I was 14 when I heard about the African Sidis from my father. Several years later, during a vacation, as I travelled by road along the lower lip of Gujarat I suddenly spotted three African women crossing the road with babies on their hips; it struck me immediately that these were the Sidis my father had talked about. But I was maneuvering thick city traffic and was unable to stop and explore. I finally met the elusive Sidis last year.
In early 2010 I was in the Gir forests of Gujarat for a research and writing project when I heard about an isolated tribal village deep in the Gir. When I reached the location I found, to my utter amazement and excitement, an ancient Sidi stronghold. My guide, however, told me a more fascinating story: in the small town of Murud, 165 km (102 miles) from Mumbai, via Alibagh, there is an impregnable fort—Janjira, where the Sidis ruled for nearly four centuries! Janjira is situated on the coast of the Arabian Sea, in the District of Raigadh of Maharashtra.
Before I made the trip to Murud, I delved a little into the Sidi story.
The Sidis are the descendants of slaves, sailors, and maritime workers, forced and voluntary migrants from the East African countries of Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and later Zanzibar.
The process of enslavement, transportation, and the sale of Africans occurred through an established slave trade network in the African interior. From the African interiors they were transported into the neighboring Arab nations, which in turn sold them off to Asian as well as European countries. The process of enslavement continued till slavery was finally restrained through passing of anti-slavery laws in 1807.
The Sidi story begins in India as far back as the 1st century AD. In the 3rd century AD, the forts on the Konkan (Maharashtra) coast were the principal trade centers for Arab merchants. However, meaningful presence of the Sidis in India dates back to the 12th/13th centuries. The forced migration of Africans for purposes of slavery is incontestably the major reason for the presence of Africans in India. But much before the need and notion of enslavement of humans arose in the ancient societies, commercial compulsions prompted the people of those times to undertake numerous hazardous journeys across the seas.
The African Diaspora in India is today mostly concentrated in Gujarat, though there is a smattering of Sidis in Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh.
In the seven-odd centuries that the descendants of the African seamen and slaves have been in India, they have been completely incorporated into the Indian mainstream. But they have preserved two things from their past—their physicality and their music. Though they have been practicing intercommunity marriages, even today the Sidis have negriod features and are easily distinguishable from the rest of the locals. Their music has remained the subject of study for anthropologists, which has helped them trace the roots of these Sidis to several East African countries.
Janjira came into prominence in the late 15th or early 16th century when the Sidis became its virtual masters. After it had been ruled over by such historical greats as the Mauryas, Silharas, Chalukyas, and Yadavas, it fell into the hands of the Abyssinians or Sidis in 1490 A.D, by way of trickery against a Koli king. Malik Ambar, a powerful Abyssinian, subsequently constructed a strong stone fort there in 1567 A.D. Numerous wars were waged against the Sidis by the Marathas, Mughals, and Portuguese to wrest Janjira from them, but in vain. The Sidis proved fiercer soldiers and greater seafarers than them all. The Janjira state came to an end after 1947 with the merging of princely Indian states with the union.
I planned a winter visit, wanting to avoid the clamminess of coastal travel. Roha, 120 km (75 miles) southeast of Mumbai, on the Konkan railway, is the nearest railhead. One can also travel by road from Mumbai to Murud. Another fun route is by ferry from Mumbai to Rewas jetty, 90 minutes away, and then by bus via Alibagh and Chaul.
I learned about the ferry only after I’d rented a taxi. At Rs. 7 (15 cents) a kilometer, a taxi is not unreasonable. Alternatively, State Transport buses from Mumbai Central are available.
After a pleasant and enjoyable six hours on decent roads, we were at Murud. I had made reservations at the Golden Swan Beach Resort, which has a variety of rooms and cottages but is probably one of the more expensive options. One can also opt for the simpler Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) rooms and cottages. An interesting stay would be with residents who have rooms and shacks on rent.
No matter where you choose to stay, the beach is just a few minutes walk away. The Golden Swan Resort is on the beach itself, and even as we entered it, the sun was readying to set over the vast expanse of the sea, right ahead. The beach is fringed with betel and palm trees and all around in Murud one can hear the swishing of the casuarinas.
The young and not-so-young, in their flashy beachwear, were all darting about in an attempt to catch the exquisite drama created by the fading light over water. I managed to freeze the sight in a photograph for posterity. Later, after a little trip to the town and a beach walk, I had dinner in the cozy sit-out of the little cottage that I’d rented. I sat there spellbound by the magnificence of the vast sea before me till I was overcome by drowsiness, even as the noisy vacationers partied on.
The next day began with a splendid sunrise that entered my room through the slatted window and fanned my pillow. After breakfast it seemed like everyone in the resort was headed to the village of Rajpuri, which is 5 km (3 miles) away from Murud. Once there, we huddled into sailboats that would take us to the fort. I had to wait my turn patiently in a long queue.
Every sailboat comes equipped with self-appointed guides and we were lucky to have Sahil, the most entertaining of the lot. As we proceeded to sail across to the fort, Sahil told us that many Sidi families lived within the precincts of the fort up till 1972 and that his father had been among them. When the fort began crumbling these families moved out. The heirs of the Sidi royalty of Janjira now live mostly in Mumbai or Indore but do visit Janjira sometimes.
In the middle of Sahil’s chatter the fort loomed into view; a 40 feet tall, magnificent structure, fighting the relentless battering of the Arabian Sea all around it even today. The brackish waters of the sea have had a debilitating effect on the stone structure. As boatloads of people embarked, Sahil continued: the fort took 22 years to build and is spread over 22 acres of land. At the entrance is an inscription in Persian and a stone carving depicting a tiger engulfed by six elephants which, according to Sahil, is the emblem of the might of the Sidis. The fort is crescent shaped, with several arches. In the heydays, there were 500 cannons mounted on these arches; only three are left today. Inside the fort walls are the ruins of a mosque, and a palace and bath with water channeled from streams, telling of ancient times when royal ladies occupied the quarters. The deep well with cold and sweet water—a wonder of nature in the midst of the saline sea—still provides water to quench the thirst of the weary visitor.Gazing into the horizon from the ramparts of this magnificent fort overlooking the sea, one cannot but acknowledge its great strength that withstood a number of invasions.
In the north west of Janjira, there is another fort called Padma Durg, built by Shivaji, who made 13 unsuccessful attempts to conquer Janjira!
By the time Sahil’s story was done, we’d reached the end of the tour but my imagination continued to recreate the fort’s splendor during the Sidi rule in the region. Our largish group poured out of the tall gate and waited for a boat to unload a fresh batch of weekenders. We refilled the boat to return to Rajpuri. As I returned to Mumbai that evening, by bus this time, I tried to imagine what it must have been like during the era of Sidi supremacy and wondered about their descendants who, even today, live a diaspora existence.
Anita Kainthla has authored three books (a collection of poetry, a biography of Baba Amte, and a work on the religious and historical background of Tibet) and writes features and travelogues for magazines.