Monday 18 November 2013

Holding our noses at Sassoon Docks

MaximumCityMadam was back in town and it was her birthday.  What did she want to do? Visit Sassoon Docks to take photos and 'take in the atmosphere' of course! 

An early morning visit to Mumbai's oldest docks - at the south end of Colaba Causeway - is certainly not for the faint hearted.  But if you can overcome the smell that hits you far before you even reach the main entrance, you will be impressed by the frenzied activity of the Koli fishermen and women that lies beyond.

The Sassoon Dock was built in 1875 by Albert Abdullah David Sassoon - son of the Baghdadi Jew David Sassoon who himself was responsible for building the historic Sassoon Library in Colaba.  The Sassoons were traders of cotton and the dock was originally used to unload this valuable commodity. However, after the decline of the Indian cotton industry, fishing became the main activity there.  Since then, the docks have employed thousands from the Koli fishing community - the most ancient residents of the original Mumbai islands. (The same folk that we have previously photographed when we visited Worli Fishing Village).

Although the fishing boats return to the docks at 5am, the activity continues all day. We got there at about 9.15am by which time the men were making repairs to their nets and busily trading fish in a covered area beside the sea. The main fish that you see in the big plastic tubs and crates are pomfret, mackerel, rawas (Indian salmon), kingfish and bombil.  It's absolute mayhem as the fish are dragged from the boats to the side of the dock and carted around by porters on long handcarts as other men and women crowd around to negotiate their trades. You have to be very careful where you step - MCM slipped on a squid which had fallen off a cart - thankfully she did not fall over into a fetid puddle (sorry MCM, but that was an amusing banana-skin moment!).

The Koli fisherwomen - brightly dressed in traditional costume, process, pack and freeze the fish before sending it off to destinations across Maharashtra.  The women are an extremely grumpy bunch and don't allow you to take their photos - aggressively putting up their hands when you try to interact with them. In fact, although you are welcome to have a look around, you are not allowed to take photographs at all unless you have permission from the Mumbai Port Trust. Thankfully for us MCM brought a friend whose maid's husband is a big cheese at the docks.  We arranged to meet up with him and he proudly gave us a tour of the area.  We were allowed to take photos - but mostly of the men as we'd given up with the women by then.  I can't blame them really - they were after all breaking their backs at work whilst we were spying on them with our lenses. 

Grumpy Koli Fisherwomen
After two hours of touring the docks and viewing the incessant but interesting activity, we were ready to go off for breakfast.  When we got back in the car, our driver Peter was so disgusted by the smell that he sprayed each of us with his bottle of aftershave!  

Note: if you wish to visit Sassoon Docks, I recommend that you wear closed shoes with a good grip as there is a lot of fishy water on the ground (and the usual Mumbai detritus). The area nearest to the sea is guarded and you will be told to put your camera away unless you have permission from the Port Trust.  I have not been able to locate any specific tours to Sassoon Docks.

Koli fisherwomen buying coriander for themselves

New nets being woven

Above and below - nets being repaired. Feet are used to hook the netting

We were told that this is 20 lakh Rs of net! (£20,000/$30,000)

This bag of fish represents what is left over for the fishermen and their families to eat - the good stuff is sold at market.

The fishing boats can be out to sea one month at a time

Water supplies for the boats.
Cacophony of sights, sounds and ...smells!

Trading of today's catch
Love the hat!
Ice being crushed prior to distributing for the packing of the fish

Impromptu fish sale
Mackerel - as fresh as you like
A Koli fisherwoman mid-trade

No digital scales here!

Fish being carried out to waiting trucks which will then take the supplies all over Maharashtra and perhaps beyond.

Truck driver prepares to leave


  1. Great captures & well put!:)

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Paru...and thanks again to your guy. So many people are asking how we got the photos!

  3. We were told we couldn't take pictures when we were there about a year ago. Guess they have loosened up? What a photogenic spot - and a great eye.

    1. Hi Barbara! How was your posting to Mumbai? I always wondered what happened and if you enjoyed it? You may have to read the blog in detail as I do mention that you can't take photos - but luckily for us we were given a tour by a friend's maid's husband - who has worked there all his life. Such an privilege! Take care Barbara E

  4. Wonderful images ... so glad smellovision hasn't been invented ... yet!

  5. Thanks for your posts BombayJules.. my sister and I love reading your blog and are avid followers. . We have been to Mumbai 2 times and wish we would have time to see all that you blog about :) Thanks again and keep writing :)

    1. Aw that's a lovely message, thank you so much! Mumbai looks forward to your next visit!

  6. Hi BombayJules, Around the treasured Colaba Causeway..indeed it is a mesmeric spot for the eye as well as the lens...great photos must say and lot of info there. The text is informative as well. Hope you enjoyed ur time!

    1. Hi Amrita and welcome to my blog and thank you for your lovely comments. We definitely enjoyed it, it was a feast for the senses - even if it was a bit on the smelly side!

  7. Hi! Thank you so much for your blog, it makes me so happy! :)

    I've been to Sassoon Dock so many times, mostly with my father. Even saw a massive shark there once. If you ever go again pop into one of the airconditioned warehouses. The dexterity with which prawns are shelled is amazing to watch.

    Keep discovering Bombay :)

    1. Hello there. I didn't get to go into the warehouse - is that where the Koli fisherwomen do the work?
      Thank you for your lovely visit again!

  8. Hi Jules,
    Loved your pictures which capture the true essence of Sassoon Dock. I have grown up in the Colaba Post Office area but have been inside Sassoon Dock only once in my life! My chief interaction with the place has been to cover my nose while passing it daily ;P

    In 2002, I had interviewed a family who lived in the Sassoon Dock gate... on the first floor, right under the old clock! The father was in the Indian Navy and that was the accommodation allotted to them. The lady of the house said she had grown so accustomed to the foul odour of rotting fish that she barely noticed it anymore. But her two teenage kids hated home so much that they tried to stay out as much as possible!

    Another interesting aspect of the Dock is that it's the place where all the top chefs of South Mumbai five star and standalone restaurants come to buy the freshest seafood. This was a morning ritual for Ananda Solomon, Executive Chef of the Taj Vivanta (what I still call the President in my head). He told me how other hotels soon cottoned on and the fight for the best fish could sometimes get quite ugly!

    Thanks for documenting your experience for all of us to savour. I have been exploring my city for almost four decades, writing about it whenever I get a chance and doing city tours in my spare time 'cos I want to share the fascinating aspects of it. It's nice to see someone else who enjoys this too :)

    1. Hello! Thanks so much for visiting and leaving such a lovely comment about your experiences of Sassoon Dock...wonderful to hear from a local with a 'real' life story of the area. It really means a lot to me, thank you!

  9. Very well documented and articulated blog with snaps...another way to gt snaps is through a high res regular early morning walkbout for fish n more..keep em coming..

    1. Thanks Rohan...unfortunately I have a Blackberry which is dreadful for taking photographs!

  10. Hi
    You have great photos in this post. I recently did visit Sassoon Docks too. We were planning to take photos of every nook and corner it had, but we had to delete our photos due to Police. Hence linking your post with mine

    Awesome photos

    Thanks for Sharing :)

    1. Thanks for the link shahjatinm....great blog!



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