SIDDI TRIBE Members of the Siddi village which is located on the outskirts of Dandeli, a town in western Karnataka ­Pic: (travel blog)

The Siddis: India’s lost African tribe.

The Siddis are a community of African-origin Indian people living predominantly in India’s states of Karnataka and Gujarat. They self-identify as Indians – they speak local languages, wear native clothing and follow the same local customs and traditions – but because of their physical appearance, they are widely regarded as ‘outsiders’ and live together in small communities in rural areas and wastelands.

In every way the Siddis are ‘Indian citizens; on first glance, the Siddis look nothing like the locals so they instantly stand out. Despite having lived in India for centuries, the Siddi people have managed to retain their typically African features because they marry within their communities. It is extremely rare for a Siddi to marry a person from outside their community.

image sourced from Sankara Subramanian C. for BE ON THE ROAD

A brief history of Siddis in India

The Siddi people are an Indo-African tribal community that descended from the Bantu people of Africa. Their presence in India can be traced back as early as the 7th century. The most likely reason for their initial appearance in India was slavery, brought over by Arabs and later, Europeans during their colonizing of India. When slavery was abolished in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Siddi people are believed to have fled into the dense jungle areas and isolated parts of India where they are still found to be living to this day in small settlements. Some have also said that they came as soldiers with the Arab community and independently as sailors and merchants.

The Siddi community is currently estimated at around 50,000–60,000 individuals, with Karnataka, Gujarat and Hyderabad in India and Makran and Karachi in Pakistan as the main population centres. Siddis are primarily Muslims, although some are Hindus and others belong to the Catholic Church. 

images sourced from Sankara Subramanian C. for BE ON THE ROAD

These African Indians were originally known as Habshis, which is Persian for Abyssinian (the former name of Ethiopia was Abyssinia). But those who rose through the ranks of royal retinue were honoured with the title Siddi, a possible etymon from the Arabic word for master, sayed/sayyid. It is not entirely clear when the use of the term Habshi declined and Siddi replaced it, but today, Siddi describes all people of African descent in India.

Even though it is well-documented that Africans gave birth to the world, it is generally little known that the Siddi or Sheedi people, who are descendants of the Bantu people of Southeastern Africa, have lived in rural India and parts of Pakistan for the last 600 years.

Siddis as Indians

Local women wear colourful saris and participate in Indian traditions (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Men typically work as drivers or security guards while women stay in the home (typical labour patterns in India) and their staple diets consist largely of rice, dal and pickles. The Siddi people were largely living unnoticed until the 1980s when they caught national attention for their perceived athletic ability. Because of their African lineage, the Sports Authority of India decided that their natural athleticism could be used to win medals for India at world sports competitions. A number of Siddi children were selected to be coached as athletes once the Special Area Games Project was set up. The program did plenty for both the Siddi people and the country. It brought public acceptance to Siddis and enabled them to gain jobs while India won medals. A well-known Siddi member, Kamala Mingel Siddi, is still regarded as one of the best national and international Siddi athletes.

Siddis, Indian people of African descent | © Nagarjun Kandukuru/Flickr

Unfortunately though, after some years, the program was cut and Siddis were asked to return to their homes and back to their lives as outsiders. Several attempts have been made to revive special sports programs for the Siddi community, however, none have been successful.

Not all Siddis came to India as slaves; in fact, many also came as merchants, warriors, and traders, with the word on the street being that at one point, an African king ruled in Central India.

Watch: Inside a lost African tribe still living in India Today.

Books: Inside a Lost African Tribe Still Living in India Today (2018) by Asha Stuart.
Reference/Research: US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: Am J Hum Genet, Indian Siddis: African Descendants with Indian Admixture

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