Friday, March 26, 2021

Sidis in India

 Sidis in India

In the first century, Indian Ocean was the world’s busiest commercial thoroughfare from the Horn of Africa to the East African Coast, and across the Indian Ocean to ports in India on the western coast of Gujarat and Konkan Coast. African Ivory was most sought after commodity among Indian merchants. Before Arabs and European trades, many Africans migrated to India as sailors, traders, merchants and some of them intermarried with non-Africans and settled down. 

In India, Africans were employed in very specialised jobs having to do with some aspect of security as soldiers, palace guards or personal body guards, as they are generally deemed most trustworthy. They served as body guards in the palaces of the Hindu Kings. They had to taste King’s food to protect against attempted food poisoning. They were brought as soldiers by Mahmud Ghazni in 997 AD. In 17-19 centuries, Portuguese brought them as slaves to attend hard and laborious tasks.

Many of the Africans brought into Indian subcontinent entered through the ports of Baluchistan and Sindh, where they worked as dockworkers, horse keepers, domestic servants, agricultural workers, nurses, palanquin carriers and apprentice to blacksmiths and carpenters. In Pakistan, Africans descent are referred to as Makrani live on the Makran coast of Southern Pakistan. The children of Sindhi muslim man and Sidi female (Sidiyani) were called Gaddo (half caste). There is a Mombasa street and Sidi village in Karachi, connect the Sidis with Mombasa port of Kenya. 

Some of them had successful political career. 

Abyssinian horseman Jalaluddin Yakut was granted high rank of Master of Royal stable by Razia Sultana (1236-40) She used his services to hold the throne of Delhi for four years. Both were killed in the battle. One African Badr, the slave of Raja of Dholpur became governor of Allahpur in north of Delhi during 1333-1343. Several Kings in Bengal (east India) used the African force to protect and expand their kingdoms. However, during 15th and 16th centuries, some of them rebelled against their Muslim or Hindu ruler. King Habesh Khan was overthrown by his African guardsmen Sidi Badr in 1490. He ruled for three years as Shamsuddin Abu Nsr Musaffar Shah. He was overthrown and the African expelled went to Gujarat and other sultanate and served as mercenaries. 

During 16th to 18th centuries, a Sidi-Habshi naval force was based in Surat port of Gujarat. Africans sailors accompanied pilgrims to Mecca. They were the guarantors of safety on the Indian Ocean. The Muslim rulers of North India from 16th century to early 19th century relied on African soldiers and sailors.

The most successful amongst all Abyssinians was Malik Ambar. He was born at Chapu of Harar province in eastern Ethiopia in 1548. As child he was captured as a slave and changing hands of masters he landed up in Bagdad via Yemen. His kind master Kazi Hussain converted him to Islam, gave him the name Ambar and considering his exceptional memory power and intellect empowered him with administrative and financial skills. After Hussain’s death, at 22, destiny pushed him to India in the service of Changiz Khan, a former Habshi slave who was the Regent Minister of Sultan Nizam Shah of Ahmednagar. He learned military skills, diplomacy and leadership traits from Khan. After Khan’s death Ambar gained freedom and became of force with increasing number of soldiers (africans, arabs, ethnic) under his command and known as Malik Ambar. He became the face of resistance movement against Mughals in Deccan. By 1600, he defeated armies of two great Mughal emperors: Akbar and Jahangir. The gurilla warfare technique developed by him was later used by Marathas to defeat Mughals. In 1601, Ambar choose juvenile son in law in Nizam Shahi, Sultan Murtaza II as successor and became de facto ruler of Ahmednagar. He established Khadki (now Ahmednagar) as his capital. He was popular for his water management works. He appointed Brahmins as officials and tax collectors. To build defence against Mughals, he formed alliances with British, Portuguese and Dutch who supplied him artilleries. By 1616 Ambar not only commanded a powerful cavalry force but was successfully cutting off Mughal supply lines through his naval alliance with the Sidi rulers of Janjira. He died in 1626 at the age of 86, was succeeded by his son Fateh Khan but his reign didn’t last long as he was imprisoned in 1629. 

The Mughals drew upon the tradition and practice of using African soldiers and sailors for protection. Sidi captains were appointed admirals of their fleet. During to invasion of Gujarat by Akbar, he was protected by 700 armed Habshi in horseback. Sidi commandant of Mughal empire Sidi Yakub fought first Anglo-Indian war of 1689 between Mughal Empire and British.

Some Sidis of the sea were their own masters, set in the island fort of Janjira. The fort was known as Habsan surrounded by large walls with 22 rounded bastions. Malik Ambar appointed the first Sidi Ambar Sainik to Janjira in 1617. Later the Abyssinian Habsi-Sidi developed their strength and were able to establish Princely State of Janjira (Raigadh, Maharashtra), under which the Thanadar of Jafarabad State of Gujarat was their dependency. Maratha couldn’t win them. The rulers of Janjira remained undefeated for almost 300 years. British finally defeated them in 1870 and integrated with mainland Indian royalty. They were called Wazirs, but under Bombay Presidency, the rulers were recognised with the title Nawab and were entitled for 11 gun salute from British authorities. 

Sidi of Gujarat had Swahili (Zanzibar) origin, the Bantu people of East African subcontinent, travelled to India as slaves, mercenaries, indentured workers, or merchants. Some scholars argue that they came through slave trade operated by European, Arab and Gujarati merchants. However, not all the Africans were slave, some of them were employed by the local rulers as agricultural labourers, tax collectors, administrators, soldiers and domestic servants. 

Sidi’s first entry was recorded in Gujarat at Bharuch Port probably in 628 AD. Bharuch (Barygasa) was considered European town peopled by merchants of East Africa. Immigrants are followed by religion. Sidi Sufi Saint Pir Bava Ghor (Sidi Mubarak Nob) came from East Africa to Gujarat in 14th century and made Ratanpur his home. He was master of deep meditation (ghor). He has been credited for augmenting the trade in quartz stone (agate) between East Africa, Persian Gulf and India. There is a shrine of Bava Ghor in Ratanpur. His sister Mai Misra came to India to vanquish demoness Makhan Devi (suggests local tension between Hindus and Sidis) was venerated for her powers of fertility. In the coconut rattles used by Sidis that bears her name. 

In Diu where the population of Sidi was 6%, many Swahili words are found in the language spoken by the African descent. There are Swahili words in Gujarati language too. Their majority population live in Gir Forestry are known as Sidi Badshah.

Sidis play ‘malunga’ a single stringed braced musical bow found in many East African communities. They perform ‘dhamal’ (Swahili ngoma means drum and dance) with bodu beru (large drum) in celebration of Urs of Muslim Saints and events of weddings, birthdays and national festivals. 

Sidis and Lions (the big cat) in Gujarat live together in Gir Forest. It couldn’t be an accident. Lions are found only in Gujarat, nowhere else in the country. There is remarkable similarities between lions of Gir and lions of Massai Mara forest of Kenya. Other African lions have different look, but these two are the same species. Gujarat was connected to Kenya through trading from Mombasa port. It might be therefore likely, that Lions of Masai Mara travelled through a sea route to Gir and the Sidis were inhabited in Gir forest to take care of the wild animals and also to provide safety to the ethnic people living in hamlets in Gir forest area and in surrounding villages from the attacks of the wild animals. Sidis of Gir do carry some ancestral link with Mombasa and Masai Mara as they refer some words in their songs. 

Sidis present population in India may be around 30000 spread over AP, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat, living in harmony, presenting a great symbol of Indian unity in diversity.   


10 April 2020


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