Siddis – The Forgotten Tribe of India

We arrived at a dusty village, where a parched street the color of mustard wound its way ahead of us. Little brick and mud houses stood in clusters.

The harsh sun beat down on us, as we navigated through the narrow alleys in the little known village of Madhupur Jambur, a settlement of the Siddi tribe.

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A typical Siddi house made of mud and dung

Some heads peeped through the open doors curious to know why we were there. We asked for Razak.

The hot silence, was suddenly shattered by a cackle of noise which came running towards us from the narrow lanes. It was the children. Some with wide toothless smiles, some shy and some boisterous and happy to see us.

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In the midst of the giggling, laughter and rounds of handshakes with the kids, we saw Razak approaching us. He led us to his humble abode. We met his warm and friendly family who welcomed us into their home.

The house was simple and had a typical feel of a Gujarati household. A bed in the living room and lots of steel utensils adorned the kitchen area.

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Razak belongs to the Siddi tribe. Originally from Africa, they are now settled across the district of Junagadh and the surrounding areas in Gujarat.

One of the several villages inhabited by the Siddis is Madhupur Jambur, in the district of Junagadh.

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Razak and his son Adil

We were curious to know about the history of his tribe and how they came to India.

He was sorry to inform us that there are no official recordings about their origins in Africa or their journey to India. Perhaps they came from the east coast of Africa, but Razak was not sure.

The language and culture practised by their ancestors have been lost in time.

The internet mentions that the Siddis came to India as soldiers during the Arabic invasion and later as slaves to the Portuguese.

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They are mostly found in the states of Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka, Daman and Diu and even Hyderabad. They have been given the status of scheduled tribe by the Indian government.

The Siddis have adopted the local language, religion, culture and lifestyle of the area they have settled in. In Gujarat, Islam is practiced by the majority and the Siddis speak Gujarati.

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The electricity is intermittent. Sipping a local cola brand in the sweltering heat, Razak continues his conversation.

He shared that his people have tried to integrate themselves into the mainstream community, however their lack of emphasis on education and self-development has not made this integration very successful.

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Since most of them are poorly educated or uneducated, their primary source of income is through daily manual labor. This type of earning is not reliable as work is hard to come by.

In the village of Madhupur Jambur, I observed most of them working as hired helps in stores, construction sites, as fruit pickers and other labor intensive jobs.

Razak is trying to break through this stereotype by encouraging his children to study. However his son Adil has not finished his matriculation and does not seem very keen to do it.

I found most youth in the village addicted to their mobile phones instead of studying or doing something constructive.

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This young boy insisted that we take his picture 🙂

The village lacks adequate sanitation facilities and water supply. It seems like a vicious circle of local officials taking advantage of their ignorance and the Siddi community itself not wanting to change for the better.

During festive occasions they perform a local dance known as Dhamaal, a Gujarati word for fun. While we did not get an opportunity to see it, Adil showed us a video on You Tube. Looking at the video I could gauge that the dance form seemed to have its roots in Africa.

Most hotels in the nearby Gir forest area ask them to perform this dance in the evenings. This could be a good thing for the Siddis as they can keep their ancestral heritage alive even though the dance form could be diluted today, with Indian moves.

Now that was enough of serious discussion. It was time for some fun activities.

Razak spoke in impeccable Gujarati asking his neighbors to get all the children to his house.

My friends had got coloring books and pens, which we distributed to the children. They were thrilled to receive them.

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Some of the smaller kids, were seeing them perhaps for the first time. Their eyes were wide with wonder and curiosity. We had to hold their hands and teach them to draw.

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The older kids plopped themselves on the floor and got busy with their art. They must be doing this in school.

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Some of the women too joined the kids as they also wanted to draw.

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It was heartbreaking to see, these simple things that we take for granted are a delight for them. As a treat, we distributed biscuits to everyone and ended our day.

Meeting Razak and his family gave me an insight on how this forgotten tribe of India survives and struggles to keep their identity and heritage alive.

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Braiding the hair, is still practised by the Siddis, which is clearly an African inheritiance

The journey and evolution of this tribe which began a few centuries ago in Africa, continues today in India. 

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