The Sidi, who are also known as Habshi, are descendants of Africans originally coming from the hinterlands of the East African coast. The term "Sidi" is supposed to derive from Sayyid, "Habshi" from the Arabic term for Abyssinia, "Habash." In the past, Black slaves stemming from the coastal strip from Ethiopia to Mozambique were carried by Arab slave traders to different parts of the Muslim world, Including India. Here, their presence is recorded since the early establishment of Muslim rule during the Sultanate of Delhi (thirteenth-sixteenth centuries). African slaves continued to be imported to the western states of India until the late nineteenth century, though never in large numbers. They were mainly employed by local rulers as soldiers, bodyguards, and domestic servants. Today small groups of Sidi live in the west Indian coastal states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Gujarat as well as in Sindh in Pakistan. In Karnataka they belong to religious groups (Hindu, Muslim, and Christian). In Gujarat they presently form one of the lower Muslim castes of Domestic servants and religious mendicants or fakirs.
The social life of the Sidi caste in Gujarat is closely related to the cult of Muslim saints. At the center of a cluster of related Sidi saints is the patron saint of the Sidi, Bava Gor, along with his younger brother, Bava Habash, and his sister, Mai Mishra. According to myth, the saint was originally an Abyssinian military commander who was sent by order of the Prophet to fight against a female demon in Hindustan; but it was his sister who eventually destroyed the female demon. The Sidi believe themselves to be descended from the Sidi soldiers and their wives who accompanied Bava Gor during his mission and who had become saints in the course of time. The shrines of these Sidi saints form a horizontal network connecting the geographically diffused Sidi caste in Gujarat. At the same time, the saints relate the Sidi to higher-ranking saints of the Sayyid and their representatives at the top of the regional hierarchy of Muslim castes. This ritual relation is further emphasized by one of the main functions of the shrine complex of Bava Gor, Bava Habash, and Mai Mishra, the exorcism of spirits, which connects it to similar regional centers.
As ritual specialists the Sidi are mediators between man and the supernatural. Many of them are engaged in the maintenance of shrines and related ritual activities. Their clientele, the devotees and cult adepts, stem from heterogenous social and economic backgrounds and belong to different religious communities (Muslim, Hindu, Parsi). The majority, however, is from a poor economic background and the lower rungs of the social hierarchy.
A salient feature of the syncretic saint cult as practiced by the Sidi is the existence of a male and a female sphere. The veneration of male saints is paralleled by that of female saints, whose shrines are cared for by Sidi women. While women are generally excluded from the most sacred part or the inner sphere of a Muslim saint's shrine, in the context of the cult, Sidi men are not allowed to enter the inner sphere of the shrine of a female saint. Sidi women perform ritual tasks specifically related to a female domain of the cult.
The central ritual activity of the Sidi consists of the performance of dancing and drumming called dammal or goma. The first term derives from dam, "breath," the latter from the Swahili term for dance, ngoma. This dance may be performed in various contexts, the most important being the annual celebration of urs, the death anniversary of the saint. Then the Sidi practice a form of divine possession. Men and women are said to become the vehicles of the saints; men are possessed by the male saints, women by the female saints. The dance also is performed with slight variation, especially without possession, in other social situations: at urs of higher saints; by wandering Sidi fakirs while begging for alms; in small groups, to the order of a devotee who sponsors a dance performance as part of fulfilling a vow; or simply because a wealthy patron wishes to entertain his guests. In these contexts another element is emphasized by the dance of the Sidi: that of clowning, obscene gesturing, and joking.
Within the caste-society of Gujarat the Sidi are part of the Muslim community, occupying special ritual roles in relation to the values of that society. They could be called the Muslim analogues of the Hindu Untouchables, but with the emphasis more on honor and dishonor than on purity and pollution. The activities of the Sidi violate in many respects the values of high-status Muslim groups and are at the same time indispensable to the maintainance of these values as well as to the expression of their appropriateness.
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