A beautiful patch of Africa on Indian soil
The Siddhis own a daring history of survival. Shipped to India as slaves from Africa in the colonial era, their forefathers escaped from captivity to the forests of Karnataka. Their descendants still thrive on Indian soil, bearing the beautiful traits of African ethnicity. An unplanned trip to the land of Siddhis.
From Dandeli, I hopped on a bus to watch Sathod falls. After wandering the whole of Dandeli on a motorbike, I was terribly worn out and dozed off the moment I touched the seat of the bus. I couldn’t fight back the sleep despite the enchanting surroundings outside the window. Quite unexpectedly, I slipped into a dream. An African terrain brightened up on the screen: An unending mud road crawled through a vast expanse of vacant land. An innocent child came into the focus-- a bubbly girl in a frock with lovely tufts of unusually curly hair. She was on her way to school, holding her mother's hand.
My bus halted somewhere. Children jostled together and filled the bus with infectious vigor, the air was animated with their hustle. All were having quite telling African traits as if my earlier dream was playing out its remaining scenes there at that bus stop. They smiled, the charming beautiful smiles, their beautiful white teeth set against their dark skin and to top it all the spring-like hair. I smiled back and tried hard to forge a friendship with them with small queries but language problems didn't allow me to make much progress.
I climbed out of the bus at Yellapur. There also, it was not different; a lot many Africans. I tried to get in terms with what I had seen and decided to clarify my doubts and talked to some girls who looked to be educated. They are the tribal people of Karnataka with Siddhi origin. Centuries ago, they were brought here, as slaves by the Portuguese. Some of them managed to escape to the forests. Their descendants are now living in Karnataka and Gujarat. Yellappur in Karnataka is virtually their world.
I decided to inquire about these people at the local police station before going to the bed. Anyway, I have packed off myself to roam around, I thought. Hence, it is always better to leave some traces behind. At the police station, a huge Siddhi man was squatting there in the front. A woman who carries a baby and her parents were standing there not very far from him, like an army waiting to barge on the enemy country. Saji, my photographer who could manage a few words in Kannada talked to them and elicited what had been going on there; that young woman, had filed a complaint against her husband, the huge Siddhi, for domestic violence. Then, the police asked both the parties to present themselves at the station.
This is the problem here. Majority of the men drink heavily and create scenes at home. Anyway, we will introduce a head of a Siddhi village to you, told a policeman and rang up a person and handed over the phone to us. The man at the other end of the phone promised he would arrange everything — a photo session and a chance to know the life in the village — next day.
We reached a Siddhi village which is five kilometers away from Yellappur next morning. Meanwhile, we managed to track down a person who is Saji’s friend’s relative. Then our trip was on his motorcycle. We went straight to the house of the village head. But he was not there; he had gone to a hospital to meet somebody who had been undergoing treatment following an injury. Irrespective of this, we stepped into the house. We used our pathetic Kannada to the maximum use and were getting to know each other. Saji clicked some photos.
But suddenly, the villagers began to gather around the house. Within no time, their temperament and attitude changed; despite we introducing ourselves as journalists. Hushed murmurs filled the air, and a few more minutes, the air was thickened with a severe reprimand, voices feverishly sought us, the scene was turning hostile, we sensed something had gone wrong. " Hmm, you media people and governments… all are cheating us. We don't want it; you taking our photos and making money out of it,” said a young man who was idly sitting inside his house watching all these so far. He came out and cautioned us to leave the place immediately. Don't put all those pictures in your newspaper, he warned. Following his stern voice, the women who were watching it all in silence till then also began to raise their sound. We glanced towards the sickle and machete hanging idly on the wall of the houses. If we had stayed any further, we should have lost the photos and in the worst case, the camera would have ended up as a logical calamity. It was better to be off with ourselves.
Very quickly, we two stuffed ourselves behind our friend's bike and sped away from there. On our way, we saw a Siddhi student riding pillion on a bicycle; he was on his way to his school. Another boy, obviously, an upper caste one was riding the cycle. As we took the camera out, the cyclist quickly figured out what was going to happen and he pedaled with all his strength, the cycle sped. His Siddhi friend sat behind trying hard to cover his face from us, denying us a photo op. Even in that situation, I couldn't but respect the resilience of his friend to save the Siddhi boy from the curiosity of a journalist to exhibit his friend as a showpiece to the world.
We reached back Yellapur. All our efforts to know a Siddhi Village and life at closely had miserably been fallen flat. A bit impatient at this, we headed to another colony without much delay. That was also not very far from Yellapur, just five kilometers. That time we were wiser, we decided to conceal our identity as media persons and instead, decided to introduce ourselves as filmmakers from Kerala. We convinced them that we were about to make a film based on Siddhi life and the village and had traveled all the way up there to know and hear about the village. Our cinema trick worked; even a revolutionary would fall for cinema!
Exactly because of that, we were accorded a very warm welcome there. They received us inside their houses and showed old photos and all. And they took us to the house of the village head. The police ‘install’ a person as the village head for each village. They would handle all the minor law and order issues. Only those cases that develop into serious proportions defying the jurisdictional powers of the village head will only be taken to the police station. The head was also much impressed when the villagers introduced us as filmmakers. He also didn't forget to impress us by displaying his artistic skills. He also fished out his pictures, while he toured India to perform a tribal dance programme. And finally, he told us the things he knew about Siddhis.
There are around 50,000 Siddhis living in India. The descendants of the African origin people who fled to the forests in Karnataka some 400 years back are spread over in the northern Kannada region like Yellapur, Haliyal, Angola, Joyda, Mundagod, Sirsi, Kanapur, Belgam, Kalgatti, Darvad. Still, some others migrated to Karachi and Sindh in Pakistan post Independence. Siddhi originated from the Arabi word 'Sayyid' meaning master. In northern Africa, people address each Siddhi with respect. In India, the word denotes African origin people in general. Majority of those came here from North Africa, especially from Mozambique. Those people came here as slaves.
Among them, those who were freed during the Goan trial and others who were managed to escape from captivity found shelter in the forests. Now, they believe in different religions; Hindu, Islam and Roman Catholicism -- all sorts of beliefs exist. But one singular strand of belief still unites them all -- the belief in souls. They talk Kannada, Hindi, and Marathi. It is estimated that there are around 3,700 Siddhi families in Karnataka.
Finally, we’ll give you route map to the place. Hubli is the nearest railway station - 71kms. If you start the trip from Kerala, then it is better to hop down at Kumda or Karvar. It is about 80-100 km. It is 288 km from Mangalore. By car, you have to drive 518kms. Sathod Falls and Magod waterfalls are the nearest tourist attractions.
Translated by Madhuban Geeth