a
people has to make great effort and sacrifice to unite under a wise leadership and start writing
We have thousands of graduates and professionals, highly qualified doctors, dentists, lawyers,
and skilled technocrats, living in their adopted countries and in India. They all seem to be
using their skills to make money and in a race to acquire material goods and other minor
pleasures. Material comforts are necessary but our priority must also be to guard our religion,
culture and tradition.
The cream of our present generation must see themselves as the torch-bearers of our Samaj
and make every effort to communicate, unite and become a formidable force to reclaim our
past glory. This is now our challenge.
About the author
Keshavlal J Patel is a native of Bodali Gam in Navsari District in Southern Gujarat. He left
India to join his father in East Africa in 1948. He has taken keen interest in the welfare of the
area and on his second visit to India in 1983 set up Kantha Vibhag Friendship Trust through
which he promotes various development projects in our District. Since 1971 he has settled
with his family in UK.
In this brief article he has tried to compile historic information that he has collect from various
sources and hopes that it will encourage others to research further and add to our glorious
Thanks are due to many of my friends for help and suggestions in finalising this article.
Particular thanks are due to Rashmi Patel for a complete new look in presentation and
readability of the material, to Nilesh Patel for suggesting changes to the concluding remarks.
They are both active members of our Mandhata Yahoo Group. I also thank Bharatbhai D Patel
for his constructive comments.