The Siddis Of India

Based in the states of Karnataka, Gujarat and Maharashtra alongside the city of Hyderabad, and in some areas of Pakistan, reside one of the most reclusive tribes in India. The Siddis.

History

The Siddis are of African origin, the descendants of the Bantu People from East Africa, they can trace their origins in India to the slaves who were brought to the country by the Arabs as early as the 7th century. Following the first Islamic conquest of India, more of the Siddis were brought to India, to serve as slaves amongst the war camp, whilst others served as soldiers in the camps of Muhammed bin Qasim’s army.

These slaves were given the name Habshis, which was the Persian word for Abyssinian (Ethiopia was formerly known as Abyssinia.) However, there were some who rose through the ranks and earned the name Siddi, which is believed to derive from the Arabic word for master, sayed/sayyid. It is not clear when the use of the word Siddi outstripped the use of the word Habshi.

Some members of the Siddi community escaped slavery and established communities in forested areas and jungles (where many remain today), others established small principalities, such as in Janjira State and Jafarabad State. The Siddis also briefly ruled Bengal under the Habshi Dynasty.

As time progressed and different Empires rose and fell, the Siddis found their ranks bolstered by the presence of Bantu people from Southeast Africa, who were brought to India by the Portuguese and the British. 

Religion and Culture

As with many slaves throughout history, the Siddis seem to have adopted the religion of those who brought them to India, with the majority of the community practising Islam, though a small minority practise Hinduism and Christianity.

In terms of culture, the Siddis have meshed together both the various cultural practices of India and East Africa. With their traditional dress combining elements of the traditional dresses worn by Indian men and women, as well as traditional African clothing. 

They have also adopted the usual dietary practices of India and Pakistan, with rice and daal being staples of the Siddi diet. 

Treatment

Despite being in India for centuries and having contributed much to the country, the Siddis still face barriers to truly fulfilling their potential. 

As many Siddi farmers live in small and isolated communities, they often have to travel great distances to reach the centres of power that are ‘close’ to their communities. Such distances often limit the opportunities for Siddi children to attend schools with other members of the larger community, leaving them isolated and struggling.

Furthermore, when Siddis do manage to make it to the wider world, they often face bullying and discrimination due to their different appearance (be it their hair, their darker skin or their ‘low’ caste.) These issues including skin colour can often influence how the Siddis are portrayed, with their darker skin leaving those in power wrongly viewing them with suspicion and ill-regard, hindering their opportunities to progress and grow.

This then creates a vicious circle, where due to their limited education and the discrimination against them, the Siddis are unable to benefit from India’s growing financial flourishing, with limited job opportunities, which limits the ability for Siddi parents to give their children the best opportunities.

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