Betting on Barsaat

Mumbadevi tank and temple, neighbourhood of 19th-century barsaat ka satta. Photo courtesy: Farooq Issa/Phillips Antiques

This is the time of year everyone starts guessing when the monsoon will finally arrive, to relieve us of the heat.

Do you know, 1880s Bombay had an elaborately organised monsoon gambling system called “barsaat ka satta”?

Here’s a fine description from one who got the story from close quarters. I hear it on a very rainy evening (sipping the cutting masala chai a Gujarati kitchen brews best) from Chira Bazaar resident Dilip Shah, sharing tales told by his father Manilal, who pinned 1886 as the beginning of barsaat predictions.

Gamblers took risks with great impunity under the gaze of the Koli fishing community’s patron goddess Mumba Devi. She was worshipped at Mumbadevi Temple on a bank of the tank not far in Kalbadevi. Business boomed from a house behind Mumbadevi tank, till 130 stalls sprang up to cope with thronging customers. A clerk in each registered their bets.

The hooked spent hours perched on rooftops, studying patterns of gathered Nimbus clouds. When these hung low, betting became bolder. A man declared, “It’s 3 o’clock, it will rain before half-past 3.” Another might add, “Rain should drop between half-past 3 and 4 o’clock.” The game included dramatic details – would thunder and lightning accompany the downpour?

Accurate appliances indicated the volume of rain and experts defined what constituted “fall”. The Calcutta “mori” form of satta used the device of a sand-filled box placed in the open. Water cascading within a prescribed time, exceeding a marked limit, seeped out from a tiny tap. It had to be a steady stream, even if slow or brief. An appointed referee gave his final deciding verdict.

For the larger scale “lakdi” satta, an entire portion of a terrace was blocked. On four posts rested a masonry structure with a flat surface. Near one end was a cup-shaped hollow in the stone, from where a tube led over the edge of this “table”. Water on the stone wound a path into the cup, and from the tube to the ground. This avoided arguments, otherwise a few drops of passing drizzle were disputed. The basic rule was that water must run from the tube.

“Though those first forecasters had worse weather, the British drainage system ensured that our narrowest gullies didn’t flood. Water up to 150 inches never overflowed,” said Dilipbhai.  

What did overflow was the money lining desperate satta players’ pockets. An estimated 20,000 rupees changed hands on a single day of heavy showers. Gambling den owners pocketed neat commissions, despite hefty fines imposed by CP Cooper, Chief Presidency Magistrate.

Before being cemented, the Mumbadevi tank revealed some hidden loot, possibly flung into its waters by clever fleeing thieves – the dagina market of Zaveri Bazaar was located right behind. It is believed there were coins, gold, little lockets… And maybe a soggy betting book or two?


MEHER MARFATIA

This article has 5 comments

  1. Avan Oonwalla Reply

    People will bet on anything 😊 loved the measuring systems. Superb.
    I (and my late mother) have been long time fans of Meher Marfatia and her Bombay/Mumbai stories. Looking forward to reading more.

  2. Daraius Dadachanji Reply

    What an intriguing snippet of information about our beloved city!
    Thank you Meher.

  3. Darius Engineer Reply

    These are brief but i.valuable snippets of the history of Bombay. At some point you should have them printed into a small book for easy reading

  4. Kermin Reply

    Love these short city stories… truly thankful to you for documenting these hidden gems 🙂

  5. Zareen Reply

    Wow. Had no clue about this. Such an interesting read as always Meher

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