Prime Minister Narendra Modi has infused vigour and freshness in India's foreign policy. Nothing demonstrates it better than the cultural sites included in the itinerary of visiting foreign dignitaries. In a radical break from the monotony of past, PM Modi's selection of venues has pulled quite a few surprises which convey both political astuteness and cultural depth and diversity of India.
After Xi Jinping's reception at Sabarmati riverfront, Francois Hollande's visit to Rock Garden in Chandigarh and a day out with Malcolm Turnbull at Akshardham, it was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's turn to be treated to the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque in Ahmedabad.
The iconic sixteenth-century mosque also known as Sidi Saiyyed Ni Jalni, is famous for its eight exquisitely carved Jalis (latticework) in its arched windows- one of them featuring "the tree of life" which has inspired the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad logo. This fascinating monument not only showcases the composite culture of India but also brings to fore one of the several ethnic communities which although forming a part of our colourful ethnic rainbow, remains largely obscure.
The first Siddis to come to India were Abyssinian slaves in the entourage of Islamic Arab invaders who also doubled up as slave traders. Later the Portuguese and even the British continued to bring these Bantu people from the African Great Lakes region as slaves and indentured labourers until slavery was abolished by the British in 1861. The community owed its name to captains of the ships, called Siddis by Arabs, in which these people were brought from Africa. From the sixteenth century onwards, Goa became the hub of slave trade where the Portuguese started bringing them in from their African colonies. The earliest inhabitants are believed to have come in the eleventh century. Some later settlers also came in as traders, sailors and mercenaries.
For a community which is now hardly 30,000 strong in India, Siddis form an important part of Indian history. Inducted into the armies of Muslim kings for their bravery and loyalty, many of them rose to become nobles in Deccan Sultanates. Khudawand Khan and Dastur Dinar in the Bahmani Sultanate, Ikhlas Khan as a noble in Nizam Shahi's court and Qasim Khan serving Adil Shahi and later the Mughals, secured a place for themselves in history. Jamal ud-Din Yaqut, a confidant of Razia Sultan, is well known to us for his portrayal as Razia's lover in the Kamal Amrohi film by the same name. All through Deccan history, Afaqis constituting Turks, Afghans, Mughals and Persians are found constantly in conflict with the Dakhanis. These Dakhanis were none other than the Siddis and the Muwallads (Abyssinians who married the local women).
But it is Malik Kafur, Malik Yaqub and Malik Ambar who go down as the most influential Siddi figures in history. While the fanatic Malik Kafur, a general of Alauddin Khilji, destroyed hundreds of temples during his rapacious plunder of southern kingdoms, Malik Ambar, a regent in Nizam Shahi, is regarded as one of the finest administrators in medieval history. Malik Ambar founded the city of Aurangabad, laid canals, promoted agriculture, encouraged peasants to settle in his kingdom and introduced a just and fair land revenue system. His considerate reign which saw no distinction between Hindu and Muslim subjects and his military alliance with Maratha chieftains helped him repel Mughal advances for almost two decades.
At a time when most Siddis have been assigned tribal status and many resort to dancing and singing for tourists as a means of livelihood, it 's hard to believe that they were able to carve their own kingdoms - the most notable of them being Janjira in Konkan, Jafrabad in Kathiawar and Sachin state near Surat. Murud Janjira, an island fort off the Raigad coast, is a testimony to the military prowess of the Siddis. The fort, which at the peak of its glory, had more than 500 canons, remained unconquered. Neither the Portuguese nor the British or the Marathas could conquer the Murud Janjira fort.
Today Siddis are spread across Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. Though the majority is Sufi Sunnis, some of them are Catholics and Hindus. Intermarriage between Sunni, Catholic and Hindu Siddis is common. Another distinct feature of the community is ancestor worship during Navratri which goes as Hiriyaru. The ceremony is elaborate among the Hindu Siddis but very short for the other two. Despite centuries old migration, the community has preserved its distinct culture. Goma music and Dhamaal dance keep their traditions alive and vibrant. About 20,000 members of the community reside in Pakistan, with almost all of them being in the city of Karachi and the province of Balochistan.
Siddis in India have often complained of discrimination. Given the general ignorance about them, they often encounter racist jibes in public places. Let us hope Abe's visit to Sidi Sayyed mosque will educate more Indians about this community living on the margins.
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