Siddis of Karnataka

Siddis of Karnataka

The Siddhis of Karnataka (Kannada: ಕರ್ನಾಟಕದ ಸಿದ್ಧಿಗಳು) are a tribe of African descent that has made Karnataka their home for the last 400 years. There is a 50,000 strong Siddhi population across India, of which more than a third live in Karnataka. In Karnataka, they are concentrated around Yellapur, Haliyal, Ankola, Joida, Mundagod and Sirsi taluks of Uttara Kannada and in Khanapur of Belgaum and Kalagatgi of Dharwad district. Their language is a mixture of Siddi Konkani and Siddi Marathi. They also speak Kannada.


The word Siddi is derived from the Arabic “sayyid” or “saydi” meaning leader or master. North African's call each other Sidi as a title of respect. All African-origin people in India were however, called ‘Siddi’ even though they were not all from North Africa. The term seems to have found currency following a description in a letter written by one William aboard the S.S.Nepal, a ship that sailed from England to South India and Ceylon. In the letter he describes the crew of the ship as "composed of seven English quarter masters and forty three lascar seamen, six English engineers, thirty-five men(Muslim) and fifteen Sidimen or negroes for coal shifters.


The majority of the Siddhis in Karnataka are descendants of Siddhi slaves who were brought from East Africa (mostly Mozambique)and Ethiopia to Goa by the Portuguese, British and the Arabs between the 16th and 19th centuries. During the Goan Inquisition, some of these slaves were freed and some escaped into the forests of the neighbouring Karnataka state. As the bulk of the Goan inquisition's records are now destroyed, a thorough reconstruction of the Siddhis' history in India and in Karnataka is very difficult. However, the few records that exist present a picture of oppression and ill treatment that the slaves were subjected to. A few of them, however, are also said to have escaped slavery. While most of them were victims of slave trade, some of them also were imported by the Nawabs in the 15th-16th centuries as military mercenaries. Others were sailors on the trade routes to the east.


Among Siddhi families in Karnataka, there are Roman Catholics, Hindus and Muslims. The Haliyal taluk has populations of Muslims and Christians while the Hindu populations are concentrated in the ghat areas of Yellapur and Ankola. These divisions in the population have hindered the development of a distinct Siddhi self-identity. Although Siddhis opt for different religions they inter marry across religions without any reservations.Hiriyaru worship The one factor which binds the Siddhis, irrespective of their religion is the Hiriyaru or ancestor worship. The dead are believed to be nearby, in the form of spirits. They are regarded as witnesses to be consulted by a family in all its concerns. On occasions like births, marriages and deaths, the ancestors are invoked. The home is organised around Hiriyaru, the spirits of departed parents. It signifies a remembrance of the parents, thanking them for their care over several years and also entreating them to keep a vigil over the family in future. It is obligatory for all relatives to attend the function, thus renewing kinship relations.

Hiriyaru worship may be performed twice a year by the 'Kartha'(head) of the family. It normally is held during the Navarathri festival in the first week of November. If this is not possible for some reason, it may also be performed in April-May during the other major festival - Holi. These obviously are not meant to coincide with the dates of the parents' deaths as the Siddis only observe the first death anniversary. Hindu Siddhis usually have elaborate functions to mark the event, but not so the Christian and Muslim Siddhis.


Almost all Siddis today subsist as agricultural and casual labourers, contractual or in some cases bonded, some also work as domestic help. The earliest Siddhi settlers who fled Goa and entered the Karnataka forests of North Canara, made the forests their home and started cultivation. In some of the villages in these areas, they form the earliest settlers.


A feature common to the Siddis of Karnataka, as also of those of Maharashtra and Goa, is that they exhibit a remarkable level of assimilation with local culture. This, in the absence of any form of force. Even the uniquely Siddi custom of Hiriyaru has adopted symbols from the local Hindu religion. Except for the racial characteristics of the tribe, there is little else that can set them apart from other native populations. Almost all the siddis in present day india are mixed indo-african The last pure siddi populations died several generations ago. They have lost their original african names and culture however they have retained some forms of african traditions in the form of dance and music.

Historical references

There are references to Siddhi palace guards in Kodagu during the reign of Dodda Veerarajendra (1763-1809) in the Kannada book Kodagina Itihasa. An account by Rev. G. Richter in 1870 also makes a note of "African bodyguards" in the service of the same king.. A Siddhi called Gajaveera is noted to have joined hands with Sangolli Rayanna in his revolt against the British in 1829-30 near Kittur. In the revolt of 1844 at Sawantwadi in the Ratnagiri district of neighbouring Maharashtra state, records show that two Siddhi brothers, Bastian and Benove, from Punsolli near Dandeli had been enlisted by Phen Sawant, a noble of the Sawantwadi court.

The first notable act of this group seems to have been their looting of a British outpost during the Supa uprising when they confiscated government funds, took many chaukidars(watchmen) captive and burnt several outposts. The leaders of the 'bundh' are said to have taken shelter in the Darshanigudda ranges and at times escaped into neighbouring Goa territory. There are also references to a formidable fight at Dandeli and one at a Somalinga temple. These activities continued for several months and the British eventually sentenced some of them. The Portuguese also deported more than a 100 of these insurgents along with the Sawant brothers and their families to the Timor Islands in the East Indies. Gunaba Shenvi, Siddi Bastian, his brother Anna Saheb and the three Phadnis brothers were still at large and in July 1859, the British offered rewards of Rs. 1000 each for their arrest. Chintoba Phadnis and Siddi Bastian were eventually killed in an encounter at Jagabet.


In India, Karnataka has the largest concentration of Siddis. According to latest estimates there are around 3,700 Siddi families in the state with a total population of 18,000. Other Siddhi populations in the sub-continent include around 10,000 in Gujarat and 12,000 in Hyderabad. A few hundreds are also in Lucknow, Delhi and Calcutta. Pakistan has some 30,000 “Shidis” and fewer than 1,000 “Ceylon Kapris” live in Sri Lanka.

Social status and rehabilitation

Like Siddhi populations across the sub-continent, Siddhis in Karnataka also have remained isolated, neglected and economically and socially backward. Efforts are being made to rehabilitate them. In 1984, at the instance of the Secretary of the Rural Welfare Trust, Dandeli and few others, an "All-Karnataka Siddi Development Association" was formed to bring Siddhis together and work for their integrated development. K. V. Subbanna, the Magsaysay awardee also made some efforts in this direction with his Ninasam.

On January 8, 2003, the Union government brought the Siddis under the list of Scheduled Tribes with a view to empowering them constitutionally. Further, policies to provide homes for homeless Siddis, water facilities, education, employment opportunities, roads, electricity, mobile hospitals two acres of land to each Siddi family and the right to collect forest products were also endorsed by parliament. It is hoped that proper implementation of these policies would go a long way in helping the Siddhi community enhance their social and economic status.

Internationally too, awareness of sub-Saharan African diaspora in the east has been limited. In 2006, however, 'The African Diaspora in Asia'(TADIA), a UNESCO backed initiative has also evinced interest in the rehabilitation of this tribe. Headed by Prof Angenot of Brazil, it has become the academic link between the Siddis of Karnataka, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh and other research scholars. It aims at involving academic research, promoting cultural exchanges and raising funds for education and employment generation programmes for the Siddis.


  • According to B. G. L. Swamy, a renowned Botanist, seeds of a huge tree, the Adansonia digitata Linn., which is a native of Africa, were probably brought by the Siddhis.
  • A popular Kannada film of the 70s, Bhootayyana Maga Ayyu, has a Siddi playing the role of Siddi Byra in the movie.

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