The Siddi People: India's Forgotten African TribeOct 03, 2021 12:30PM ● By Anand Subramanian
Figure 1 - The Siddi Community. Source - Google
Only a handful of Indians are aware that Africans and Indians are not novices to each other: at least 25,000 African-origin ethnic tribes have been living in near-complete obscurity in India for millennia. The Siddis are an African-origin Indian group mostly found in the Indian states of Karnataka and Gujarat. They self-identify as Indians – who communicate native dialects, wear native attire, and follow the same local rituals and traditions – yet due to their physical appearance, they are usually considered as 'foreign people,' and live in tiny groups in rural regions and wilds. In this article, we will look at the Siddi people, who are one example of a heritage buried in the books of Indian history, and we will shine a light on those chapters.
The Siddi are an Indo-African tribal community derived from Africa's Bantu people. Their forefathers were transported to India as slaves by Arabs as early as the 7th century, followed subsequently by the Portuguese and British. Others were free individuals who arrived in India as merchants, sailors, and mercenaries before the Portuguese slave trade took off. Originally, these African slaves were known as Habshis, which is Persian, meaning Abyssinian. Those who progressed through the ranks of the royal entourage were given the title Siddi, which might be derived from the Arabic term for master, sayed/sayyid. Siddis fled into the country's dense forests after slavery was abolished in the 18th and 19th centuries, fearing captivity and subsequent torture.
Some Siddis continue to live in physical seclusion in forests today, while others have physically blended into towns and communities. Despite their physical African characteristics, they have all achieved socio-cultural integration within broader Indian civilization. Siddis have tremendous hurdles in a culture where persons of lower castes or with darker complexions are frequently discriminated against. The Siddis battled and suffered for Scheduled Tribe recognition, which was given to them by the Indian government in 2003. Because of this shift in status, many Siddis became eligible for government incentives that served to empower and improve their communities. The most recent Siddi communities to be given Scheduled Tribe designation did so just recently, in 2019. Even though Siddis now have access to more benefits than in the past, pervasive poverty continues.
Most Siddi males work as farmers or day laborers. Farming is the major source of income for many Hindu Siddis. Areca nuts, commonly known as betel nuts, are a valuable crop grown alongside rice by many Siddi farmers. Owning farmland is prevalent among Hindi Siddis, but Christian and Muslim Siddis in Karnataka do not own farmland to the same level. Religious allegiance is frequently linked to the unique experience that each group had after fleeing the western port towns and cities. Siddis values religion, yet it has never been a source of contention among the people. Siddis, regardless of faith, believe that they are all descended from the same ancestors, and many Siddis are connected within a few generations of genealogy. As a result, Siddis from many religions practice mutual respect, a strong feeling of community, and a common identity.
Siddis first gained national prominence for their athletic talents in the 1980s. The Sports Authority of India anticipated that their African ancestry and natural athletic talents will result in more medals for India in international sporting competitions. Siddi youngsters were chosen for this reason and taught to compete in international contests. The few Siddis who achieved national success in sports also obtained well-paying, dependable government positions. Kamala Mingel Siddi, a well-known Siddi member, is still recognized as one of the top national and international Siddi athletes. Unfortunately, after a few years, the initiative was terminated, and the Siddis were ordered to return to their homes and their lives as outsiders. Several attempts have been made to resurrect Siddi community special sports programs, but none have proven successful.
In terms of cultural prowess, dance and music have been essential to their cultural identity. They are well-known for their expressive dance form Siddi Dhamal, which depicts their way of life in the village. When members of the tribe returned following a successful hunt, Dhamal was initially performed as a celebration dance. While women sing a repeating song pattern, males generally establish the beat with the Dammam, a percussion instrument that appears similar to a mridangam but is constructed of wood with deerskin on the sides. While the vocalist begins with a sentence, the rest of the group repeats it in unison, much like a refrain. The Dancers are clothed brightly and decorated with leaves, and their faces are painted.
They speak the same languages, dress in the same manner, eat the same foods, and follow the same faiths as the rest of the Indians in the region. To the Siddis, they are just like everyone else, and they have a strong affinity to the surrounding woods and landscapes. Even after living here for generations and calling it home, this group still struggles for societal acceptability. Such communities must be encouraged to achieve a brighter future with harmony and peace for everybody.
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Anand Subramanian is a freelance photographer and content writer based out of Tamil Nadu, India. Having a background in Engineering always made him curious about life on the other side of the spectrum. He leapt forward towards the Photography life and never looked back. Specializing in Documentary and Portrait photography gave him an up-close and personal view into the complexities of human beings and those experiences helped him branch out from visual to words. Today he is mentoring passionate photographers and writing about the different dimensions of the art world.
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