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The Habshis and Siddi communities of India

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Africans in India, over the ages

During the medieval period, affluent rulers fighting their many wars provided employment to able-bodied mercenaries, and their kingdoms provided job placement for many slaves. Later on, with the arrival of the Europeans, the slave industry spread globally and many Indian and African slaves were shipped around the world. While the African slave stories have been studied in great detail, the tales of the Africans in India or that of Indian slaves abroad, have not been well-publicized. The African community are called the Siddi’s and as you will soon note, there were quite many of them at one time, with some rising up the ranks, while others floundered as petty slaves or house servants, in wealthy homes. Remnants of that robust community which made India their home for 500- 800 years or more, can still be seen here and there in India, some retaining bits and pieces of their ancient musical and artistic heritage even after assimilation into the Indian society.

Some months ago, I had written about the Kappiri slaves of Cochin brought in by the Portuguese, but as we saw, they assimilated with the local Malayali community and are no longer separately discernable. That a demand existed for hardworking people in the teeming Islamic sultanates Northwards as well as at the many Portuguese domains in the West Coast, is quite apparent, and coupled with the fact that it was difficult to find hardy labor, employers resorted to importing slaves who were not only strong and hardworking but loyal and obedient.

As we dig deep into their history, we can see that Africans, from Ethiopia and other African regions, were called the Habshis (from Abyssinia), or the Siddis or as Portuguese termed them, the Kaffirs (Kappiris in Kerala). This is the story of those people, who comprised brave soldiers, fine servants, beautiful wives or concubines. While the term may have originated from Sayyid or Syyed – for honorable, or Saydi – Captive in Farsi, it became Siddi or Sidi as time went by, and became a usage denoting the African community in India. In Marathi documents, they are referred to as shamal or "black-faced" and in Hyderabad, they are the Chaush (Ottoman military designation for low-level officers). Anthropologists conclude that they were originally called Habshi (Al-Habish i.e., from Abyssinia), then Caffre or Kaffir by the Portuguese from the late 16th century up to the 18th century and the term Sidi seems to have been introduced by the British in the 19th century.

Ibn Batuta traveling around the West Coast noted the presence of a sizeable African population serving in the militaries at Calicut (few), Gujarat (400), and in Ceylon (500). He moved around with 50 Abyssinians to protect against pirate attacks and while boarding a Chinese junk at Calicut observed Abyssinians carrying javelins and swords and others with drums and bugles, indicating the use of Africans even on ships traveling to China.

Reports of many such slaves in Delhi serving the Mughal courts, many more in Bengal, in the Deccan, and other kingdoms can be found by anybody indulging in a search for specifics. Obviously, these small groups of slaves came with the monsoon trade, on dhows across the Red Sea, or from the Arabian Gulf and African ports. While most of them, being Muslims worked as dock workers or dhow crews for the Nakhudas, sea traders or spice merchants, interacting with the ships and shippers, some found their way to mainstream Muslim families, working as bodyguards and slaves. It is also clear that the communities of Gujarat, which had been in contact with African buyers and African states, employed African slaves, while the Bahmani kings of Deccan had a number of Tanzanian slaves serving in their armies. Diu was where most slaves disembarked and it is also clear that during the heydays of the Mughal rule, African kings gifted prized slaves to the Mughal royalty. Like the Mamelukes of Egypt, these slave troops were efficient, managing their existence amid constant intrigues and the many conspiracies, sometimes cleverly usurping power from their masters, tilting the scales.

During the days of early British rule, quite a few were directly imported into Calcutta as domestic servants and cost roughly 10 times that of an Indian servant. Wealthy Muslims visiting Mecca at times, brought back slaves procured from the local Mecca bazars, but they were a few. Wealthy merchants acquired educated Habshi girls as concubines, as well as robust Siddi girls for domestic work. As for the men, this difference faded and their origins or ethnic identity ceased to be of any significance! During the 18th century, the British were the biggest importers of Madagascar slaves into Bombay, to work in the shipyards. A British report dated 1759, mentions some 754 Siddis and 108 ‘other African’ slaves in Surat. Around the same time, the British were finding the presence of these slaves in certain parts of Bombay, a nuisance. The 19th century saw a lot of slave smuggling into Bombay, and Kathiawar had over a thousand African slaves. The 1864 Bombay census listed 2,074 Negro Africans, but by and far they were not indentured, and were quite free or liberated, by that time. Karachi and Nasik too had many such slaves. Many were later repatriated to the East African coast.

Going back to the medieval periods we see records of many slaves in the Muslim principalities of North India and particularly we can focus on the story of Jalaludin Yakut who was considered to be Razia Sultan’s paramour. The queen’s special treatment of that slave and his promotion to the position of "Master of the Stables" angered the Turkish overlords, who rebelled, eventually killing her favorite Habshi slave and the dethroned Razia. But then again, there were those who rose up the ladder, such as Malik Sarvar of Delhi who moved to Jaunpur near Varanasi, so also Malik Qaranful and his descendants who followed Sarvar and ruled over Jaunpur. We can also see in faraway Bengal, the case of Ruknuddin Barbak who employed over 8,000 African soldiers.

Gujarati Siddi’s

One legend asserts that the Sidis of Jambur village came with Mahamud Gazni’s troops, while others assert that they were just drum beaters. Another legend points to them being Ghor, originating from Kano in Nigeria, but traveling through Abyssinia and Mecca.  This connects up to the Baba Ghor legend, the trader who developed the agate trade. They are called the Shamili i.e., those who spoke Swahili, a Bantu dialect of E Africa. Siddis of Saurashtra are known as Tais. There are also the Kafirs of Div who seem to have maintained their old customs and bits of the original language. Finally, we have the Siddi’s of Janjira, the royal Sidis or the Jafrabad Siddi’s. In addition, there were smaller Siddi principalities in the State of Radhanpur in North Gujarat, one in Sachin near Surat, and even one in Ahmedabad.

The Gujarat Gazetteer states- They are African negroes of different tribes chiefly from the Somali coast, who have been brought to India as slaves. They form two classes, newcomers ‘wilaitis’ and country born ‘muwallads’. They speak a broken Hindustani and sometimes among themselves an African dialect, probably the Somali known as Habashi or Abyssinian. In north Gujarat they sometimes build round hovels about ten feet in circumference, the wall of earth, the roof circular and of grass. The dress both of men and women is that of lower class Musalmans. They live by house service and begging. Those who are servants are sober and cleanly.

Other Sidis as a class are fond of intoxicating drugs, quarrelsome, dirty, unthrifty, and pleasure loving. That obstinacy is a leading trait is shown by the proverb “Habshi ki muth” - Abyssinian grip. Habshi ka baal banka - As crooked as an Abyssinian’s hair is another saying. Except professional players, Sidís are the only Gujarat Musalmans who are much given to dancing and singing. As a class they are poor. They are Sunnis in faith but are not religious, few of them knowing the Kuraan or being careful to say their prayers. Their chief object of worship is Baba Ghor, an Abyssinian saint and great merchant, whose tomb stands on a hill just above the Ratanpur carnelian mines in western Rajpipla. A point worthy of notice about the Sidi is his talent for imitation. A band of young Sidis taken from a slave ship and brought to Surat have shown themselves equally ready to pick up the ways of their Christian, Musalman, Hindu or Parsi masters.

Bava Ghor

The social life of the Siddis of Gujarat is related to Muslim saint cults.  Bava Ghor the main among them, is thought to have been an Abyssinian trader who came to India, along with his younger brother, Bava Habash, and his sister, Mai Mishra. According to myth, the saint was originally an Abyssinian military commander. Originally named Siddi Mubarak Nob, he came from East Africa during the 14th century and made Ratanpur, in Gujarat, his home. Before arriving in India, Bava Ghor seemingly spent time in Mecca and the area of Basra in lower Iraq, where he studied with Sufis of the Rifa'i order, who gave him the honorific title Baba Ghor, meaning "master of deep meditation" in Arabic. Myths retell the story of them being sent out by the Prophet to fight a female demon in India; but it was Bava’s sister who eventually destroyed the female demon. The Siddi’s believe themselves to be descended from the Siddi soldiers and their wives who accompanied Bava Ghor during his mission and who became saints in the course of time. Bava Ghor's sister, Mai Misra, who developed her own Sufi following is particularly venerated for her powers of fertility.

Many Siddis in Gujarat are known for performing sacred music, as wandering fakirs (Sufi ascetics) in praise of Bava Ghor and other saints. The central ritual activity of the Siddi’s consists of the performance of dancing and drumming called dammal or goma. Siddis play the malunga, a single-stringed braced musical bow, found in many East African communities (and as far away as Brazil, where it is called berimbau).


The story of the Habshis at the Sultanate of Janjira and the great Murad – Janjira fort is a complete tale by itself, but I will provide here a brief gist. Sometime in 1489, a Habshi Piram Khan sent by the Ahmednagar Sultanate, using a well-known story of deceit involving 300 boxes, took over the island and its control. Subsequent cordial relations with the Ottomans and the Mughals, allowed them to fortify the island and establish control, with just a few Siddis. The island had many Konkanis and a few hundred Bene Israeli Jews and the Siddi’s ruled over it for over 300 years. The Janjira navy was unrivalled and survived many attempts by the Mahrattas in taking it over. With the British on their side, the Siddi’s continued on through the 18th century till the British themselves took over the administration.

These Siddis also had some connections to the Ottoman army of Mustafa Bayram. Some months ago, I had written about the Turkish presence in Gujarat, especially the 1530 event when Mustapha Bayram came to Diu with some 600 Turks and 400 Arabs. These are sometimes considered as the originators of the Habshi community of Gujarat. Most of them continued to fight the Portuguese, ally with the Mughals. One of the prominent Siddis, a Saeed constructed a beautiful mosque in Ahmedabad. Another Siddi named Bashir built the shaking minaret mosque of Ahmedabad. It is also stated by Richard Burton that during this period many Africans arrived in Gujarat, to settle down with the other Siddi communities in the region.


In the Ahmednagar Sultanate in western Deccan, Abyssinian military slaves and Abyssinian mercenaries played an important role. The Decani sultanates exported cotton textiles and ivory, and imported Abyssinian slaves as well as Arabian war horses. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, about 10,000-12,000 slaves were exported annually from Ethiopia to the Decani sultanates.

During the eighteenth century, the Abyssinian (also referred to as Arab) mercenaries continued in the service of the Maratha Confederacy. Malik Ambar, who became famous in the Deccan, is the best known of the Africans who seized power in India. With several surviving paintings of him accompanied by written documentation, his story is among the most detailed of the historical Habshis. Born in southern Ethiopia in the mid-16th century, Ambar was enslaved as a young man and taken to Mocha in Yemen, where he converted to Islam. Noted for his intellectual abilities, he was educated in finance and administration by his owners in western Arabia before being taken to Baghdad and then arriving in central India's Deccan. Then, he was sold to Chengiz Khan, who had 1,000 slaves and was an important noble of the Ahmednagar Sultanate. His rise to power started when he, a mercenary, was made a commander of 150 horsemen of Ahmednagar after the Khan’s death. A few years later, Malik Ambar became the “sultan maker” and principal noble of the Ahmednagar Sultanate until his death in 1626.

Nizam’s Hyderabad

Ambar later moved to Bijapur and built up a strong Habshi mercenary army in Deccan for the Nizam, resisting the Mughals. His reign was supposedly quite well managed and appreciated. Some of his black stone monuments and architecture are still around, perhaps constructed so to dignify his black color, and against many derogatory comments he received during his time. The Nizam as well as other local Rajas had small African contingents in their armies during this period. The Nizam had a cavalry guard as well as African bodyguards. After a while there were quite many Arabs and Africans in Hyderabad and in 1882, and the British started to restrict movement of those communities into Hyderabad, lest the Arabs attempt to seize power from the Nizam. Some of them later became expert cooks in the Nizam’s kitchens. 

As a result of racial conflict, successive disturbances erupted between the Habshi and those around them. Due to mounting tensions in the area, the 6th Nizam moved them to an area called Risala Haboosh (1898), which was sometimes referred to as the settlement of A. C. Guards (African Cavalry Guards). The 7th Nizam, Mir Osman Ali-Khan, erected new houses for the Habshis and they were merged with the other units and renamed the Nizam’s Bodyguards (1920). The new area in which the Habshi settled later came to be known as Siddi Risala (meaning African Cavalry), where one can find them today. The term Siddi Risala was often used to refer to "a community of black people”. They continue to retain some of their African culture such as Swahili words, dance moves, folk songs and musical instruments. When many of Hyderabad’s Muslims moved to Pakistan in 1947, most Siddis remained in India. Siddipet, the African market can still be found, so also the Habshi Guda (African Village). The SIddi Risala has about 2000 members these days.

Lucknow & Bengal

Eunuchs in Bengal under the Sultans were of two kinds, native and foreign, the latter consisting mainly of Habshi slaves shipped from Abyssinia or from the ports of East Africa. The first ruler of Bengal to employ Habshi slaves in extensive numbers was Rukn al-Din Barbak Shah (1459- 1474 A.D.), who enlisted some eight thousand of them, in his service.

Many African slaves, concubines and eunuchs graced the harems and courts of the Lucknow Nawabs. According to one source, more than 1,000 slaves arrived in Lucknow between 1847 and 1848. Habshi Risalah, the Black Regiment, was made up of Africans brought in as slaves (Wajid Ali Shah’s Habshi Risalla Regiment comprised 1,200 Africans). There is a Gulabi Palton mentioned in the King’s Army, and it is possible that this was the name of the female bodyguard. These female personal bodyguards were African women dressed in red jackets and tight-fitting, rose-colored silk trousers.

Wajid ‘Ali Shah had a soft corner for dark-skinned women. Yasmin Mahal, whom he married in 1843, is clearly of African origin with her short black curly hair and un-Indian features. Another African bride, whom he married around 1845, was named Ajaib Khanum. Begam Hazrat Mahal’s father was a slave called Umber, and was a dark-skinned woman. Then there was Fizzah the Abyssinian soldier, perhaps a member of his bodyguard, who was impregnated by Wajid Ali.  Wajid Ali Shah put Fizzah into purdah and in due course a baby girl Jahanara was born to them. In 1858 when the British overran Lucknow, they were attacked and fired upon by the Nawab’s African eunuchs who served as his bodyguards, demonstrating a strong sense of loyalty to him.

Bijapur - Deccan

The Siddis or Habshis of Bijapur starting with Ikhlas Khan and later Sidi Rehan and Sidi Masud were protectors of the Bijapur kingdom. Serving as mercenaries for various local kings, you can see scattered communities descending from them today in interior Karnataka. From the 16th through the 19th century, enslaved Africans from Goa fled for refuge to neighboring Karnataka, but in the wake of the major uprising against British rule in India in 1857 an African named Siddi Bastian led a group of fellow Siddis and Kanarese (indigenous Indians from Karnataka) in a sustained campaign against European forces. For almost two years, maroons under Bastian's command looted and burned British and Portuguese settlements along the border of Goa. There are an estimated 18,000 Siddis living in Karnataka, mostly descendants of maroons (runaway slaves) from Goa beginning in the 16th century and continuing through the 19th. Their communities encompass about 10 settlements, each with between five and 40 houses, organized into an association.

Music, quilting

Music has always been an important part of the Habshi tradition. During the era of the Nizams, the music of the Habshis strongly reflected their role as protectors of the Nizams. A couple of traditional African dances were popular, one involved waving swords and spears and swirling with a percussion accompaniment. In contemporary Habshi dances, a constant drumbeat serves as the base rhythm. Another dance is called "Zubu", and performed while roasting an animal on an open fire. The animal was tied to a pole and cooked over a fire while the male dancers circled around it, dancing and singing to the beat of drums. This dance is also known as the "Africa Duff."

Quite famous are the Siddi Kawandi handmade patchwork quilts.  Walking through a Siddi village in Karnataka, one sees a colorful array of quilts draped over fences, hung on lines or spread on low roofs to be aired and dried in the sun. These are made by an unusually challenging process and have a distinctive style that sets them apart from those of other groups.

As you have read, Siddis and Habshis still survive in isolation, far away from their roots and birthlands, in many places, and today their inbreeding has reduced, and many of them are slowly integrating with the mainstream. For most Indians, who have no knowledge of them, or their mercenary history, I hope this will provide some background.

The Kappriri slaves of Cochin
The African diaspora in the Indian Ocean - edited by Shihan de S. Jayasuriya, Richard Pankhurst
Shaping membership, Defining Nation – Pashingtion Obeng
The African presence in Asia – Joseph E. Harris
African Elites in India – Habshi Amarat – Kenneth X. Robbins & John Mcleod
Sultan Razia, her life and times – Jamila Brijbhushan
The Habshis - Astair Gebremariam Mengesha
The Last King in India Wajid Ali Shah, 1822-1887 - Llewellyn-Jones, Rosie