5 Of India's Most Unique Minority Communities & Their Stories

5 Of India's Most Unique Minority Communities & Their Stories

I came. I saw. I conquered. - Julius Caesar

We Came. We Settled. We Stayed. - India’s Immigrants

In the little known district of Moreh, Manipur, there’s an entire community of families who believe they belong to a lost tribe of Israel. As such, over the past five decades or so, generations have continued to practice the Judaism they’ve learned from books. A perfectly believable narrative once you take India’s historically-proven need to debate who and what truly constitutes ‘Indian identity,’ into account.  

This despite the country’s ‘Unity In Diversity’ tagline being one of its most popular through centuries. The ‘country which never attacked another’ and openly embraced vividly different cultures and communities which it came in contact with is a proud picture our history books like to paint even though our eminent leaders love to dispute it. While the RSS is busy reiterating that India is a Hindu Rashtra where there are no minorities as everyone has Hindu DNA, plain old logic stands firmly against their ludicrous claims. 

It should be noted that first and foremost, the original inhabitants of our subcontinent weren’t, in fact, Hindus (Aryans) but residents of the Indus Valley and Dravidians. Yes, Hinduism has been the prominent religion of this subcontinent for centuries but to envelope it as an all-encompassing term for every individual identity is bewilderingly dangerous. Secondly, the various phases of Indian history are filled with prominent migrations to India - Aryans, Greeks, the Central Asian tribes, Mongols, Mughals and lastly, even the European colonial powers who ruled us for so many years, all of which directly disprove the pure Hindu origin of all modern Indian existence. These are some of the prominent communities which have shaped Indian history. Or are there more? Our curiosity piqued as ever to trace Indian ancestry with broader strokes, to explore, for lack of a better word, immigrant cultures that settled into the wider fabric of this nation.

Much like we did while chronicling Unique Tribes of India, the quest for more answers about our deeply dynamic demographic became paramount for us and this article is simply an exploration of the possible hidden answers to the enigma that is India. Amongst the most ubiquitous question out there, ones pertaining to identity are always the most complex. So while there’s no way to truly break down ‘Who constitutes as Indian,’ allow us to introduce you to some of the most unique communities we discovered who call India their home. Many of them are facing dwindling numbers and chances are, you didn’t even know some of these existed, and if you did, you probably never knew the depth of their stories.

I. Siddis

Mighty rulers, lost in transition

Where Did They Come From?

The story of the Siddis - a term for Indians with African features - represents one of immense melancholy and bravado as it stands to hold an ugly truth- the slavery of Africans in India several centuries ago. Though the exact history and prevalence of the forced migration remains uncertain, it’s speculated that the trade routes between India and Africa bought the first Africans to the country. The more prominent belief is that subsequent trades between the Arabs and Indians saw Africans being brought to the country to act as slaves, servants, concubines and soldiers. The Hindu and Muslim rulers of the country are said however, to have taken deep trust in the Siddis on their arrival, given their physical strength and equestrian skills.

Who Were They Then? 

Africans are said to have been a part of Gujarat since the first century where the town of Barygasa (known as Bharuch today) was said to be an Ethiopian town, inhabited by trade merchants from East Africa. The oral history recounted by the Afro-Gujaratis states how their ancestors served as bodyguards to the palaces of Hindu kings. They were even expected to taste the food of the Maharajah before him to check for any attempted poisoning.

An early prominent Siddi was Jalal-Ud-Din Yakut, the master of the Royal stable for Delhi Sultana Raziya and her political ally in her struggle to retain control of her rule over the throne. While there were several Siddi soldiers in the armies of many rulers in India including the Mughals, one of the most prominent and high-ranking Siddi was Malik Ambar. Ambar was born in Ethiopia before being bought to India as a slave. He served the Ahmednagar sultanate before embarking on his own with his powerful army of Muslim, Maratha and Siddi soldiers and stood firmly in the way of Mughal expansion into the Deccan. Ambar is said to have perfected guerrilla warfare even before the Maratha rulers would adopt it in their battles and laid the grounds for what is today called Aurangabad. Such was the animosity between the Mughals and him that a painting of Emperor Jehangir  holding an arrow in the direction of Ambar’s head was made by a Mughal Painter, providing solace for the Emperor who never faced Ambar in the field to give him the fictionalized fate. The fort of Janjira in Maharashtra was famous for not being defeated for 300 years by any enemy forces due to the mighty Siddis who ruled over the fort and were accorded the status of Nawabs by the British until their final accession into the Union of India.

Who Are They Now? 

The Siddis, who once ruled over towns and sometimes even kingdoms, now lie in the depths of poverty and discrimination. The main Siddi settlements are now located in the states of Gujarat, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh where they have embraced Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, losing most of their original African legacy.

The Siddi Goma of Gujarat are Sufi worshipers who perform song and dance in celebration of their saint Bavi Ghor, a bead merchant,  who is said to have come from Africa in the 14th Century after having spent time in Mecca and Iraq. The Siddi Goma have performed internationally for their unique song and dance routine which is said to be a mix of traditional African worship and Indian Sufi practices. The town of Jambur in Gujarat has a large number of Siddis who are living in an impoverished state, surviving by perform for the pilgrims who come there for the shrine of Nagarchi Baba, a local saint who died 800 years ago. While the members of Jambur themselves have no recollection of their history- the ancient trading cities or the slave trade of the Portuguese which brought them to Gujarat or their African heritage, anthropologists and experts have pointed out a similarity in the celebrations of Jambur and those of the Eastern and Southern African Tribes. Hassan Bhai, an elderly Sidi, says, “All those who knew about Africa have died.”

Caught Between Two Worlds & Two Identities

The Siddi population in the country stands at more than 50,000 and yet the quest for acceptance still exists. A few heartbreaking experiences exist for the members of the community - from being asked to pay foreign tourist charges at the Taj Mahal to being directed to the foreign exchange counter on their first day at work for a bank. The Siddis are recognized as Scheduled Tribes by the Gujarat and Karnataka government but the path of acceptance and validation is still a long one.“Why did our ancestors come to India? Where did they come from? I have been posing these questions for over 25 years, but I have not found the answers.” asks John Kosta Siddi, an understandable struggle of being caught in between two worlds with conflicting histories and no clear research or academic support.

II. Baha’is

Finding peaceful refuge in India for centuries

Where Did They Come From?

The Baha’i faith originated and grew in erstwhile Persia and Ottoman Empire, sharing a tumultuous relationship with Islam from its origins. Ba’b is considered to be one of the forerunners of the Baha’i faith, having established himself as an alternate voice in the Islamic society of Iran in the 19th Century. The claims made by Ba’b were rejected by the Islamic Radicals which lead to his execution in 1850. But his teachings and messages of a new messenger stayed with his disciples, culminating into the arrival of Baha’ullah.

Who Were They Then? 

Baha’ullah established himself as the promised successor in not just Ba’b’s teachings but as a Divine Teacher in a long line of Messengers of God which have enlightened the people of the world with their teachings, such as Abraham, Moses,Buddha,Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad. The core beliefs of Baha’is lie in the unity of humanity, God and religion. The Baha’i faith believes that all of humanity was created equal by one God and that all religions make reference to the same God. One would assume that a peaceful religion which draws similarities with many major world religions and propagates for gender equality would be welcomed in the modern society but religion and its leader faced certain extinction, had it not been for the efforts of Indian soldiers in First World War.
India had cemented an early connection with the Baha’is since the days of Ba’b with one of the first followers of Ba’b being an Indian. The leaders of the faith encouraged the followers to emigrate to India since the early days but the cementing encounter between India and Baha’i came during the end of World War I when Abdu’l Baha, the successor of Baha’ullah, was rescued by Britain’s Indian troops. The Turkish Commander in Chief had declared that Baha would be crucified on Mount Carmel in Haifa and all Baha’i shrines would be destroyed once the Ottomans won the war. As the news of the threats spread, Major Tudor-Pole, an intelligence officer with the British Army in Palestine and a Baha’i follower, persuaded the military authorities to rescue the leader.

The Allied forces were represented by the Indian Cavalry consisting of forces from the Mysore and Jodhpur who attacked the German and Turkish forces at Haifa on 23rd September in 1918, capturing the town in a battle which lasted just one day. “No more remarkable cavalry action of its scale was fought in the whole course of the campaign.Machine gun bullets over and over again failed to stop the galloping horses even though many of them succumbed afterwards to their injuries.” noted the Official History of the War. After the victory, the Mysore Lancers were immediately dispatched to guard Baha’s house. The bravery of these soldiers is honoured by the Teen Murti Memorial in Delhi built in 1922.

Image source: AnamCara Project

Who Are They Now? 

This legacy of solidarity and rescue of their spiritual leader along with the subsequent sheltering of the persecuted Baha’is in India has created a deep amicable relationship between Baha’is and India. With more than 2 million residents, India has the largest population of Baha’is in the world and no greater symbol of this relationship exists than in the form of Delhi’s Lotus Temple.

Picking Lotus as an universal symbol in Indian history and religion, the temple was built and opened to the public in 1986. The temple is open to members of all faiths and has seen more than 70 million visitors since its opening, making it one of the most visited buildings in the world.

Their Relationship With India Is Stronger Than Ever

While the Baha’is face persecution and hardships in few countries, they remain a perfect fit for India. The Baha’i core beliefs of equality and unity are after all the hallmarks of the Indian society.

III. Indian Armenians

A nation built in India 

Where Did They Come From? 

Armenia, the first nation to make Christianity a state religion in 301 AD, has a secret Indian connect, traces of which have all but disappeared. Seven centuries before Vasco Da Gama came to India through the same route, an Armenian merchant by the name of Thomas Cana landed at the Malabar Coast in 780 AD. While there are little details avaliable as to his exact origins, he is known by the Malabar Christians to this date as someone who revived Christianity in the area. The Armenians are credited with locating the tomb of St Thomas, who bought the Christian faith to Indian subcontinent in 52 AD ,centuries before Europe adopted the faith.

Who Were They Then? 

The Armenians chapter of Indian history may not appear to have created significant ripples at face value but a close inspection reveals many startling facts. The trade between India and Armenia bought about many Armenians to the Bombay, Surat and Calcutta. The first full fledged Armenian colony was established in Agra with the support of Emperor Akbar and an Armenian church was established in 1562, with the cost of the church covered by the emperor. Infact, Akbar gave Armenians a significant recognition when he married an Armenian woman named Mariam Zamani Begum as well as appoint Armenians Abdul Hai and Juliana as his Chief Justice and Doctor respectively. Many Armenians served the Royal Court and the Armenian Trader community remained active in Agra till the 20th Century, as is evidenced by the Armenian Cemetery in the city.
While the Armenian population in the country never went above 20,000 in history, many monumental events  for India and Armenia can be tied down to the common history. While Job Charnock was widely believed to have founded Calcutta in 1690, there is credible proof that Armenians were in fact the first inhabitants in the region, more than 60 years before the British.Colonel Jacob Petrus, an Armenian, is said to have held the city of Gwalior against the British for 70 years and on his death, the entire city of Gwalior is said to have mourned with a 95 gun salute. An Armenian merchant who wrote poems under the name of Sarmad remains one of the most famous Armenians in the country, with his shrine being visited by many Muslims and his works finding special mention in Sufi culture. The world’s first Armenian journal by the name of Azdarar was started in Madras by Father Haroutiun Shmavonian in 1794. Shahamir Shahamirian published the vision of an Armenian Nation  in 1773, creating what is regarded as the first attempt at drafting the Armenian Constitution. It was recently discovered that Britain’s Prince William may have an Indian-Armenian connect from the side of his late mother Princess Diana.

Blessing of the Foundation of the New Davidian Girls School Building in Calcutta- Armenian Church India

Who Are They Now? 

The present Armenian population in the country stands at less than 100 with most of them living in Calcutta. Unlike the Siddis, the Armenians are not just aware, but also proud of their culture and practice it religiously. This includes the practice of celebrating Christmas on January 6th in line with the Armenian churches which disregard the 25th December birth date of Christ. The various churches and Armenian streets stand strong as proof of the Armenian influences on Indian culture. The Armenians formed some of the most wealthy patrons of Calcutta while only a few remain presently as most of them emigrated abroad. While we often hear stories about the Parsis and other minorities with dwindling populations, it seems shocking that a community with more than 1,000 years of Indian connect is being ignored.

IV. The Jews Of India

Of ‘saturday oil-pressers’ & lost tribes

The existence of Jews in India is not a novel revelation for many. But what few people are aware of is the deeply ancient relationship India has had with Judaism. Since they’ve been scattered far and wide, adopting cultures unique to the localities they adopted, we thought it best to break it down.

The First

The first Jewish community to arrive in India is said to have been the Cochini Jews who arrived on the Malabar Coast in 562 BC after the destruction of the First Temple, in AD 70 after the destruction of Second Temple followed by another wave in 1568. The Cochini/Malabari Jews were welcomed by the Hindu Rulers and local population where they quickly established themselves as traders. They were allowed to own land, setup synagogues and live freely until the arrival of the Portuguese. The 16th Century brought about the migration of the ‘white’ or Paradesi Jews who had different customs from the centuries old Malabari Jews.

The Largest

The largest Jewish Community in India were the Benae Israel who also claim to be one of the “Lost Tribes” and descendants of the early Hebrews. The exact dates of their arrival in India is unknown though it’s estimated at around 2,100 years ago. The community settled on the West Coast of the country in the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. Legend says that seven men and seven women landed up shipwrecked not far from present day Mumbai. With no possessions and unable to speak the language, they joined the caste of oil-pressers. Ironically, they were nicknamed the Saturday oil pressers” because they abstained from working on Shabbat.

The Most Entrepreneurial

The Baghdadi Jews is a misnomer for the Jewish community which moved into Bombay, Calcutta and Rangoon 280 years ago from the Middle East and Central Asian countries of Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. They quickly became the wealthiest communities in the regions by establishing entrepreneurial and trade setups, even venturing into politics and philanthropy.

The three main Jewish communities of the country settled in India over varying periods of history, each with a unique interaction and influence of their own within the Indian Identity.  Nirah, a former El Al employee who married a Jewish Indian air force pilot, Abraham Doodhkar, in 1984 says “Indian Jews try to follow as many traditions as possible. Jews are known for adjusting to the society they live in, and borrowing from local culture.”  The Indian elements at Jewish Weddings are said to  even include the mehendi ceremony, the exchange of garlands between partners, and the applying of yellow turmeric paste on both the bride and groom’s face.

And Of Course...The Lost Tribes

The 1948 creation of Israel has seen a huge exodus of the Jewish Population to the new-born state. The Benae Israel community’s migration to Israel has resulted in them having a population which is 10 times of that in India. The Manipuri Jews, a small but distinct group of Jews in the Northeast were given legal recognition as one of the Lost Tribes in 2005, prompting a migration by that community to Israel as well.  The Cochin Jews remain in very few numbers as well as the total Jewish Population in the country is estimated at just 5,000.

Despite the varying communities and sects, India stands out as one of the few places in the world with thorough acceptance of the Jewish identity and no history of anti-semitism.

V. Syrian Christians

India’s oldest Christian community

Where Did They Come From?

The Syrian Christian or the Nasrani Community , forming one of the wealthiest communities in Kerala, is said to be the oldest Christian community in India, even preceding Rome in embracing Christ. Thomas the Apostle, the Patron Saint of India, is said to have arrived on the Malabar Coast in 52 AD. He is said to have converted many high caste Brahmins into Christianity. The term “Syrian Christian” is said to be of Dutch origin and having little or nothing to do with the country of Syria. “Syria” might have been derived from “Cyprus” the King Of Persia who is said to have liberated the Jews and allowed them to return to Judea. The Christian Community in the East and India held the ecclesiastical authority of the ancient capital of Syria and not the Roman Catholic Church.

Syrian Christians at Travancore

Who Were They Then? 

The community thrived for centuries though there is speculation as to the veracity of their origin with historians speculating that the community might have originated in the sixth and seventh century and not the claimed origin of Apostle. The texts of Marco Polo vividly mention the community in his travels to the south of India. The culture of Syrian Christians is said to be a mix of the Eastern Syrians, the Jewish and Indian influences with the colonial rule having an effect too.

Who Are They Now? 

Today, they speak Malayalam and many of the socio-cultural practices are similar to Hindu rituals and were even accorded a status as per the caste system, being placed in the same level as the Savarna Hindus and Nairs. They have also adopted many Hindu customs. For example, during the Syrian wedding ceremony the Christian bridegroom follows the Nayar custom of tying a thread round the bride’s neck and giving her a white cloth which he drapes over her head.

The arrival of the Dutch and Portuguese marked a major shift in the lives of Syrian Christians. The Roman Church sought to bring in the Syrian Christians into the fold of its practices and this ensued a string of rifts in the community. The community is now split into several sects and groups owing their allegiance to one of the four Churches - the Catholic, Church of the East, Oriental Orthodox or Reformed/Independent.

Their Impact On India

The Syrian Christian Community accounted for 12% of the Kerala population in the 2011 census and remain one of the most influential communities of the state. Some of the most famous Syrian Christians have been Dr Varghese Kurien, the Father of India’s White Revolution as well as the owners of Malayalam Manorama, one of the highest circulated newspapers in the country.