Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Siddis of Karnataka and the Habshis from Abyssinia … -The Lost African Tribe

Siddi Dance-Damami Kunita from Karntaka siddis

The word 'habsi'..
Recently, I was talking  to a friend, Arun Chakarvarthi,  a senior police officer, who mentioned about “Habshi kote” in Bidar . The word “ habshi” stayed in my mind for a long time.  I started thinking  that I heard this word' habsi' somewhere else, too. It took me back to my childhood memories and the story started unfolding in front of me….
Who are these Habsis..?
My hair was untidy,  entangled, and not combed.  My grandmother came with a  small brass pot  of oil  and  a comb and  was quick to remark “Habsi! Habsi”!  This was some 30 years back.  In my village near Ankola , “Habsi” was a term used to tease  girls when they didn’t keep their hair tidy.  
 I wondered where this word came from..? How and why did my grandmother and other village folk associate the word ‘Habsi’ with entangled hair . 

A siddi woman in Angadibail

The Habsi God:
I also recall my father mentioning about Habsi Devaru (“The God of Habsi” ) near Ankola in Aggargon village. I never saw a temple or statue of Habsi Devaru but always wondered as a child to whom this God belonged?
Who are theses Habsis.? And how they are connected to my village?

Uttara Kannada folklore mentions about " habsis"  

The statue of Bobriya @ haigunda island 

I chanced upon a book (Gamokkalu ondu sanskutika adyayana) written by my father Dr.N.R.Naik about Gamokkalu tribe--the river tribe of western coast of Uttara Kannada district. He mentions about Habsis in this book as pirates  who landed in ships and looted the local people. 

There are stories about fights between habsis and the local people. He mentions that local people used to take shelter in islands (Masooru kurve and Haigunda island)  when habsis attacked them. The soldiers who died while fighting with these habsis were considered martyrs and remembered. We see the statue of Bobru or Bobriya and the stories  of these martyrs in Masooru kurve and Haigunda Island.
(Source-Dr .N.R.Naik -  (Gamokkalu ondu sanskutika adyayana ) .

According to Ibn Battuta (1304-1377), the noted Muslim writer who journeyed through both Africa and Asia, the Siddis “are the guarantors of safety on the Indian Ocean; let there be but one of them on a ship and it will avoided by the Indian pirates and idolaters.”

(“The African Presence in India“-Runoko Rashidi )

Habshi kot of Bidar
Habsi Kote’ rang a bell.  I called my friend again and asked him to tell more about his Habsi kote visit. He said it has got some connections with Siddis!!  Habshis and Siddis ..!!Stories start unfolding beautifully… Arun was kind enough to connect me to his friend, Rishikesh Desai, who lives in Bidar and is a news correspondent for The Hindu.  
What Rishi said
Rishi and I talked on the phone.  First of all he said ,  it’s not” Habsi kote” it is “habshi kot”-which used to be a  habshi settlement.  Habshi kot is a small hillock in the corner of town, on the eastern side of Bidar fort.
(Photo credits:Gopichand Tandle)

Habshi Kot Guest House-Bidar
Habshi kot houses –P.W.D. guest house of Karnataka Government, which is also called the ‘Habshi Kot Guest House’ by the locals . There is also a church called  St. Paul’s Church constructed in 1964 in this hillock area which was known as St. Josef Church earlier.

Habshi kot hillock

According to Rishi,  “habsh” is originally a Persian word now used as Urdu in this area.  Apparently ' habsh' is not a polite word with the locals.   It is a derogatory term.  “ Habsh jaisa dikta hai…” –means—“you look like a habsh—untidy”. It reminded me of my grandmothers teasing word “Habsi” looking at my entangled hair.
Currently, there are no official habshi or Siddi settlement in Habshikot or Bidar district, but Rishi gives evidence for Siddi settlements in Bidar.  Rishi states that  Siddis came and settled here before they moved to Hyderabad (neighboring state) . He says there are people who saw Siddis in this area around 1950s to 1960s . Siddis  served to money lenders and  Sahukars families  in Bidar .  He recalls the  Basavaraj Astoore family  from Bhalki  and the Deshmukh family whose fathers were  money lenders in Bidar and Siddis served in their households. They  worked as servants, security and as agriculture laborers.
More information about Habshi kot
"Habshi Kot", meaning the "fortress of Abyssinians", is so known because the Negro slaves (the Abyssinians) brought to India by the Muslim rulers were called habshis. Apart from a cemetery enclosed by arched screens, there are five tombs nearby of Abyssinian nobles who were in the courts of the Bahamani and Baridi Sultans.

Siddi God: Habsi in Karnataka 

Siddi God -habsi 

 Last week   i visited Angadibail and having tea in a small tea shop ..Some Siddi women where waiting at the bus stop . I was talking to the men at tea shop about habsi god at Aggargon which my father mentioned 

Siddi women waiting at the bus stop in Angadibail

The two men sitting at the tea  shop mentioned  without any excitement about  habshi god  in Kuntgani village  just  4 k.m away  from where i was sitting . i was thrilled and  called  Balachndra Shetty a friend the local Panchayat member from that village .He agreed to take me to see  the God Habshi which belong to Siddis .Next day morning Mr Shetty former panchayat prasident  was waiting for me at Kuntgani cross .

We crossed some paddy fields and reached nearby forest .The long waited Habsi god was just a stone like any other folk gods from this region  .Siddis sacrifice chickens once in a year to habsi devaru  .They cook  and eat in that premises only .Habshi God is not supposed to have structure or a temple .like huli devaru (  tiger god)  This habshi devaru reminded me  another regional /folk godess Choudi which also supposed to  have untidy hair and lives near the water body . 

Habsi devaru-at Kuntgani village (Siddi God-Habsi)

Siddis Of Karnataka:

siddi man in Angadibail

Siddi couple

During the Goan Inquisition, some of these slaves were freed and some escaped into the forests of the neighbouring Karnataka state.   In Karnataka, they are concentrated around Yellapur, Haliyal, Dandeli , Ankola, Joida, Mundgod and Sirsi taluks of Uttara Kannada and in Khanapur of Belgaum and Kalghatgi of Dharwad district.

Siddi youth who came to work in our paddy field in Angadibail

My grandmother is from one of these towns who has seen these Siddis  and was referring to me as one from the  habsis or Siddi   tribe – a tribe of African origin and their entangled-curled hair, which was a characteristic feature of this tribe!
It has been reported that these Siddis believe that Barack Obama shares their gene pool and that they wanted to gift a bottle of honey to him on his visit to India in 2010!
Scheduled Tribe status in Karnataka
The labels like Siddis, habshis  are embedded in Indian local, state and national constructs such as records that socially assign. It is interesting to see the racial term Siddi emerged as a surname in order to address their own needs now that they have been granted Scheduled Tribe status in Karnataka since 2003.  They kept their surnames Siddi though it is a racial term. And the term  Habsi/Hafsi/habshi is considered an insult/abusing word in India .  

(E book - The Cultural Politics of African Indian in South Asia ----By J. Pashington Obeng)

Siddi girl who studies in Angadibail Highschool

Source of Income:
Their major economic resources are agricultural land and the western ghat forest. Their main source of livelihood  is agricultural laborers.  Few among them own pieces of land while others live on encroached lands in order to grow paddy and sugarcane.  Few of the men are watchmen security officers, truck drivers, masons, logs cutters, and other such day laborers.

siddi woman cooking in the kitchen

Shaping new forms of Indianness identity :
Its interesting to observe how this contemporary African Indians (Siddis/Habshis) have benn constructing their cultural and religious identities  in time and space in india.
The community has however lost touch with its roots. They have lost the knowledge of African languages and traditions and have in fact adopted the local culture and religion. They speak local languages-Kannada, Konkani  and Marathi .They practice local religions including Hinduism, Islam and Roman Catholic.

Some of the dances performed by this community have synthesized the African traits with local folk dances. Gradually the original traits are dwindling.
A brief account of dance forms in Siddi tribe.
Damami kunita and pugDi kuNita are the dance forms specific to Siddis. But they also entertain themselves by resorting to local dance forms such as alAvi dance (among Muslim Siddis) and gumTe pangu. (halakki community)
Damami kunita:

Damami -Siddi dance performance team at buDa folklore 

This dance is usually performed during the Navratri. More importantly it is performed also during the festivals celebrated to honour their ancestors and elders.

.. Damami the musical instrument that provides the background score to the dance in not used by any other Indian community, according to some scholars. However Helmut K. Anheier who has done extensive research about the Siddis present in Gujarat, Karnataka and Rajasthan does not see any African element in Damami. On the other hand, the instrument ‘mugarman’ used by the Siddis in Gujarat bears a distinct resemblance to Ngoma drum used in Zimbabve even today. There is an instrument called DamAmi in Rajasthan also.

Damami- the musical instrument of siddis of Karnataka

Pugadi Dance :

Once PugDi dance was practiced most of the tribes and communities in Uttara Kannada region .Even the Havyaka Brahmin women used to perform dance in Krishna janmashtami festival. Other communities as such Gamokkalu, Halakki tribe of uttara kannada also had this dance performances and it is totally disappeared from this communities . 

This dance is performed by even number of women who hold an earthen pot (koDa) or heavy copper pot and blow into it singining .."begDe fuhu..begDe fuhu..."while dancing. The dance is performed with a background score provided by another similar vessel (koDa) and gumaTe usually played hAlakki okkaliga community. This is mainly performed during the Ganesha festival as also on other re creative occasions.
Siddi Quilting

Koudi ,Godhdi is recognized mainly as a quilting art form of the Siddhi community, though it is a common technique and art form practiced by most of the local communities in North Karnataka and Uttara Kannada.  Personally I don’t see any African element in siddi koudis or siddi quilting.There is no evidence that this technique is brought from siddis from Africa.
In this local technique, the needle used is a fairly large one and the thread is thick and largely white.  In comparison to modern quilting techniques, this quilting form doesn’t require a batting; instead multiple layers of fabric are used.  Yet another peculiarity is that the work starts from the outer layer and moves inwards.
Siddi family with buDa folklore

Ramanand Siddi,  his wife-Sushila Siddi, and their two energetic boys- Dinesh and Lokesh  stays in Angadibail .They are the care takers—The family is hardworking, honest, and dignified . They  grow paddy, vegetables  in our field.   Ramanand does masonry work for daily wages. Sushila, feed us when we visit Angadibail.  

Two amazing boys -Dinesh ,Lokesh@Angadibail

Lokesh and Dinesh knows each and every corner of the forest .They are happy to bunk their school when students ,participants visit Angadibail .They love to take us on the forest walk, to swim in the streams, and to  catch crabs in the running water.  Sushila wants her children go to city and do government jobs and not farming  like their father.  She wants  urban comforts for her sons.
Nagraj and Dayanand work with buDa

Nagraj Siddi
Nagraj, a young Siddhi college student, works for buDa  along the forest route.He brings positive energy and motivates participants   while  doing tough treks in the deep forest. He  is very talented and  has great dreams for his community .. Nagraj loves to lead the group in the forest. Children love him and relate to him even though he makes them do tough treks  in the deep forest. He is studying B.B.M. in Hubli., proficient in English and a good siddi dance performer ..He built his own dance group to perform .  He and his friends  performed Siddi dance which was  put up in this blog. 

Dayanand Siddi

Dayanand is Ramanand’s brother.  He appears quiet, but gets energized when he accompanies the students for the toughest route in the forest. He takes care of forest route as a forest guide for buDa when the participants visit Angadibail.Dayanand is looking for a bride from Siddi community.

Last words----
This article written mostly on the basis of talks and casual interviews with friends, and my interaction with Siddis from my home town and from my childhood memories.  Supporting information was taken from various Internet sources.
I remark that this article is not meant to be the final, comprehensive source on this particular subject. Rather it is a thought that will hopefully bring more thorough primary investigations, specifically historical, cultural and anthropological research into the African tribe in India. In a much broader context, there is a great deal more to uncover.
I should mention special thanks to Arun Chakravrthi who rang the bell in my head with the word 'Habshi'.  Arun’s  friend Rishi Desai who gave me an important information of Siddi settlements in Bidar . Rishi extended his help by sending photographs of Habsikot hill area and the P.W.D. building. Balachandra Shetti -A former village panchayat prasident from Kuntgani who took me to see Siddis God - Habshi .
I have to mention my friends Mona Sheth and Bhargavi Shankar who have the patience to read and edit my writings without complaining.

A friend Vidya Vartak Joshi writes

What a fascinating and informative account, Savita. Thank you. Growing up, my ayah from near Poona , used to call me a 'hapshi' when I didn't comb my curly hair flat. In college in Delhi the ayah there referred to a Somali student as 'Habshi'. My father, who grew up in Karachi, told us of Abyssinian servants from Gujarat or Kutch. Sadly nobody mentioned any tales of their bravery or skills or culture.

A friend Nikhat Syeda Arshia writes

...Have heard the word Habshi in my childhood days when my mom would read to us about the life of our prophet Mohammed(pbuh)

More Information about Habshi /Siddis:

Habshi Dynasty:
The period of Absiniyan rule is a largely untold and neglected period of Bengal’s history
It is amazing to know that  how habshis –african tribe  established  their identity in foreign land -between the 13th to late 15th centuries.   Habshis (Africans )in Northen India and Bangal organised and asserted  considerable political power (Harris1971).  Pescatello tells the story of Habshis of Bangal.  When Habesh Khan –King of Bengal became dictatorial Sidi Badr, a Habshi guardsman seized the throne in 1490.  Badr ruled for  more than 3 years with an army of 30,000 of which 5,000 were Abyssinians.  Upon his murder in 1493, the Habshis in high posts were dismissed and expelled from the kingdom. And this marked end of the Habshi Dynasty in Bengal(Mujumdar1960 ,345-6).

Habshi halwa !!
What is the connection between Habshi and Halwa?.Habshi is persian/arabic word used for black africans. The word was retained in Hindi and now used for Africans in a derogatory way.
There could be two possibilities for it to be named Habshi. One, it's dark appearance, and two, it may have been introduced by , or somehow associated with the "Habshis"
So, either the "Habshis" introduced the peculiar halwa in the middle east which was later introduced in the subcontinent , or it was directly brought to the subcontinent by them. Because interestingly even the word Halwa (sweetmeat) is of Arabic origin which again finds place in many languages.


Habsi Tribe–The Arabic tribe in Oman

The Habsi tribe is one of the largest tribes of Oman. They descend directly from Banu Abs an ancient Bedouin tribe from central Arabia – The descendants of this tribe may carry the tribal name or some variation thereof, such as Al-Absy, Al-Absi, Absy, Absi, Abzi, etc.
The Habsi tribe and its many branches are known for their courage, strength, and bravery, as were their ancestors of Banu Abs.
The interesting part of this tribe is the relation  between African slave mother and  Banu Abs Tribe .(Habsi tribe is one of the branches of Banu Abs) .Of the earliest stories concerning this tribe was the famous classical love and war story of Antarah and Abla.

Who is this Antarah
Antarah ibn Shaddad al Absi (c.525-615)
He was an accomplished pre-Islamic poet and a mighty warrior.. Antarah was  known for his love and war

The story of Antarah and Abla

Antarah –( Antarah ibn Shaddad al Absi )was the son of Shaddād, a leader of the  Arabian tribe- Banu Abs, (They still inhabit the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.)
His mother was   Zabibah, an Ethiopian woman whom Shaddad had enslaved after a tribal war.

The tribe neglected Antarah at first, and he grew up in servitude. Although it was fairly obvious that Shaddad was his father. He was considered one of the "Arab crows" (Al-aghribah Al-'Arab) because of his jet black complexion.
Antarah fell in love with his cousin Abla, and sought to marry her despite his status as a slave. Antarah had to face challenges including getting a special kind of camel from the northern Arabian kingdom.

The history:
The first Siddis are thought to have arrived in India in 628 AD at the Bharuch port. Several others followed with the first Arab Islamic invasions of the subcontinent in 712 AD. Between the 16th and 17th century Arab traders carried some of the Africans from Abyssinia (Part of  Ethiopia), Mozambique and Zanzibar(part of Tanzania (Irwin 1997;Pinto 1992).  Between the 14th and 19th centuries, Portuguese Dutch and Indian merchants also carried Africans to India (Pescatello1977).

The Omani Arab traders, the Indian merchants and later the Europeans-( Portuguese, Dutch, British and French) bought and sold East Africans as part of their trading commodities with ivory, spices, hides and beads between the 16th an 19th century (Alpers 1967).  They were directly taken to India  by way of South Arabia and the Persian Gulf.
Under the Portuguese control in India, (the Estado the India) many  Africans were enslaved.  Descendants of these Africans are found along the west cost of India in Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh areas.  
Most Siddis   were brought to the Indian subcontinent as slaves by the Portuguese. The Siddi community is currently estimated at around 20,000–55,000 individuals, with Karnataka, Gujarat , and Hyderabad in India and Makran and Karachi in Pakistan as the main population centres 
(Link: Wikipidia)
The origin of the name  -Siddis/Habshis:
African Indians have different designations in various part of South Asia .The general  term used for them in India is Siddi/Habshi ,and this racially descriptive term.  Siddi/Habshi refers to a people of African descents (Lobo1984).

Habshi, African and Abyssinian slaves in pre-British india.the name derives from the Arabic word Habshi through its Persian form -(Encyclopedia Britannica)

There are conflicting hypotheses on the origin of the name Siddi and Habshi.
One theory is that the term Siddis is derived from the title borne by the captains of the Arab vessels that first brought Siddi settlers to India. These captains were known as Sayyid.  Siddi is believed to be a corruption of Sayyed.
Similarly, the term Habshi is from Al-Habsh, the Arabic term for Abyssinia, is held to be derived from the common name for the captains of the Ethiopian/Abyssinian ships that also first delivered Siddi slaves to the subcontinent..
I figured that Habsis /Siddis are Abyssinians from Abyssinia descendants of Africans who were brought to western costs of India and Goa by the Portuguese, British and the Arabs between the 14th and 19th centuries.
I am concluding that African Indians referred to as “Abyssinians, Habshis, or Siddis” (by Khalidi1989;Harris 1971;Ali1996;Palakshappa1976) played considerable role in military, and  were exploited for cheap labour in India from the 14th century until India became independent of British rule  (Pinto 1992).

Historian Runoko Rashidi in an essay writes , “The African Presence in India“: “…..African sailors known as Siddis stand out. Certainly, Siddi kingdoms were established in western India in Janjira and Jaffrabad as early as 1100 AD. After their conversion to Islam, the African freedmen of India, originally called Habshi from the Arabic, called themselves Sayyad (descendants of Muhammad) and were consequently called Siddis. Indeed, the island Janjira was formerly called Habshan, meaning Habshan’s or African’s land. Siddi signifies lord or prince. It is further said that Siddi is an expression of respectful address commonly used in North Africa, like Sahib in India. Specifically, it is said to be an honorific title given to the descendants of African natives in the west of India, some of whom were distinguished military officers and administrators of the Muslim princes of the Deccan. …The Siddis were a tightly knit group, highly aggressive, and even ferocious in battle. They were employed largely as security forces for Muslim fleets in the Indian Ocean, a position they maintained for centuries. The Siddi commanders were titled Admirals of the Mughal Empire, and received an annual salary of 300,000 rupees. According to Ibn Battuta (1304-1377), the noted Muslim writer who journeyed through both Africa and Asia, the Siddis “are the guarantors of safety on the Indian Ocean; let there be but one of them on a ship and it will avoided by the Indian pirates and idolaters.”

Siddis from Abyssinia
E book -Shaping Membership, Defining Nation: The Cultural Politics of African Indian in South Asia  
By J. Pashington Obeng

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