As you go past the old colonial buildings in the historic centre of Chowpatty, south Mumbai, the buzz can be overwhelming. The noisy streets are packed with traffic and most local residents live in cramped but expensive apartments.
Slip down an inconspicuous lane off the main road in Girgaon, however, and you will find the little-known village of Khotachiwadi, where narrow streets are lined with colourful villas built in the old Indo-Portuguese style. Many of the houses have airy verandas at the front, intricate trelliswork surrounding open balconies, and unusual arched doorways. Signs hanging above several front doors name the families living within: Fernandes, Ferreira, Sylvester.
Khotachiwadi was inhabited by the East Indian community – Christians who are thought to be the original settlers of Mumbai. Thanks to waves of migration, the area is now far more diverse and made up of families from several different religions and communities. Yet, a handful of houses are still occupied by descendants of the original community.
“In Khotachiwadi we are a very close-knit family,” says Bridget Misquita, 85, who was born in the area and married another Khotachiwadi resident. “It’s quite peaceful and whenever there is anything – any sickness or anybody needs help – we are all there.”
A peach-coloured chapel near the main road was built in 1899 as a gesture of thanks by residents who were spared from the plague. Nearby is a small hall used for village gatherings. The whiteboard outside still advertises a late-night screening held during the World Cup football tournament earlier this year.
Khotachiwadi has changed significantly over the years, however. Much of the younger generation has moved overseas or to the more affordable areas north of the city, selling their ancestral homes – in some cases to large developers, who have knocked down the charming old cottages and replaced them with modern residential blocks. The cluster of 65 original houses has been whittled down to just 27 today.
Misquita recalls her own family house – Number One Khotachiwadi – which was once a sprawling villa with its own well and enough room for a family of 11. After all of her siblings had married and moved away, the house was sold and a residential block more than six storeys high now stands in its place.
The village is said to take its name from Dadoba Waman Khot, a landowner who leased plots in the area to migrants in the late 18th century, but the ownership pattern in Khotachiwadi is now more varied, with some properties rented out and others officially owned by the church.
Local residents say there are always two or three homes on the market, either for sale or for rent, and rates in Khotachiwadi are lower than the surrounding areas.
One property on the market, listed on Indian property website MagicBricks.com, is a 1,000 sq ft home that makes up the ground floor of a two-storey cottage. Jitendra Eklahare, a friend of the owner, is managing the sale and asking Rs30m ($500,000) for the newly renovated, two-bedroom property. The property was earning the owners Rs60,000 in rent each month, and another Khotachiwadi resident estimates that a 300 sq ft, one-bedroom property would earn Rs35,000 per month. A two-bedroom apartment on the quietest streets in the surrounding area would fetch at least Rs90,000 per month in rent.
The village’s most illustrious resident is fashion designer James Ferreira, who has produced costumes for Bollywood blockbusters and dressed stars including Freida Pinto.
His family has lived in one of Khotachiwadi’s largest villas for generations and the 58-year-old designer has led efforts to protect the historic village, setting up the Khotachiwadi Welfare & Heritage Trust.
Residents fondly remember a two-day festival organised by Ferreira a decade ago to raise awareness about the area, during which the winding streets were lit by oil lamps and food stalls popped up around the area.
The conservation of Khotachiwadi is, however, a point of controversy as many owners want to sell their homes as their families grow – something Ferreira admits would have been a problem for his own family, had his seven siblings not moved away. “There would be eight of us with our families living here,” he says. “Then obviously you want to sell or to build a high-rise so that each of you gets a piece of the pie.”
The cost of maintenance is another issue for Khotachiwadi’s residents as most of the Indo-Portuguese structures are made of brick, sand and teak wood. “There are pros and cons to this kind of living and now people are used to new apartments,” says Bernice D’Lima, 41, a singer who lives in the area with her 74-year-old mother. “If the government actually says that it is heritage, it would be nice if they would help us out with maintaining the place.”
D’Lima estimates she spends Rs20,000 before the monsoon every year having the tiling on the roof filled with tar to prevent leaks. The wood requires regular painting, beams need to be reinforced and replaced, and many residents are worried about white ants eating into the structure.
Ferreira is trying to encourage his well-off friends to move into the area, afraid that properties will be sold to wealthy families or developers with little interest in maintaining the historic buildings. The designer is also eager to open a new restaurant in Khotachiwadi, following the closure four years ago of Anantashram, a popular local restaurant.
The idea is to turn the village into a cultural centre like Hauz Khas in New Delhi, where historical ruins have been preserved and fashionable restaurants and galleries opened in their midst, helping to keep the area alive.
“We are not talking only about conservation or preservation because that narrative has its own issues,” says Rahul Srivastava, an urbanologist who has worked with the trust. “Some places become a showcase and other neighbourhoods are torn down and rebuilt. People living in heritage areas aren’t allowed to join the party.”
Avantika Chilkoti is the FT’s Mumbai reporter
● Crime in Mumbai fell 6.6 per cent in 2012 to 30,508 known offences, according to official data. Compared with the surrounding area, Khotachiwadi is relatively safe
● The village is a stone’s throw from the coast of Mumbai
● Temperatures vary, from lows of 18C between November and February, to 40C nearer monsoon season, which usually runs from June to September
● Foreign nationals are not allowed to buy property in Mumbai, and even those who classify as residents face several regulatory hurdles
What you can buy for . . .
$500,000 A newly renovated, 1,000 sq ft, ground-floor property with two bedrooms
$1m A sprawling eight-bedroom house featuring Indo-Portuguese architecture and a small garden
Slideshow photographs: Atul Loke