When Indians think about Africans in India, most likely will think of African students who are pursuing college degrees in the country, or the African actors/dancers who regularly play small roles in Bollywood, India’s Hindi-language film industry. The majority of people likely will not think of the Siddis, who are Indians of African descent who have lived in India for several centuries. The Siddis are descendants of the Bantu populations of East and Central Africa and are also sometimes referred to as Habshis or Abyssinians. It is thought that they were transported to India in several waves starting as early as the 7th century, first by the Arab merchants/traders, and later by the Portuguese and British, starting in the 16th century. Many Siddis likely were brought to India as slaves, but some were also taken as servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, and masons. Some probably arrived as independent merchants/traders, or soldiers in Arab armies. A few Siddis even held high-ranking positions as kings, military commanders, foot soldiers, and administrators in small regions of India between the 14th and 16th centuries. However, most contemporary Siddis likely are the descendants of slaves or domestic servants. Between 40,000 and 50,000 Siddis currently live in India. The population resides primarily in five states (Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Telangana), but the majority (90%) reside in Gujarat or Karnataka.
Historically, circumstances and discrimination led many Siddis to practice social and self-exclusion by remaining in the forests that they escaped to after they were freed from bondage. Today, some Siddis still live in physical isolation in forests while other Siddis have physically integrated in towns and villages. However, they have all attained socio-cultural integration within the larger Indian society, despite maintaining their physical African traits. In a society where people from lower-caste populations or who have darker complexions are commonly discriminated against, Siddis face significant challenges. They belong to a lower caste, have a darker skin color and have different physical traits. Supported by a small research grant from my university, I embarked on a one-month summer fieldwork trip to the state of Karnataka to better understand Siddi life and to examine the concept of place attachment as described by the Siddi people. During my fieldwork, I was able to stay with several Siddi families and observe their daily lives, which provided valuable insight into the economic and socio-cultural landscapes. In addition, I was able to see the impact geographical distance played in creating these landscapes.
The British outlawed slavery in the early to mid-1800s, coinciding with the end of the Goa Inquisition. Fearing recapture, many of the Siddis who were residing in port towns along the Western coast of India escaped deep into the forests of the Uttara Kannada District in the state of Karnataka. The coastal town of Murudeshwar, which overlooks the Arabian Sea on one side and the mountainous Western Ghats on the other, was one such gateway into the dense forests of Uttara Kannada District. Today, Murudeshwar primarily depends on fishing and tourism to support its economy. The Murudeshwar Temple complex includes an imposing 10-story Lord Shiva Statue and 20-story gopura (temple entrance) and is the most popular attraction in town.
Traveling during the Monsoon season in Uttar Kannada District via public transportation, from the coast into the forests over the Western Ghats Mountains, can be a hair-raising experience. This time-lapse video shows blind curves on wet roads, and the overtaking of vehicles traveling in the opposite direction. Most Siddis live in the Uttar Kannada District, which is part of the Malnad region. Malnad or Malenadu means land of hills and/or land of rain as the area contains the hilly Western Ghats and also receives some of the highest rates of annual rainfall in India.
My first encounter with the Siddis after my guide picked me up in the town of Yellapur was with a mother and daughter who had come into town to shop for vegetables and other household goods at the weekly market. They were dressed in traditional Indian clothes, and I was surprised by how easily and naturally they mingled with other locals. Although Siddis primarily speak Konkani (local dialect), they spoke Kannada—the official language of the state—fluently. They were surprised to learn that I could also converse in Kannada, after my guide introduced me as a researcher from the United States who had come to Karnataka to learn about the Siddis. Although many Indians might view the Siddi people as being out of place because of their physical African characteristics, I realized at that moment that I might have looked out of place to them. Only a few Siddi families live within and on the outskirts of Yellapur. Most families live in small villages, isolated groups, or individual households in the forests farther away and must travel to the larger towns once a week on specific market days to purchase groceries.
The majority of Siddi men work as farmers or day laborers. Here, men in a Hindu Siddi family are seen tending to their rice paddy fields in Hullaramane. They explained to me that two of the men were brothers, and that they worked these fields together with their sons. They believed that their ancestors had been on the land for approximately 120 years. The family owned the land and were proud of their self-reliance. The family elder spoke fondly of his grandparents and parents who regularly conveyed to him the importance of owning their land and being self-sufficient. Siddi farmers who are Hindu often own their land. Their ancestors may have settled on unoccupied land, or the land may have been acquired from the property owners (usually upper-caste Brahmins) in return for cultivating it. Many Hindu Siddis depend on farming as their primary economic activity and owing farmland is not uncommon. By comparison, the Christian and Muslim Siddis in Karnataka do not own agricultural land to the same extent.
Areca nuts, also known as betel nuts, are a profitable crop that many Siddi farmers grow in addition to rice. These thin, tall, palm trees near Hullaramane bear berries that encapsulate the nuts, which are harvested and used in many Indian traditions. Areca /betel nuts wrapped in a betel leaf are known to be a low-level psychoactive drug that plays an important role in various South and Southeast Asian cultures. It is a common practice in rural communities to chew on the nut-leaf blend, especially among older people. The blend is also a traditional after-meal mouth refresher known as paan that is widely used across India. India is the world’s largest producer of Areca nuts and the state of Karnataka produces two-thirds of it. The Uttar Kannada District is the most productive area in the state, and so cultivation of the Areca nut is a central aspect of Siddi life.
The Siddis in Karnataka identify as Hindus (40%), Christians (30%), or Muslims (30%). Religious affiliation can often be traced back to the specific experience encountered by each group after escaping from the western port towns and cities. Religion is important to Siddis, but it has never been a source of division among the people. Siddis believe that they are all descendants of the same ancestors, regardless of their religion, and many Siddis are related to each other within a few generations of lineage. Consequently, Siddis from different religions practice mutual respect, maintain a strong sense of community, and shared identity. This unity has become especially important over the last decade in the wake of the ascension to political power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the religion-based, divisive politics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Here, a saffron-colored BJP flag is flown on a small temple near Hullaramane to show support for the BJP government. These flags are ubiquitous in India and represent an ‘in-your-face’ approach to the nationalist Hindu sentiment. Although these flags instill a sense of pride in many Hindus, they could be antagonizing to other religious groups.
Not all Siddi families own large plots of land. This family owned a small plot of land, but they worked for a Brahmin/upper-caste family as their main source of income. Most of the Siddis who adopted Hinduism did so as a result of their indenturement to Brahmin and upper-caste Hindu families. As the Siddis worked, they voluntarily or were forced to adopt the religion of the property owners as their own. Adopting the religion of their property owners, however, did not prevent the Siddis from being discriminated against. Several Hindu Siddi families recalled how, after finishing a meal provided by the upper-caste Hindu family, they had to clean the area that they had sat on while eating. They had to wash the areas with cow dung and water, which is considered to be a cleansing agent in Hindu society. The Siddis considered this practice to be demeaning and believed that it meant that the upper-caste Hindus did not look at them as equals. Although this practice is less common today due the rights that they have attained over the past decade, it was common until recently.
The Siddis struggled and fought to attain Scheduled Tribe status, which was granted to them in 2003 by the Indian government. This change in status meant that many Siddis were eligible to receive certain government benefits that helped to empower and uplift the communities. The last Siddi communities to be granted Scheduled Tribe status obtained that status only recently, in 2019. However, although Siddis have access to more benefits today than in the past, widespread poverty persists. This family near the village of Tavarkatta owns some land around their home that is used for subsistence farming. To make ends meet, some Siddis who work on small patches of land that they do not necessarily own legally also work as day laborers in the surrounding area. Some also travel to larger towns to become seasonal migrant workers.
Incessant rain is common during the monsoons. A local pond in the area overflowed after a night of torrential rain, allowing the fish in the pond to swim across the flooded area. Here, youngsters from a Siddi family near the village of Tavarkatta try to catch catfish to supplement their farming activities. In addition, Siddis collect wild berries and mushrooms, and/or hunt small deer, rabbits, and wild boars.
This catfish is known as Chigur in the local dialect, and it is an important source of protein for many people in the area during the monsoon season.
Because many Siddi farmers live in small, isolated communities, they must often walk for an hour or more to catch a bus into town. Many families described the challenges associated with sending their children to school in town, which involve long walks on rough paths through the forest. These paths were forged over generations by Siddi families that lived in isolation but remained in intermittent contact with the outside world. My guide told me that some Siddi families still lived in isolation, deep in the forest. The Uttar Kannada District (14.6°N 74.7°E), where most of the Siddis live, is located along the Western Ghats Mountains in the Malnad (land of rain) region. The monsoon rains in this region can make the smaller roads and forest paths difficult to traverse. Commonly, the forest paths become impassable and, as a result, self-sufficient Siddi families often remain in the forests to wait out the monsoons.
During the monsoon season, the rain inundates the River Bedti in the mountainous Western Ghats, which drops more than 600 feet into the gorge below and eventually empties into the Arabian Sea. The Uttara Kannada District has many beautiful waterfalls due to its topography and the heavy rainfall it receives.
Some Siddi families depend on cows and buffaloes for their milk. These animals are an important part of rural life in India.
Because most Siddis live in isolation, many Siddi children must travel a long distance every day to attend school. Even if a Siddi village has a school, it is commonly just for younger children. Older Siddi children often end up going to boarding schools in larger towns if they can get assistance from the government. Even if an opportunity exists for Siddi children who live near larger towns to go to school, many face racial and caste discrimination from non-Siddi students and the teachers. As a result, the dropout rates for Siddi children are high. Unfortunately, many Siddi children do not have the resources to continue their education beyond primary or elementary school. These children end up working on family farms or taking low-paying jobs to support their families. Young adults in this small Muslim Siddi settlement near Halligadde village work in menial jobs in the surrounding area because they see no other prospect for the future.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and charitable individuals have assisted the Siddis somewhat in obtaining a formal education. An Austrian couple funds this boarding school near Gadagera village for children between grades 1 and 4. The couple has set up a charitable fund so that the money raised goes directly to the school, without passing through an intermediary. The 85 children who live and attend school here come from the surrounding villages and are fortunate to have access to an all-expenses-paid primary school education.
Many Siddi men who do not own or work on farmland generally work as day laborers in labor-intensive jobs. As we were driving through the village of Idgundi, we came across these men who were busy filling in a gully with mud to stop rainwater from overflowing into the road. The relentless rain, common in this region, did not pose a deterrent to them as they toiled. Most Siddis do not stray far from the homes or villages that they are familiar with. Due to their history, Siddis feel a strong connection to the forests and places they were raised in. The few who venture beyond their homeland in search of jobs face discrimination and struggle. Many Siddis told me during my fieldwork that they felt most comfortable staying within a 50- to 100-km radius of their homes, because the Siddis and non-Siddis in these areas tend to be familiar with one another. However, if a Siddi ventures beyond that radius in search of work in a larger town and city, he/she is often considered to be an outsider or foreigner. Most non-Siddi Indians who live further than 50- to 100-km from the Siddi homelands are not familiar with Siddis or their history. These Indians automatically assume that any person with Black African physical traits is a recent African immigrant. It has been well documented that African immigrants, primarily students who have come to India to pursue college education, face extreme discrimination. African immigrants in India are commonly stereotyped as drug dealers, gang members, commercial sex workers, or members of other nefarious trades. Thus, societal challenges prevent most Siddis from comfortably venturing beyond a certain distance from their homeland.
Although most Siddis live in isolated areas, small villages, or at the edge of larger towns, modern technologies, specifically smartphones, have a universal presence. My guide explained to me that it was common for teenage Siddi boys to climb on top of a water tank in an attempt to receive better cell phone reception. This is a common social activity in the evenings for many teenagers. Here, a teenager is enjoying better cell phone reception on top of a water tank located at the edge of the village of Wada.
Siddis initially received some national attention in the 1980s for their athletic abilities. The Sports Authority of India thought that their African genetic heritage and natural athletic abilities might mean more medals won for India at international sporting events. Siddi children were selected for this purpose and trained for participation in world competitions. The few Siddis that succeeded in sports at the national level also attained well-paying, stable, government jobs. However, the program was cut after a few years and attempts to revive it have been unsuccessful. In the village of Mainalli, made up of mostly Christian Siddis, several teenagers shared with me that they aspired to play sports or act in Bollywood movies, which they viewed as their ‘ticket to success.’
It is rare to find Hindu, Christian, and Muslim Siddis living in the same village or area. Generally, Hindus tend to live in more dispersed and isolated areas because they own farmland. By contrast, Christians and Muslims live in compact Siddi villages, or in larger villages that are also home to non-Siddi Hindu populations. Gadagera is a small, Christian Siddi village that has its own church and a weekly Sunday service. Most Christian Siddis are Catholic and were probably converted/baptized to Christianity after being brought to India by the Portuguese. The greater Catholic Church sends non-Siddi priests into the smaller villages to conduct Sunday services. Christian Siddi communities often have better educational outcomes due to the involvement and financial support of church groups, which have set up schools and other facilities.
Hindu and Christian Siddi people occasionally practice intermarriage with each other, but rarely practice interracial marriage with non-Siddis. However, Muslim Siddis commonly marry non-Siddi Muslims. Muslim Siddis are conversant in Kannada and Konkani (the two most common languages for Siddis). However, they primarily speak Urdu, which is the language spoken by most Muslims in India. The village of Bhurunaki is predominantly a Hindu village but it has a small population of Muslim Siddis. Here, a non-Siddi Muslim man has two wives—one of which is Siddi and the other is not. Unlike Hindu or Christian Siddi families, who tend to live in their own communities, Muslim Siddi families live in larger, predominantly Hindu villages. Discrimination against Muslim Siddis is common when the group is small in proportion compared to the overall population of the Hindu village.
Tattigere village is a larger Hindu village that is home to a significant Muslim community. Several Siddis have interracial marriages in this community, and harmonious relationships with their Hindu neighbors. They were quite happy with life in general. It appears that if the Muslim Siddi community in a Hindu village is populous enough, they have no major problems due to their strength in numbers. However, the smaller Muslim Siddi communities in Hindu villages seem to have more communal issues, which could be partly explained by their smaller population size.
Although Muslim Siddis marry non-Siddi Muslims, they rarely marry Hindu or Christian Siddis. However, Hindu and Christian Siddis marry both inter-religiously and inter-racially. A Hindu non-Siddi woman married into a Christian Siddi family in Hunsittekoppa. The Hindu woman fell in love with the Christian Siddi man and was able to convince her family to approve the relationship despite their reservations. Today, both families regularly socialize with each other. These families have broken down their personal barriers to inter-caste, inter-racial, and inter-religious marriage, but this is generally rare in Indian society.
Here, Siddi elders congregate for a quick chat as they cross paths in the forest on the way home from their jobs near Jaddigadde. These paths and forests are an omnipresent part of Siddi life. Many of the Siddi elders that I interviewed fondly shared their connection with the forests and surrounding areas. Despite the struggles and challenges they encountered in life, this was home to them.
Siddis have lived in India for centuries, but very few Indians likely know about them. Siddis face many of the challenges that other rural communities do, including lack of access to education, healthcare, adequate housing, and finance. The status of Siddis within Indian communities may have improved slightly since being recognized as a Scheduled Tribe, which allows access to certain government benefits and protection under discrimination laws. However, Siddis still regularly encounter caste-, religion-, and race-based discrimination, especially in areas farther from their homeland. For this reason, many Siddis have a strong sense of place and an attachment to their homeland. They have lived on these lands for decades, if not centuries, and identify as Indian. Except for retaining some of the physical features of their African ancestors, the Siddis have little-to-no cultural connection to Africa. Every Siddi that I spoke to said that they considered themselves Indian because of how well they have integrated into the surrounding socio-cultural landscape. They speak the same languages, dress the same way, eat the same food, and practice the same religions as any other Indians in the area. To the Siddis, they are the same as anyone else there, and their place attachment to the surrounding forests and landscapes is profound.
I would like to thank Bowie State University for supporting me with a research grant to conduct my fieldwork. I would like to thank all the Siddi families that welcomed me into their homes and communities, and fed and lodged me in their humble homes. Most importantly, I thank the Siddis for sharing their daily lives and their views about what it is like to be a Siddi with me. I would also like to thank my driver, Rosario, who not only navigated many rough roads off the beaten path, but also provided lively conversation throughout the trip. Finally, I reserve my deepest gratitude for my field guide, Juje Siddi, without whom I would not have known where to begin. His personable attitude, extensive network within the Siddi community, and immense knowledge about his people provided me with a deep appreciation and understanding of the Siddi people that I would never have gained without him.