Siddis - A peaceful community oppressed, exploited trying to get into mainstream

By Florine Roche

Nov 2: A melting pot of diverse customs, traditions, castes, communities, religions and ethnic groups, India is known for its unity in diversity and diversity in unity. One need not traverse hundreds of miles to get to know the real flavor of this diversity. For every 20 kms, one can find change in the customs, traditions, beliefs, food habits and even in the language adding to India’s unique and vibrant culture.

The physically beautiful and culturally rich district of Uttara Kannada has many feathers in its shining cap. Apart from its lush forests, flat topped hills, perennial waterfalls and pristine pearly beaches the district the many tribal communities of the district have played a pivotal role in enriching its already rich and diverse culture. Their culture, customs, rich folklore, rituals traditions perfectly assimilated with the local culture making Uttara Kannada a conundrum of assorted culture.

One can find ethnic communities like the Siddis, Halakki Okkaligas, Gaulis, Kunabis, Gondasand many other communities in many parts of the 12 taluks that form North Kanara district. Among them, the 40,000 odd Siddis is a major ethnic group which have made Uttara Kannada their home for more than 500 years now. These Siddis are spread over the forest areas Yellapur, Mundagodu, Haliyala, Joida, Ankola and Sirsi taluks of Uttara Kannada district. In the course of my official work, I met and interacted with many of them and realized that the community still remains economically, socially and educationally backward and marginalized.

Looks do matter

This ethnic community attracts our attention at the first glance because physically they resemble the Africans with their thick lips, broad mouth, curly hair, dark skin colour and robust body structure. Those who are unaware that Uttara Kannada is their hometown even mistake them to be Africans but in Indian clothes, speaking local languages like Konkani, Kannada and Marathi mix just like the locals. Till recently people used to call them as ‘Africas Kapri’ or ‘African monkey’ and even today there are instances of people questioning their ‘Indian-ness’. Siddis have taken such jibes and innuendos in their strides and even after being inhabitants of India for over five odd centuries they face suspicious and discriminating gazes wherever they go. In the prevailing circumstances the Siddis found the forests of Uttara Kannada as safe havens and these forests became their home and also their source of livelihood.

It was the Portuguese, Arabs and Dutch who were into slave trade brought the Siddis from East African forests to Goa as slaves during the 15th century. When they left Goa, the Siddis were left behind and they took shelter in the forest areas of Uttara Kannada. There are conflicting reports on how the name Siddi derived. Of course most Siddis are oblivious of their past and their ancestry and simply believe the word Siddi means the community which is ready (Sidha) to do any work considering that they are adept in alltypes of work. According to one theory the word derived from ‘sahibi’, an Arabic term of respect in North Africa, similar to the word ‘sahib’ in India.

Another theory says the name Siddi is derived from the title ‘Sayyid’ which was the name of the captains of the ships which brought them to the shores of India. Subrahmanya Bhat, a Kannada professor in Manchikeri Government Junior College has done extensive research on the Siddis and his narrative is nothing short of a poignant reminder of the struggles, hardships, exploitation, injustice, prejudices, discrimination, racism and humiliation suffered all these years. The dismal conditions in which they have been living all these years deprived of basic education, proper shelter, clothing and other social and economic benefits of the government clearly show that we have failed miserably in providing minimum basic facilities to the weaker sections.

Safer in dense forests

Prashanth Bhat of Dongri in Ankola taluk who has worked closely with the Siddis says, “When the Portuguese left the shores of India, the Siddis who were left behind here found solace in the quiet environs of the forests of Uttara Kannada. They tried to be away from civilized world because of the constant derision they faced at every step. It is a paradox that these people scared of civilization and also the civilized people but they are not frightened of the thick and deserted forests or the forest animals.” As a result their livelihood was based primarily on forest products like harvesting honey, hunting, making baskets, making chairs or cots and other artisan products.

Their dependence of forests deprived them of education and that proved to be their undoing. The constant jibes in schools, poverty and the step-motherly attitude dissuaded the Siddis from attending schools. Deyog Bosthyamv Siddi of Haliyala taluk which is one of the major hamlets of Siddis has now taken up the mantle of leadership of Siddis. He says “The school atmosphere was not encouraging for Siddis. I remember how I was hit on the head with a thick rod by the teacher when some other student had complained against me. My entire head reeled and I could see stars due to the impact and I felt so helpless. The teachers were never kind to us and we were punished for no mistakes or even for the silliest mistakes”. There was exploitation even in other forms says Deyog. Siddis have been able to maintain their 

original features mainly because there haven’t been inter caste marriages. “There was exploitation everywhere. Our women were exploited but we could not dare even look at other women.”

Having settled in the forests going to schools was not easy and their poor financial status was an impediment and the Siddis remained educationally, socially, economically and politically backward. When the forest products could not sustain them the Siddis took to agriculture working in the fields of those who had lands and farms. They were badly in need of work and the hapless Siddis became easy targets of exploitation. They were used as bonded labourers, paid very low wages despite working long hours and even their children were made to work long hours. The forest products they made were bought for low rates and much time it is the middleman who enjoyed the fruits of their hard work. As Prashanth Bhat says “The Siddis were in need of work to stay away from hunger and the only alternative was to work for the landlords who used to own huge farms. In return they could avert their hunger but could not improve their economic condition. Many remained as bonded laborers as they could not come out of the vicious circle of poverty. In the process of working with the landlords the Siddis began to imbibe the cultural aspects of the locals.”

Damami - More than a music instrument

Though Siddis have given up their original culture, language and customs by adopting local language, food and dressing, they were always treated as outsiders, something which the Siddis could not digest considering that they have given everything for the country they live. They have given up their original culture, customs and habits to assimilate with the local culture. The only aspect they have retained of their original culture is the use of ‘Damami’ a musical instrument which they use to display their happiness, sorrows, trepidations and during celebrations. No Siddi festivities or celebrations are complete without the Damami. Team leader of Sanskaritik Kala Vedike Juliana Pedru Fernandes points out, “It is the very sound of Damami that makes us we feel we are one whatever might be the religion we practice. During the annual festival of worshipping Siddinyas we come together and celebrate. We dance all through the night to the tunes of Damami. Dance is a must for all Damami beats and every Siddi child learns to play the Damami and also dance.” Their allegiance to Damami can be attributed to the fact that it was the sound of Damami that made the Siddis relate to one another during their turbulent voyage to India in ships, says Deyog Bosthyamv Siddi.

Subrahmanya Bhat points out that the Siddis still consume red ants also called in local parlance as ‘Sauli’ which they grind and make chutney. “Siddi women able to get back to their routine within three days of the child birth because of the red ant chutney they consume and this practice is prevalent among Siddis even today,” he says.

Shining diamonds of sports

The physical structure and their capacity to do any kind of work hard has been the major strength of the Siddis. Their endurance to perform any kind of menial work even with meager food is a major boon to the Siddis. This quality of Siddis was recognized especially at a time when African athletes began to make waves in long distance races in the international fora in the mid 80’s. In 1987 with the initiative of Margaret Alva, the then sports minister, a Special Area Games Programme was started to groom sports talent among Siddis in Karnataka and Gujarath considering their African genetics. Many young Siddi children were selected and groomed and some Siddis like Mary, Siddi, Juje Jackie, Mingel Siddi and others were able to shine at the national level whereas Kamala Siddi went on to win medal at the Asia level.
Despite the success, the scheme came to an abrupt end in 1992-93. According to hushed whispers, it is said that the innocent Siddi girls were exploited in the hostels and hence the scheme had to be stopped though it is still not clear why the scheme was stopped.

Kamala Siddi

Kamala Siddi who now works for the railways talks about the discrimination she faced even in the sports field. She says, “There were athletes who questioned our Indian-ness and many used to chide us with comments aimed at demoralizing us. But our coaches protected us from such insinuations motivating us only to concentrate on our events. However, it is true that sports gave a complete new life to many Siddis including me.” Kamala’s daughters are now continuing the sports legacy of their mother.

As the special area programme yielded desired results in sports efforts are still on to pick sports talent from among the Siddis and groom them. Juje Jacki Hanodkar, who was one of the beneficiaries of this special scheme and works Mumbai in central governments’ Provident Fund office also coaches Siddi children and is channelising his efforts to bring a medal for India in Athletics in 2024 Olympics. India’s last medal in athletics in Olympics was in 1900 and Juje is bent upon filling that one quarter of a century’s vacuum. “Siddis have the natural stamina and their structure is made up for athletics. With some extra efforts, I hope we will be able to win a medal for India in Athletics in 2024 and we have been making earnest preparation for this,” Juje says.

The Siddis have been included in the list of Scheduled Tribe in 2003 and education has also brought in some changes for the better. Let us hope the Siddis will be able to come out of the shackles of poverty and discrimination by showing their true potential and contribute to our rich cultural heritage.


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Comment on this article

  • Jossie Mascarenhas, Bajpe / Dubai

    Fri, Nov 10 2017

    Wow, what an article !

    Florine, you sure have a super flair for research and documentary journalism. We should be proud of you being in Konkani Community.

    Thanks and may all your future projects succeed.

    DisAgree Agree [1] Reply Report Abuse

  • John B. Monteiro, b

    Mon, Nov 06 2017

    Dear Florine: Very sharp well-focused article with appropriate visuals. Whatever more positive comments I could make have already been made by persons better qualified than me. My only prayer is that some relief comes to the community from this projection. More power to your pen (or is it keyboard?).

    DisAgree [2] Agree [8] Reply Report Abuse

  • Gerald O F Fernandes, Mangalore/Ireland

    Sat, Nov 04 2017

    Thank you very much to Mrs Florine Roche for this beautiful article introduced the SIDDI community from Uttara Kannada. While going through the article I recollected a person pride of the SIDDI community and all in all the christian community of Karnataka state as well. By nick name HALI YAL NEGRO his real name is "AGNELLO aka BLACK SPIDER" a well known, well built ,very energetic wrestler GRECO-ROMAN STYLE who won many many titles like KARNATAKA KESARI and GOLD MEDALS in our state during early 1970's. I was his fan inspired by his wrestling bout, within no time he used to beat his opponent wrestler that was his tactics. He was famous for wrestling in our state as well as Kholapur of Maharashtra. The said period late Devaraj Urs was the CM of karnataka was fond of wrestling art. During his tenure as a CM there was a great encouragement of wrestling profession in our state. Agnello was a famous fight compositor in Kannada movies especially for late actor Udaya kumar and M P Shanker. Since may years I lost the clue of his whereabouts!

    DisAgree [1] Agree [10] Reply Report Abuse

  • Rudolf Rodrigues, Mumbai

    Fri, Nov 03 2017

    In fact forest life is much better than city life with all it's rat race stressors n endemic/chronic life threatening lifestyle diseases like CHD, diabetes, CA, etc.

    Many people, fed up with the city life prefer to settle in the hills admist mother nature!!

    DisAgree [2] Agree [7] Reply Report Abuse

  • Vincent Rodrigues, Bengaluru/Katapadi

    Fri, Nov 03 2017

    Good effort and Siddis deserve it,All the best

    DisAgree [1] Agree [9] Reply Report Abuse

  • Noel Pereira, Mangalore/Toronto

    Fri, Nov 03 2017

    The article enlightening. Private/charitable/govt agencies should open schools and business in developing the Siddi community. I never knew what the local song meant" siddi war siddi jokulena buddhi...Now I understand where they came from.

    DisAgree [2] Agree [6] Reply Report Abuse

  • Henry Mathias, Kinnigoli

    Thu, Nov 02 2017

    Dear Madam Florine Roche,
    Thank you very much for the excellent article on the Siddis of North Kanara. It is really sad to hear that they prefer the wilderness of the forest to the town life because of the discrimination by the so called educated people. Hope your article/documentary opens the eyes of the government to provide them opportunity to lead decent lives.

    Henry and Jacintha mathias , Kinnigoli

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  • Divya, Mangalore

    Thu, Nov 02 2017

    We need these kind of articles for the progress of our country .. Really appreciate Florine for such a great article ..

    DisAgree [1] Agree [8] Reply Report Abuse

  • Dr Mohan Prabhu, LL.D, QC, Mangalore (Kankanady)/Ottawa, Canada

    Thu, Nov 02 2017

    A very well written article, well researched, evoking a lot of sympathy and concern for the Siddis. These are forgotten people born in India with roots going back five centuries. Although the Portuguese brought them in as slaves, they were abandoned, just as they did in South America, thus creating new communities of forgotten people. Is there a recognition of the Siddis in the Constitution as SC/ST/OBCs - whatever the last term comprises? I don't know if there is scope for inclusion of Siddis in the Schedule at least as OBCs, but hope they can be so recognized so that all the benefits currently reaped by the other Dalits and scheduled tribes etc. are available to them, and they can come down from the hills and forests and become part of the mainstream.
    I can well understand the predicament of the Siddi community because, in a similar context, the Goan Christians (the present day Mangalorean Catholics) who migrated to South Canara were similarly considered as "foreign" people for several decades (were called "ferangis") because of their culture, language (Konkani), creed, etc., and the locals shunned them; eventually they were accepted and became vibrant and progressive members of the community. There is a "fertile soil" for the Christian missionaries here to uplift them, as they are doing now and have done in the past centuries, and eventually they will form their own caste and will be allowed to live their own life but, I am afraid, discrimination which is inborn in human beings, will continue for many more decades.

    DisAgree [4] Agree [12] Reply Report Abuse

  • Robin Konkani, Mumbai/Mississauga

    Thu, Nov 02 2017

    Hi Mohan,

    I would like to point out that in addition to Konkanis with Christian faith, Konkanis with Hindu or any other faith too migrated to other Konkan regions (area of claim also mentioned in ancient scriptures) on the west coast of India due to oppression by foreigners of alien faiths and ideologies.

    It's ironical that faith is many times misunderstood for a race/community but but this is a separate discussion altogether. As long we Konkanis are resilient and ready to integrate with the masses, we will be prosper.


    Robin Konkani.

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  • Dr Mohan Prabhu, LL.D, QC, Mangalore (Kankanady)/Ottawa, Canada

    Fri, Nov 03 2017

    Thank you Robin Konkani of Mumbai/Mississauga for your comment. I know that Goan Hindus also migrated en masse at the same or different times, but that because Konkani Christians were treated differently from Konkani Hindus, there was no need to mention the latter.

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  • Joe Gonsalves, Mangalore

    Thu, Nov 02 2017

    A very well written article. Florine has indeed made a very good research on THE SIDDIS. They are predominantly present in North Kanara and other parts of Karnataka. A hardy and hard working race.

    We must give credit to The Jesuit Fathers who are working for uplift of this race in North Kanara (Uttara Kannada) One of the predominant donor and supporter of this good cause was late Dr. Ramchandra Rao from Montreal and Mr. Edgar D'Souza.

    Hope The Central Government comes forward to help these helpless people.

    DisAgree [5] Agree [16] Reply Report Abuse

  • vnayak, Mangalore/Switzerland

    Thu, Nov 02 2017

    I saw a short clip in an NDTV episode of Rocky and Mayur an interview with Siddis in Gujarat. Even after 400 years they have not forgotten their roots. They have blended their original music and dances with Indian ones very well. Some of them even spoke a few words in Swahili. They are an excellent example of blending Indian and African cultures.

    DisAgree [3] Agree [15] Reply Report Abuse

  • GM, manglore

    Thu, Nov 02 2017

    Just see the natural smiles on their faces. How happy they are in their difficult lives.

    DisAgree [3] Agree [21] Reply Report Abuse

  • naresh, kodial

    Thu, Nov 02 2017

    Devu Baren Koro...Florine baai.. Good work done and they feel so supportive in your presence. All other readers are bzzyy in commenting political issues here. Jai Konkani...

    DisAgree [5] Agree [38] Reply Report Abuse

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