The Beautiful Quiet of Mumbai's Magical Forgotten Gaothans

The Beautiful Quiet of Mumbai's Magical Forgotten Gaothans

James Ferreira’s biscuit-colored wooden house is possibly the most well-known spot in the Khotachiwadi.

SourceCourtesy of Joanna Lobo

Why you should care

Because the silence here is magical. 

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The first thing that strikes me when entering Matharpacady is the silence. And it’s the same kind of untroubled quiet that clings to nearby Khotachiwadi. It’s a tranquility you don’t expect at the heart of India’s most crowded city, the chaotic and bustling Mumbai. It’s an experience that’s now becoming accessible again, after decades in the shadows.

There are many stories hidden within the narrow lanes of these two heritage precincts located in the southern part of the city — their low, red roofs an aesthetic contrast to surrounding concrete skyscrapers. These gaothans (village-like settlements) are a living museum of early 18th-century life when Bombay’s islands were a Portuguese colony, an architectural history of India’s financial capital. But these settlements that continue to house close-knit communities have been largely forgotten until recently, thanks to conservation and awareness efforts.

Ferreira house inside

Khotachiwadi’s heritage is on display in exhibitions inside designer James Ferreira’s house, which also doubles as a workshop.

Source Courtesy of Joanna Lobo

Art and history enthusiast Anita Yewale leads visitors on $11-per-head walks through Matharpacady. A similar sense of history can be found a few kilometers away in the hamlet of Khotachiwadi, which gets its name from Dadoba Waman Khot, a Pathare Prabhu (Hindu Brahmin) who leased land to the East Indian Christians in the 1840s. There, city historian Rafique Baghdadi conducts walks ($77 for 10 people). Also in Khotachiwadi, designer James Ferreira’s biscuit-colored wooden house is more than just his workshop — it also doubles as a space for exhibitions and events celebrating Khotachiwadi’s heritage and is possibly the most well-known spot in the village.

They [the village houses] need to be lived in and loved.

James Ferreira, designer and resident of Khotachiwadi

For visitors, the villages and their streets offer a variety of architectural styles. The houses have a strong Portuguese influence with sloping roofs, open-front porches and external staircases. In between, I also spot some Renaissance bungalows, art deco influences and chawls or wadis (a cluster of three- to four-storied buildings). But the efforts at rekindling outside interest in these villages, by getting visitors here on walks, are also important in order to preserve this heritage for future generations. “It is expensive to maintain these homes,” says Ferreira. “Once they are abandoned, they fall apart. They need to be lived in and loved.”

According to historians, Matharpacady came about before the railway lines were installed in the 1850s. Most of the residents, largely East Indian, “were connected with the shipping industry and the sea,” says Yewale. She points out the kudds (rooms) or clubs — dormitory-style homes for Catholic migrant workers from Goa. The villagers still get together for fun and prayer. And their Christmas celebrations are legendary, with fairy-lit streets, fir trees on balconies decorated with dabs of cotton “snow” and the aroma of frying neuris (a crescent-shaped sweet) filling the air.

Otherwise there’s a quiet in the streets, broken only by the sounds of birds, hawkers on bikes calling out their wares — from plastic toys and trinkets to fried snacks — children playing football or cricket in empty streets and residents talking to each other across balconies. The few open doors offer a glimpse of carved furniture, the fine lines reflected in the wrinkled faces of their owners.

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The original Matharpacady residents were largely East Indian and worked in the shipping industry.

Source Courtesy of Joanna Lobo

At the main entrance of Khotachiwadi stands a tiny chapel, built as thanksgiving after the plague. One wall is covered by a painting of Mother Mary with a lotus and two elephants. With a similar devotion to religion as Matharpacady, small crosses can be found right next to tiny Hindu temples. “People came here because there was land and the water was sweet,” says Baghdadi, the historian.

At House No. 57, Goan resident Willy Black strums the guitar on his porch, an eclectic exhibition of colorful lamps and curios. Ask nicely and Willy will share tales of the village’s glory days.

If these hamlets do fade out in the future, Baghdadi knows what he will miss the most. “The silence,” he says. “It just transports you to another place.” For the moment though, the future looks brighter than it has in past decades. The challenge? Keeping it that way.

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