The Siddis or siddhis are an ethnic group inhabiting India. Members are descendants of East Africa’s Bantu people, that were mainly brought to India as slaves by Arabs, the Portuguese and the British.
The Siddhis are descendants of seafarers from the Bantu people of the African Great Lakes region (Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda), brought to India as slaves by the Dutch, Arabs and Portuguese between the 16th and 19th century.
While most siddhis were victims of slave trade, some of them also were imported by the Nawabs in the 15th-16th centuries as military mercenaries. Others were sailors on the trade routes to the east.
One of the earliest references to the tribe can be found in correspondence traced back to a steamer that set sail from England to former Ceylon and onwards to the Western coast of India in 1832. This account describes a crew comprising seven English quartermasters, 43 lascars, six English engineers and 15 Siddimen or negroes as coal shifters.
When slavery was abolished in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Siddis fled into the country’s thick jungles, fearing recapture and torture.
Today, they continue to live in exclusion and poverty.
Origin of the name ‘Siddhi’
There are various hypotheses on the origin of the name Siddi. One theory is that the word was a term of respect in North Africa, similar to the word sahib in modern India and Pakistan. A second theory is that the term Siddi 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.
Majority of the Siddis follows Hinduism. There is also a significant number following Islam and Christianity. But the one factor which binds the Siddhis, irrespective of their religion is the Hiriyaru or ancestor worship.
The Siddis believe their dead ancestors watch over them. They are regarded as witnesses to be consulted by a family on occasions like births, marriages and deaths. They also invoke them during natural calamities or a sickness or injury that doesn’t heal.
The Siddis who are mostly agricultural and casual laborers, mainly speak Konkani, the native language of Goa. Some also speak other languages, such as Kannada and Marathi.
The tribe has, in the past, shunned contact with the outside world because of the intense racism they encounter for their African features – dark skin and curly hair but today they’ve started taking baby steps to integrate themselves into India’s mainstream society.