Mid-Day Special|Why Uttan, Mumbai’s hidden village near Bhayander, should be on your travel list

31 May,2024 12:37 PM IST |  Mumbai  |  Nascimento Pinto

Mumbai boasts of several lesser-known spots that are more than just a getaway. Uttan is one of them. It is a treasure trove of culture, beaches, food and sight-seeing spots that are simply extraordinary if you look beyond. Mid-day.com took a walk through the by-lanes

Locals believe Uttan is among the lesser-known hidden gems in Mumbai with churches, beaches and good food. Photos Courtesy: Nascimento Pinto

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"If you look for things to do in Mumbai on Google, Uttan will never show up," shares Mogan Rodrigues, an Uttan-based lawyer and city tourist guide for the last 20 years. Mogan highlights an interesting aspect of tourism in the city that is mostly concentrated in the popular sightseeing spots in south Mumbai. Beyond that, do Mumbaikars and every tourist who visits the city really know about these gems that are often hiding in plain sight?

The tour guide highlights, "There is not much written about Uttan. If it's not written about, it doesn't come up and then people don't know. You will come across so many websites, giving you '10 things to do in Mumbai', 'Five things to do in Mumbai'. They never talk about Uttan." It's mostly South Mumbai, Bandra, and beyond Andheri, tourists think there is nothing, he believes. '

Amid the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, the village of Uttan is about 30 minutes away from Bhayandar railway station. It is a breath of fresh air not only for tourists from outside of Mumbai but also within. Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that not many people really know about it. Even the ones who know are either the locals who were once locals and grew up there before they shifted around the city, country or world to pursue their life outside of the village. However, they come back to it at every opportunity they get. Mostly retired with married children or living abroad, they make a beeline for their family houses with their car or vehicle almost every other weekend.

Uttan is a fishing village situated 30 minutes from Bhayandar railway station with different communities including Kolis and East Indians who call it their home.

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Making a U-turn for Uttan
Nicholas Dsouza is one of many such Uttan locals, who keep coming back. Even though the retiree calls IC Colony in Borivali his home, he still finds every other opportunity to come back to Uttan, as he has been doing for over 60 years. On a day-long visit to the village on a hot summer day in May, this writer and his guide Althea Dsouza found Nicholas and his wife Jean relaxing on the front porch and even tending to their garden that provides instant relief from the soaring temperatures in Mumbai.

The 64-year-old reminisces, "Since local families settled in Bombay, now Mumbai, many would spend long vacations here in this village. We, kids, would wake up with breakfast and then hike for 1 km to the hills, harvest some mangoes, cashews, and wild berries, also known as 'karvandas'. We would then have lunch at home and then go to the beach in the evening. However, we had to be back home by 7 pm for the Angelus prayer as our elders were strict about these habits." Water was a scarcity in those summer days, says the Mumbaikar, and villagers depended on ground well water. "Even electricity came only in the 1970s but the excitement was no less."

Over many decades, he has seen the village change in many ways, as Catholics, Muslims and Hindus came together and always lived in harmony. However, now every piece of land is commercialised and that is saddening apart from the fact that the locals are now a minority as the migrant population keeps increasing due to the cheap real estate prices.

Even with the many changes, Nicholas doesn't fail to showcase how Uttan is unique compared to other villages in Mumbai. "Uttan has a pilgrim shrine 'Our Lady of Velankanni Shrine' and adjacent to it is a beach called the 'Velankanni Bhate Bandar' beach, which also acts as a picnic spot. The village also has a number of old historic churches like 'Our Lady of the Sea'." Unfortunately, he says, Uttan is not known to the people of Mumbai, echoing Mogan's sentiment and that of many other locals.

'Our Lady of Velankanni Shrine' was built over 30 years ago and is near the Velankanni Bhate Bandar beach overlooking the Arabian Sea in Uttan.

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Interestingly, Savio Dsouza, who happens to be Althea's father, believes there is no harm in Uttan being lesser-known as compared to its close cousins, Marve and Madh Island. The Uttan local, who is now a Bhayander resident, shares, "I think that is a good thing. There is still that village charm when you come to Uttan." It is a far cry from the past for the 64-year-old who was born and even grew up in the village before he was moved to a school in South Mumbai. The magnetic pull of family and the village eventually brought him back to Uttan after he finished schooling. "While I was in school here, I remember how my friends and I used to skip our classes sometimes and go to pluck mangoes and cashews; it used to be so much fun, we can never forget those days which will never come back and this generation of kids will not understand this, as they are growing up very differently."

'Church of Our Lady of the Sea' is one of the oldest churches in Uttan that locals go to; the church has a huge celebration for its feast in November every year.

Change is constant and Uttan has also succumbed to it in different ways. Savio shares, "For example, you don't get to see those tiled-roof old houses anymore. They all have been replaced by fancy bungalows and buildings. We didn't even have electricity in the village in our days, things started changing and improving slowly and eventually. Being one of the few very educated men in the village, my father too has contributed majorly to bringing electricity here. Even with transportation, we used to wait hours for the bus, today you have a great frequency of buses, many rickshaws, people are doing well work-wise and have their own cars/bikes. There are so many grocery shops along the way and many medical shops too. In those days, there must have been no more than 10 shops on a street, like one general store, one dairy and one pharmacy. Today, there are over 50 shops on that one street." However, he isn't complaining and indicates that this change is definitely for the better.

Even as Vinay Vishwakarma, who is among the newer inhabitants compared to Nicholas and Savio, as his family moved from Bandra to Uttan only a decade ago, the fishing village has changed culturally and economically but the most important one has been the rising influx of weekend tourists, which he isn't too happy about but only because it threatens the peace of the place. He explains, "A few years back, you could spend the evening relaxing at Pali Beach without getting bugged by honking cars and pedestrians blocking the narrow road in the distance. But now, we avoid visiting the beach during weekends." Vishwakarma actively documents life in Uttan on his Instagram page @sliceofuttan and says he even uses it as a medium to help volunteer student groups, who organise massive beach cleanups at Uttan, and Vailannkani beach that hugs the church by the same name. This, he believes, is an effort to undo the harm inflicted by tourist activities in the village.

It is a stark contrast from the time he moved to Uttan close to a decade ago. "About eight to ten years ago, Uttan was a place unheard of. It is funny but when I used to call my friends from Bandra and Andheri to visit, they used to think Uttan falls somewhere close to Uran. But now, numerous Instagram pages mention Uttan as a top spot for weekend getaways around Mumbai. I think because of that, you see many new resorts, stylish restaurants, and tourist villas that have popped up in the last few years, and on most weekends, they are operating at full capacity." In fact, the 31-year-old's friends whom he particularly considers tourists in Uttan when they visit have also changed. "They make impromptu trips to Uttan when all their weekend plans fail. They get fresh sea breeze, mesmerising sunsets, impeccable seafood, and a cooler climate, wrapped in picturesque Goan-esque village," adds the decade-old Uttan native.

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Being a guiding light to tourists
While Nicholas and Savio keep coming back to the village every now and then, there are others who have chosen to stay back and find jobs in the region for various reasons - one of them being the time taken to travel to a regular day job in Mumbai. However, they take this opportunity to celebrate their culture and welcome more tourists to explore the lesser-known region.

The Koli community dries different kinds of fish during the summer to get it ready for the food they make during the monsoon, when they can go out to sea.

Mogan is one of them. In 2018, the Uttan local started conducting heritage and food walks, where he invited people to his home to get a taste of the local East Indian food. He shares, "I don't take very big groups. It has to be a group of a minimum of 10 people and a maximum 15 to 20 people because that is all I can accommodate in my house. Very surprisingly or sadly, there are people from Mumbai who have been living here for years and are not aware of the East Indian community. Most of the people who register for the walks are non-East Indians and it is an amazing experience talking to them and showcasing the culture to them; the food is usually the highlight. Any cultural walk should have food and with East Indian food not being easily available in Mumbai."

Mostly even if they are there, he says, they are within the community and for the community and that is the limited exposure. Over the years, he has been joined on the walks by writers, journalists, photographers, and cultural enthusiasts. "As a tour guide, I can say there are East Indian walks in Khotachiwadi and Ranwar village, but they are a bit superficial. You just walk around and talk about the community without going into the house of the people," adds Mogan, who says that liberty is there when it is James Ferreira's home in the former village. Over the years, Mogan has become one of quite a few people from the community speaking about the community and Uttan is his medium. Over time, even the average foreigner coming to Mumbai has got curious about Uttan, as Mogan, has taken them on the walks beyond south Mumbai.

The fishing village predominantly largely houses the Kolis, Mumbai's fishing community, and the East Indian community - both of whom are regarded as the original inhabitants of the city. However, it has seen members from many different communities choose to make it their home leading to a multicultural mix of people that has only grown over time as they have simultaneously blended into the quiet town that has a very peculiar smell of fish throughout the year and more like dried fish during the summer.

"The fish is being dried by the Koli community ahead of the monsoon as they use it to make different kinds of dishes when they are not able to go out to fish in the sea," shares Althea, who moved to Mira Road after getting married, but has spent her childhood in Uttan and even today visits the village, amid her busy schedule, every time there is a big family occasion. "I have come four times this month only because of family celebrations. Before this, I haven't got the time in six months to visit," shares the 33-year-old, who observes that there are many changes that have taken place. These are especially in the parts that she hasn't explored much over the years, along the path of the glowing red Uttan lighthouse, that is handled by the government today.

The one aspect of Uttan that is hard to miss is how colourful the houses are in hues of pink, yellow, blue, green and even red. Almost every other house, especially in the fishing village, is dotted with a grotto (a small shrine with a holy statue). "The Kolis are very devout people, and you will find these large grottos outside almost every house or every crossroad within the village," shares Althea. Along the way, we not only see statues of Mother Mary and her various avatars including our Lady of Perpetual Succour and Our Lady of Velankanni but also that of Saint Stephen - all of which hold different kinds of significance for the family outside whose house it is placed.

The locals enjoy the summer breeze in their large balconies with daughters and grandchildren, a stark contrast to mainland Mumbai, where people neither have the space nor time to enjoy the spoils of nature. While they look at us curiously, they seem to accept tourists wholeheartedly.

It is also an observation confirmed by Nicholas and Savio. While Nicholas says that tourists often come for two days, usually a weekend, they usually flock to the hotels and resorts in the vicinity. He explains, "Tourists and content creators usually aren't a nuisance. They love the tranquillity but do not upset the locals.
While regular travel websites and blogs do not mention Uttan, social media is playing a huge role in turning the tide in favour of locals who run businesses. Savio says even though Uttan is lesser-known, more people are becoming aware of the village due to social media because people who visit upload their photos on Instagram and Facebook. Incidentally in the last few years, several reports of locals getting annoyed by visitors and content creators in tourist destinations like spoiling the peace of the area have cropped up but the Mumbaikars say villages are more liberal. "Not only content creators but I think people of all ages love clicking pictures and taking videos of this beautiful place. But I don't think it's affected the locals here. They do their own thing and are at peace with themselves as long as you don't interfere with them," he adds.

The Uttan lighthouse, which was built in 1958, is one of the popular tourist attractions that is open from 4 pm - 5:30 pm in the evening for people.

Content creators: Boon or a curse?
With the growing interest for every other person becoming a content creator, tourists may not be an issue but do content creators pose a challenge? Mogan thinks it is still in the early stages. He explains, "They are usually random college students taking pictures for Instagram. It can be a nuisance if they keep coming into the village." Even Vinay agrees with Mogan about the underlying effects of tourists. He shares, "I'm seeing a lot of resorts and local photographers promote Uttan as a tourist hotspot on Instagram. In fact, I have met a few of them myself. They don't understand that with a flood of tourists, come a lot of challenges that require necessary infrastructure. For example, you can see how polluted the main Uttan beach already is."

However, he believes even then it is okay because locals are pretty welcoming in the village. The Mumbaikar says it reflected when he took some Indians on a walk in the Manori area and the group ended up eating lunch at a wedding of people he knew as acquaintances and that showcases how they are towards tourists.

However, Tryson Gonsalves, whose family owns Edina Hillcrest, a resort hotel in Uttan, which they started in 2019, says the content creators have been a boon to the business. Predominantly in the real estate business in the village, Tryson's father built the resort to offer tourists a spot to relax. Over time, Tryson, who comes from a hotel management background, worked on a cruise to gain experience of the hospitality business and returned to years ago to join his father to run the business. Now, the 26-year-old hotelier is seeing a surge in the number of tourists coming to the village and his resort, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. "There are people who come to Uttan after searching for the place and seeing what they can do here. These days, even Instagram shows you content location wise and they have options available. It is a good thing but people shouldn't spoil it in a bad way also." Unfortunately, he says one misconception that plagues and prevents more tourists from visiting is the smell of fish. "I have got many calls where upon enquiry people who don't eat or like fish do not want to come here because of the smell. However, I don't see the problem because it fishing village and that shouldn't stop anybody from visiting it," he adds.

He adds, "Content creators are playing a huge role in the hotel and tourism industry. Every hotel her has a content creator coming here and making a reel about it and all these creators have a good follower count. Even if they make a 2-3-minute reel, it has a huge impact. I have experienced this personally through calls. While we have walk-in guests, on calls, people say ‘we have seen your reel through this influencer'. In a day, if we usually get 5 calls, after the reel is uploaded, we get at least 50-60 calls in a day." It is from here that Tryson turns into a tourist guide from a hotelier, as the tourists ask for details and even sight-seeing spots making him a voice for Uttan. Even while people usually come to Uttan during summer, the local says people love visiting the village during the monsoon because of the scenic beauty of lush green trees and the beaches, even though they don't always stay at the hotels, it allows them to explore the place, which is recommended is also a lot of fun during November and December, which is the wedding season.

Enjoy the local food and drink that includes seafood like crab and prawn curries that are made by the East Indian community in several places in the village.

Indulging in local food

It is no wonder then that the number of orders that local women are getting have increased over time. In fact, it has become their means of independence as they earn while cooking delicious dishes from the local East Indian and Koli cuisine. Sunita Farro is one such local who has been cooking along with several other women and has almost become like a collective. Speaking in local East Indian Marathi, Sunita narrates, "I started taking food orders within one or two years of me getting married in 2009. I started with rotis but slowly started increasing the quantity and number of East Indian dishes like Ball Curry, Moile, Vindalho and Sarpatel - as the quantity of the dishes increased, even the number of dishes increased for everybody wanted to taste it." Over time, she has also started making Butter Chicken due to its undisputed popularity but also Mutton Khudi - giving people the best of both worlds. "I also started making snacks like chicken pan rolls, pattice and sandwiches too."

In all these years, Sunita and other women like her have become quite popular because not only is their food delicious but is also being promoted by local hotels and villas. "My food and demand for it has grown because of people who come for picnics as they order from me. Even locals order when there are birthday parties or local feast days - there is a continuous demand. My food usually goes to resorts in the area as the people have my contacts for local food. "Usually, the season for my orders comes during the summer as a lot of people come with their families. Apart from that, it is also during November as the church feast is during that time of the year, followed by December," shares Sunita, who has learned to cook on her own because her mother passed away when she was very small. S, she took it upon herself after looking at different people making it around her and tried combinations of ingredients to create the perfect taste.

With a growing demand for local food, Sunita and other local women have formed a community in such a way that any time she gets a large order, they distribute it among themselves. "Whenever there is a big order of 250-300 rotis, then we come together and divide the work among ourselves and complete the orders," shares the Uttan local, whose two sons get the first opportunity to taste them.

It is not only the locals but also the road from Uttan that leads to Gorai which has a hidden gem in a roadside stall that can almost be missed if you aren't paying attention. Running by Nixon Kinny and his welcoming family for the last 15 years, they have different kinds of specials every day depending on their menu for the day that is influenced by the fresh catch of fish, as well as some other local specials. It did not take long for this writer to dive into fresh mandeli fry (golden anchovies) with some crab curry and prawn curry with hand breads (rice bhakris) and rice before washing it down with some fresh toddy, which is easily available upon request, making you want to visit Uttan once again.

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