Jambur, India's African Community

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Sufis, Sidis and Saints
They are known as Sidi, derived from the Arabic for mister or lord
More than 2,000 years ago, the sailors of Gujarat in western India learned that if they set sail at the right time of the year, a strong and steady wind would take them to a distant land hundreds of kilometres away over the ocean.

Then, after six months, the wind would switch direction and just as easily take the Gujarati boats back home again.

The returning ships carried goods and people, and eventually turned the coastal Indian state into a wealthy centre of intercontinental trade.

Many Gujaratis chose to settle in that distant land, where their descendants still live today. Likewise, many people travelled in the opposite direction.

"Africans came here as merchants, adventurers, labourers, slaves and also as soldiers," says Dr Ababu Minda Yinene, an Ethiopian anthropologist working in India.

"They brought with them their musical instruments, drumming in the ships, dancing, singing, doing the religious practices that they were doing in Africa, even falling into trances in the ships," Ababu says.

Unmistakably African

It seems most Africans had no problem marrying locals, their offspring integrating and disappearing into mainstream society.

Of the several million who, historians believe, came to India, there are a few traces left today.

 It is like any other Indian village - the women wear colourful saris, the men chew a potent mix of tobacco and spices, and the children play cricket.

History books recount stories of successful African soldiers and powerful kings; tourists can visit some awe-inspiring mosques and castles they built and Indians of all creeds and castes worship at the grave of an African saint.

But after centuries in India, there remain some communities that are unmistakably African - in physical appearance and in their musical and religious practices.

They call themselves the Sidi, derived from an Arabic word meaning mister or lord.

One Sidi village is Jambur, several kilometres inland from the Gujarat coastline.

"All the people here were brought from Africa," village elder Hassan Bhai told me. "They came all the way from Africa in olden times, and they went on increasing one by one."

Today they number about 500, making Jambur one of the largest communities of the descendants of Africans in India.

In most respects it is like any other Indian village. The women wear colourful saris, the men chew a potent mix of tobacco and spices, and the children play cricket.

They all speak the Gujarati language and eat dal and chapati (split-pea stew and bread).

Jambur's Sidis cultivate the limited land available to them, but also make a living labouring and selling firewood.

Masters of the damaal

Their drumming, dancing and singing all derive from Africa

Like most Sidis, the people of Jambur are Sufi Muslims. They worship a local saint, who died 800 years ago. He is known as Nagarchi Baba, meaning Drum Master.

Every evening, Jambur's living drum masters gather at the small mosque in the centre of the village.

The ten or so men then sing and play their way up to the mosaic-tiled shrine to their saint, which is on a small hill outside Jambur's walls.

They are led by Yunis, who is blind. "The damaal (drum) was made in Africa. It is passed on from father to son. The damaal is in the blood. It is God-given," he says.

By the time they reach the shrine, a large crowd of village folk and worshippers from as far away as India's commercial capital, Mumbai, has gathered.

The dancing gets faster and reminds me of nightclubs in DR Congo's capital Kinshasa, where I lived until a few years ago. Money is stuck onto the sweaty faces of the performers.

The crowd starts chanting "Bava Gor", the name of the Sidi's most important saint, believed to have been a rich Nigerian bead merchant and holy man, who travelled to India along the coast of the Arabian Sea. There are shrines to him in towns across western India.

The spirit of Nagarchi Baba

Then the bearded priests, who have been smoking hashish in wooden chillum pipes, arrive.

One is possessed by the spirit of Nagarchi Baba. He blesses us with perfumed smoke and a brush of peacock feathers.

Worshippers wash in holy water; others give coconuts as offerings to their saint. The grave is decorated with red rose petals and orange marigold flowers.

Their rituals are a combination of African and Sufi practices

The scene is a mix of cultures and religions: Indian and African; Sufi Islam and Hinduism.

"In Zanzibar you find the same kind of practice," Ababu, the anthropologist, explains. "This drumming, spirit possession and going into trance is a combination of African and Sufi practices."

Despite these strong cultural and historical links to Africa, the people of Jambur have little knowledge of where they come from.

Experts believe their roots, like those of all Sidis, are spread across eastern and southern Africa.

Some came from Angola and Mozambique and served in the Portuguese colonial army which had a base on the island of Diu, just off the Gujarat coast.

Few of the Sidis know this, and their history is not taught in any schools.

As village elder Hassan Bhai explains, "Those who knew about Africa have all died."

Compared to the fate of Africans taken as slaves to the New World, the history of Africans in India is still largely unknown.
There are small communities like Jambur scattered along India's west coast. They are the home to the descendants of Africans who were brought to the subcontinent as slaves. Many others travelled as mercenaries, merchants and sailors.
Sea trade between east and southern Africa, and Gujarat in India was established more than 2,000 years ago.

Some historians think millions of Africans crossed the ocean.
The African-Indians are called Shidis.
One of the strongest remaining links they have to their roots is the damaal or drum. Otherwise Sidi culture is not significantly different to that of other poor, rural Indians.
"The damaal comes from Africa," explains Yunus, a blind man who is the chief drummer of Jambur. "The skill of playing has been passed down from father to son. It is a gift from God," he says.

Song and dance
Every evening Yunus leads Jambur's musicians and dancers to a shrine outside the village.
Like most Sidis, the people of Jambur are Sufi Muslims, who believe God is worshipped through song and dance.
Anthropologists believe the dancers' ecstatic performances are a combination of traditional African worship and Indian Sufi practices.

Pilgrims give money to the village's musicians.
This dancer stuffs the bank notes in his mouth.

Sidis and Indian Muslims come from hundreds of kilometres away to worship at the shrine at Jambur.
Some hope for miracles.
Women who are unable to conceive are brought here to be cured of infertility. Families who believe their sons have been possessed by evil spirits think they can be cured of mental illness.
Some, like this young man who has joined the dancers, are brought in chains, which have cut his wrists.

The shrine in Jambur houses the tomb of a saint known as Nagarchi Baba - Drum Master.
The Sidis say he was an Arab who visited Africa some 900 years ago, before settling in India.
The Sidis also worship another Sufi saint at the shrine, known as Bava Gor, a Nigerian bead merchant.
The priests are possessed by the spirits of the saints and bless the worshippers.

Jambur is an impoverished village. The people work as labourers for neighbouring farmers. They also receive help from the government under an affirmative action programme for poor communities.
Jambur was settled by the families of Sidi soldiers of the former ruler, or Nawab, of the area.
Many of India's kings and princes recruited Africans as their personal bodyguards, servants and musicians. In some parts of the country Sidis even rose to be powerful generals or kings themselves.

Hassan Bhai says his forefathers came from Mozambique to serve in Portugal's colonial army which controlled a nearby port. But most Sidis have little idea of where their families came from.
"The children don't know anything about Africa because those who knew about Africa have died," Hassan says.



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