Decoding diasporas: Tracing foreign communities that call India home

From Zoroastrians of Iran to the last descendants of Aryans, these foreign communities came to India and never really left.

The great Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri wrote: Sar Zamin-e-hind par aqwaam-e-alam ke firaq/ Kafile guzarte gae Hindustan banta gaya (“In the land of Hind, the caravans of the peoples of the world kept coming in and India kept getting formed”).

India has a long history of people’s movements within and across its borders. A part of the colourful fabric of minorities stitched together, these communities have significantly contributed to shaping the country as one of the most diverse in the world. Come along, as we venture out on a trail to trace the origins and arrivals of the four foreign communities in India, who came looking for a refuge and found their forever home. We look at their heritage, their monuments, the cities where they left an imprint, and more.

Parsi community: Zoroastrians of Iran

Foreign communities in india
The Parsis are Iranian Zoroastrians that arrived in India to settle. Image: Shutterstock/RAMNIKLAL MODI.

Zoroastrianism, natively known as Mazdayasna, is one of the oldest religions in the world. Persia (modern-day Iran) once stood proud as a politically independent state dominated by a Zoroastrian majority. Zoroastrianism reached its zenith when it got established as the state religion of the Sassanian Empire in the 3rd century in Iran. When Yazdegerd, the last Sassanian ruler got defeated and the empire fell in 641 CE to Arab Muslims in the Battle of Nehavand, Zoroastrians were forced to flee, convert, or practice in secret. A group of Zoroastrians sought refuge from religious persecution, landing on the desolate island of Diu in the western shores of India, where they stayed for 19 years.

The early Zoroastrian settlers then arrived in a little town called Sanjan in Gujarat, and Qissa-i-Sanjan (or Story of Sanjan) recounts the lore of the time. The local king Jadi Rana presented the refugees with a full glass of milk, using it as a metaphor to say that there was no space for newcomers. The Zoroastrians responded by adding a spoonful of sugar to the milk, demonstrating that they would they would be ‘like sugar in a full cup of milk’ — seamlessly blending and adding sweetness, but without causing an overflow.

They were then allowed to live and follow their religion in India as long as they promised to explain their religion to the king, learn the local language, dress as locals, and wedded after sunsets. This ‘selective assimilation’ led to the distinctiveness of ‘Parsis’ (folks from Pars region in then Iran) from their Iranian Zoroastrian counterparts.

Foreign communities in india
Qissa-i-Sanjan tells the tale of early Zoroastrians arriving at Sanjan in Gujarat and meeting Jadi Rana, the then ruler of the region. Image: Courtesy Ahura Mazda.

Places to visit

November 17 is celebrated as Sanjan day — the day the Parsi community is said to have landed in India! Along with Sanjan, the community spread to nearby places including Udvada, Bharuch, Navsari, and Ankleshwar, i.e. across Gujarat and Maharashtra (notably in Bombay and Pune). From India’s first cotton mill, first steel plant, to first institute for fundamental research in science and Parsi Theatre with Bollywood musical routines, Parsis have gifted a series of notable places and spots to India. Not to forget the 27 fire temples that Parsi communities call sacred.

The small coastal town of Udavada in Gujarat was the settlement that the early Zoroastrian refugees chose after invaders attacked their first one in Sanjan. It is home to the spectacular Iranshah Atash Behram, the oldest and most sacred of the eight Atash Behrams or Fire of Victory temples in the country. The holy flame that it houses has been burning continuously. It was lit on a bed of sacred ashes brought to India by the first Parsis to arrive there, and uses sandalwood to stay aflame.

Foreign communities in india
Iranshah Atash Behram is the oldest Fire of Victory temples in India. Image: Shutterstock/ParasharMangela.

Bahrot Caves located on a hill near Dahanu in Maharashtra, are the only Parsi cave temple in the country. Originally excavated by Buddhist monks, they lay unused until Zoroastrians arrived and hid for 13 years in these mountains after Muslim invasion took their settlement at Sanjan. Bahrot Caves have been declared a heritage site and is a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Built only in 1917, Sanjan Stambh in Gujarat’s Valsad stands tall to tell the tale of Parsis of India, right from the first landing of the early Zoroastrians in Sanjan, to the ‘sugar in milk glass’ story to the establishment of Iranshah Atash Bahram.

The oldest surviving fire temple in Mumbai, Banaji Limji Agiary, is located deep within the city’s historic Fort neighbourhood. Established in 1709, it houses Atash Adaran, the second grade of fire, by a Parsi businessman who brought the holy flame all the way from Kolkata. Though, just like any other Parsi temple, only its high external walls are accessible to non-Parsis (internal complex remains reserved for Parsis), its grand façade is a true architectural marvel worthy of attention.

Siddi community: The Africans of Ethiopia

Foreign communities in india
Kids of the Siddi community in Southern India. Image: Courtesy Flickr/Nagarjun Kandukuru.

The Siddis were an important military and political ethnic group for the Deccan sultanates. The descendants of the Bantu people of Africa, Siddis were transported to India in several waves starting as early as the 7th century by the Arab merchants, and later by the Portuguese and British in the 16th century. While the most possible reason for their initial arrival in India was slavery, some were also taken as servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, and masons. Others arrived as independent merchants, or soldiers in Arab armies.

When slavery was finally abolished in the 18th and 19th centuries in India, the Siddis fled into the dense jungles and isolated parts of India, where they still live in small settlements. Even though the descendants of these Africans were brought here as slaves, they slowly rose to positions of power as military commanders in the armies of the sultans and became great patrons of art and architecture.

Foreign communities in india
An intricate jali at Siddi Saiyyed Mosque. Image: Shutterstock/mridulablog.

Despite having lived in India for centuries, the Siddi people have managed to retain their culture as well as African features because they marry within their communities. It was only in 1980s that the otherwise forgotten tribe got the world’s attention, thanks to their perceived athletic abilities. In lieu of their African lineage, the Sports Authority of India realised that their natural athleticism could be put to good use to win medals for India at global sports competitions.

Under the Special Area Games Project, Siddi children were selected to be coached as athletes. It brought public acceptance to Siddis and enabled them to gain jobs, while India got medals in its name. Kamala Mingel Siddi is still regarded as one of the best national and international Siddi athletes. But later the program was called off.

Places to visit

Today, the population resides in small settlements primarily in five states — Gujarat, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, and Telangana. Most Indian Siddis are Muslim or Christian, while a small number have adopted Hindu practices. The Uttara Kannada district, where most of the Siddis live, is located along the Western Ghats Mountains in the Malnad region. 

Siddi Saiyyed Mosque is a sublime ode in stone to the extraordinary architectural legacy of the African diaspora in India. Built in 1573 by  Shaykh Sayyid al-Habshi Sultani, or Siddi Saiyyed, the eponymous mosque is situated in the heart of the 600-year-old walled city of Ahmedabad, and is set up like a theatre without a fourth wall, celebrated for the intricately carved work on its jalis ( stone lattice windows).

Foreign communities in india
The Fort of Janjira stands unconquered in the middle of Arabian Sea. Image: Shutterstock/Asim Verma.

The 16th-century Fort of Janjira on the Arabian Sea is a reminder of the military prowess of the Siddi rulers. Initially, a wooden fort was built in the 15th century by the Koli fishermen of Rajpuri village on a rock in the sea. The Siddis, who were first employed in the army of Ahmednagar Sultans and later ran a fiefdom from Janjira, built the stone citadel over next 150 years. Sprawling over 22 acres of land with 19 towers mounted with cannons and many turrets, the impregnable fortress makes for an impressive ruin. 

The tombs of Khokari are three 500-year-old massive stone burials of the early rulers of the erstwhile Janjira region in Maharashtra — Sidi Sirul Khan, Sidi Yakut Khan, and Sidi Khairiyat Khan. Popular as the Siddi tombs, they are built in the Indo-Saracenic style. Treasure hunters believe that the Persian inscriptions here hide the key to a secret bounty!

Indian Jews: The Israel connection

Foreign communities in india
Indian Jews are still very much connected to their roots. Image: Courtesy AP.

Having being living in India for over 2,000 years, Jews are considered as one of the first foreign communities to have arrived in India. They migrated to areas like Mumbai, Cochin (Kochi), Kolkata, Himachal Pradesh, among many others, and never left.

Based off their geographical locations and tales of origin, Jews in India are divided into three distinct groups — the Cochin Jews , the Bene Israeli, and the Baghdadi Jews. Each of these three ethnic groups arrived at different points in time and developed their own individual Jewish identities.

Foreign communities in india
Bene Israelis are one of the three categories in which Indian Jews are divided. Image: Courtesy World Jewish Congress.

The Cochin Jews were the first ones to arrive in Kerala in about 50 CE. The 2,200-year history of India’s Bene Israelis began with seven ship-wrecked couples taking refuge on the Konkan coast at Navgaon. The date of their arrival is yet to be ascertained, but a local legend suggests that the community arrived between 1600 and 1800 years back when they were shipwrecked on the Konkan coast. As per the legend, only 14 of them survived and they took refuge in a village called Nawgaon, close to Bombay, now Mumbai.

The Baghdadi Jews are said to be part of the most recent wave of Jewish entry into India by the mid 18th century. With an aim to build a strong entrepreneurial class in the British port cities of India, the Baghdadi Jews rose in wealth and status and established Jewish schools, kosher markets, and ritual baths.

Places to visit

Tucked away in a corner of the high-end Humayun Road, near Delhi’s Khan Market, lies the modest-looking Synagogue Judah Hyam Hall. The humble piece of architecture is the only place of worship in Delhi for Indian Jews. Drop by the iconic Nahoum and Sons Bakery in Kolkata’s New Market. Established in 1902 by Nahoum Israel, the bakery is famous for its rich fruit cake.

Foreign communities in india
Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue in Mumbai. Image: Shutterstock/Satish Parashar.

Mandvi, Byculla and Mazgaon in Maharashtra have an Israeli mohalla where a large Bene Israeli community settled in the 18th century. Speaking of Mumbai, there are nine synagogues boasting of striking architecture, balconies, and beautiful stained windows. The list includes Magen David, Gate of Mercy, Knesset Eliyahoo, Magen Hassidim, and more.

There are also other places of interest like the Jewish cemetery in Worli and the Kurla Bene Israeli Prayer Hall that was opened in 1946 in response to the shift in the community to the northern suburbs. There is also the Navgaon Cemetery, and Israel Alley in Alibag where the Magen Aboth synagogue is located. Recently restored and painted, this synagogue is representative of Bene Israeli religious architecture.

Dard tribe: The last of Aryans

Foreign communities in india
Brokpas of Ladakh claim to be the direct descendants of the Aryans. Image: Shutterstock/Kakoli Dey.

Nearly 200 km from Leh, on either side of the Indus River, are the villages of Dha, Hanu, Garkon and Darchik — together popular as the ‘Aryan Valley’. These villages are the homes to the unique Buddhist Dard tribes, whose members are known across the region as Brokpas.

Some believe Brokpas or Dard people are direct descendants of soldiers of Alexander the Great’s army which stayed back in the region nearly 2,000 years ago. have long been exoticised as the “last pure specimens” of the Aryan race, thanks to their height and sharp physical features (blue eyes). However, there is little evidence to support the claim or put a finger on the map on where they really came for.

Though the origins of the Dards are up for debate, they take their purity seriously, preferring to marry within their groups, complete with claims of polygamy and polyandry.

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