India’s African heritage
In light of recent violence against African nationals, it's worth revisiting the historical links between India and Africa
First Published: Sat, Apr 15 2017. 11 23 PM IST
To the average Indian, the name Sachin evokes only awe and admiration. And the second part of this famous name needs no telling. But Sachin is more than just the name of a person, it is also the name of a former princely state. Located close to Surat, it has an unusual history. A history that bears remembering in the light of recent events targeting Africans in India.
India’s African-ruled kingdoms
Founded in 1791, Sachin was one of the many princely states in the Gujarat region. A mere 127 sq. km in area and with a population of a little more than 20,000, it did not quite capture the imagination like Hyderabad or Mysore. But a minor detail about the ethnicity of its nawab is of particular interest. The nawabs of Sachin were of Ethiopian (Abyssinian) descent—Siddis, in the local parlance.
Tracing their ancestry back to the soldiers who were part of Babur’s invading army, it is no small wonder that these descendants of ordinary soldiers rose to such prominence that they could actually rule over not one, but two kingdoms in the region, both of which survived up to Independence.
Further south from Sachin, off the coast of Raigad, is the island of Janjira. This island, along with a couple of other mainland areas constituted the kingdom of Janjira again ruled by Siddis of African descent. Bigger than Sachin in area (830 sq. km) and population (110,000), Janjira was sizeable enough and powerful enough to actually have a vassal state—Jafrabad in the Kathiawar peninsula.
Founded in 1489 by an African trader, Janjira was for a long time in the 15th and 16th centuries a vassal of the Bijapur sultanate. Ottoman Turk records mention that the combined forces of the Ottomans and Janjira routed a Portuguese fleet off Yemen in 1589. There are other mentions too of Ottoman-Janjira cooperation—an indication that the state and its rulers counted for something in medieval times.
Later, the Mughals become the overlords of this kingdom. Following the waning influence of the Mughals in 18th century, the state allied with Jafrabad in 1759 before entering into an alliance with the British in 1799. That Janjira and Sachin were able to exist as independent kingdoms owes something to a formidable personality called Malik Ambar (1548-1626).
The remarkable career of Malik Ambar
Born in Ethiopia and sold into slavery at a young age, Malik rose to a prominent position in the Ahmadnagar sultanate. While we do know that as a child, Malik was first sold to an individual in Yemen, moved to Baghdad, then Mecca and finally ended up in or around Ahmadnagar, the finer details of his rise are lost in the sands of time. Interestingly though, his rise echoes the rise of the eunuch slave, Malik Kafur (?-1316) in the time of Ala-ud-din Khilji.
A popular prime minister, Malik Ambar maintained a force of 3,000 men and fought off the mighty Mughals and curbed their desire to incorporate the Deccan into their growing empire. Like Shivaji who came after him, he did so by engaging the Mughals in guerilla warfare. A painting of the time shows Jahangir taking aim at Malik Ambar’s head, which indicates that he was quite a thorn in the Mughals’ side.
Towards the end of his life, however, Malik Ambar chose to ally with the Mughals. The fort of Janjira was a Malik Ambar construction. It was a fort that Shivaji attempted to occupy, but was fought off by troops under the Siddi ruler of Janjira. Malik Ambar also founded the town of Khirki which later rose to prominence under Aurangazeb and was renamed Aurangabad.
Africans in medieval India
History records two other areas in India which were for a time under rulers of African descent. Adoni in the Rayalseema region of Andhra Pradesh was under an African dynasty began by an Abyssinian merchant, Siddi Masood Khan. The dynasty ruled from roughly around 1565-70 till 1686. Nominally part of the Bijapur sultanate, it came to an end when Aurangzeb defeated the sultanate.
An Abyssinian by the name of Barbak Shahzada laid the foundation stone of the Habshi dynasty in Bengal in 1487, and became its first ruler under the name of Ghiyath-al-Din Firuz Shah. Overcome in 1493, the Habshis of Bengal left behind one prominent monument, the Firuz Minar in Gaur in today’s Malda district, bordering Bangladesh. By 1493, the Habshi sultans had been knocked off their perch by other contenders to the throne.
But much before the nawabs of Sachin, Janjira, the rulers of Adoni and Bengal and Malik Ambar himself lived Jamal-ud-din Yaqut, who briefly shot to prominence in the time of Razia Sultana (1236-1240). An Abyssinian slave, he rose through the ranks, found favour with Razia and became her close adviser.
Rumours abounded in Razia’s court that Yaqut was her lover too. These rumours eventually resulted in a rebellion in which Yaqut was killed. In a remarkable twist, Razia went on to marry Altunia, the leader of the rebellion. Later still, Razia and Altunia were killed by Razia’s brother, Bahram Shah, another claimant to the throne.
Yaqut today lives on as one character in an interesting tale of love and revenge, but clearly, he was much more than that. To rise to such prominence albeit briefly would not have been possible unless he was a person of remarkable ability.
Modern-day Indians of African descent
Besides the descendants of the Nawabs of Sachin and Janjira, another present-day interesting African-Indian connection is in the form of the Siddis found mostly in Karnataka and Gujarat.
Bantu by origin and descended from soldiers of armies of yore and escaped slaves who founded communities in remote forested areas, the Siddis today constitute a distinct community in these two states.
Most Indian Siddis are Muslim or Christian, while a small number have adopted Hindu practices. The Siddis of Gujarat have adopted many local customs, but have retained the drumming and dance forms of their African ancestors. Some Gujarati Siddis look upon Malik Ambar as a patron saint of the community.
The Siddis of Karnataka are largely to be found in the north-western parts of the state, bordering Goa. Like the Siddis of Gujarat, they too have adopted many local customs. Besides these two communities, a small community of African descent is also to be found in the city of Hyderabad, descended from guards employed by the erstwhile Nizam of Hyderabad.
In Pakistan, Siddis (Sheedis in the local parlance) are to be found in Karachi and the Makran coast of Balochistan. The Sheedis are divided into four clans, or houses: Kharadar Makan, Hyderabad Makan, Lassi Makan and Belaro Makan. The Sufi saint Pir Mangho is regarded by many as the patron saint of the Sheedis.
The attacks on African in recent times are in stark contrast to the historical ties that bind Africa and India. It is a history that has slipped under the surface, but worth reclaiming given recent events.
Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer. Views are personal.
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