“Around the World in 80 Days” is nothing compared to Katchh and Saurashtra in 5 days. 3 major heritage sights on Day 1: Modhera’s Surya Mandir (11th century CE), Rani ki Vav: biggest and best stepwell preserved (also 11th CE) found in 1967, and Dholavira: a larger Harppan civilization (~5,000 years old) than Lothal or Mohenjodaro! Whew 16 hrs of travel and amazing memories, including hundreds of thousands of pink flamingos in a temporary lake in the desert of Kutchh!
I was going to write more about these historic sites and their stories but another day from this hectic schedule stands out more prominently in my mind’s eye.
Day 4 In Sasan Gir in an Ecotel opened just a month ago in Oct. 2011. Our doorman is an African smartly dressed in black and white jungle print outfit and cap. Turns out his name is Ayub, he speaks perfect Gujarati, and is from the nearby town of Talala. That night the reception phone call informs us, there is an ethnic dance entertainment by a group of villagers. By the time we walk over, the event is in full swing. In the spacious lawn area there are musicians with drums and string instruments. A group is dancing around a fire on a cart. All are African men dressed in skirts cut to look like straw, with painted faces and cane crowns. On the perimeter in plastic chairs there is group of hotel guests, none over the age of thirty, throwing Ruppee notes on the ground and some of the dancers jump, walk on their hands, and pick up the money with their mouths. Some of the other guests are recording this. One young man tucks some notes into a dancer’s crown. The music, very basic, can hardly be heard with the noise. The rich young Indians are so self-absorbed that when we ask one of them to move a little, they take themselves, their money, and and the dancers across the fire and sit there with their personalized entertainment facing them alone.
I don’t know whom I was more upset with, the dancers or the young men and women. I knew that I was looking at a particularly interesting piece of African Indian history. I wanted to see the dance to understand what they had retained from their heritage and what they absorbed in their new homeland. But the cabaret-or-worse set up bothered me so much I got my husband to walk away with me. Later we went back and saw that the Indians were dancing the current bhangra-style garba with the dancers. The atmosphere was a little more congenial. My viewpoint had to shift to acknowledge that these young Indians brought up in an environment, where they barely lift a finger to have a glass of water served, have a a very different ethos. More importantly I recognized that the dancers were only doing whatever earned them the most money and in that respect they are no different from the young buskers on Boulder Colorado’s Pearl Street Mall or performers anywhere in the world.
We spoke briefly to their elder, a gentle man with gray hair, who said his name was Siddiqi. They were from another village called Jambur about eight kilometers away. His understanding was that they were brought here from Nigeria at least five generations earlier by a Nawab of Junagadh, said to be so concerned for his security that he wanted the brave warriors of Nigeria as his personal guards. He gave them land near the Sasan Gir Forest. Over the years they’ve integrated functionally in language and work but very rarely into the social community. Preliminary web research showed me that Talala, the name of Ayub’s village, has a counterpart in Nigeria.
I have since found there is a great deal of more academic research about African Indians and various stories of their origin, Nigeria, east Africa, or other African countries and the reasons for which they were transported to India. One such example is the weblink:[PDF]
about the Sidis, the most common name for the Africans, in which James Micklem also cites Makrand Mehta, a prominent historian and retired professor. Dr. Shirin Mehta, his wife, and he have also written widely on the Dalits in UK and India.
Another great source of information is the book, Sidis and Scholars: Essays on African Indians. Contributing authors include Helene Basu a German scholar, and Amy Caitlin-Jazirabhoy, one of the co-editors of the book. See the weblink which is devoted to intercultural education on this subject.