Ten kilometres out of Bharuch in southern Gujarat, the air changes colour from grey to blue and the light becomes crisper. My taxi crosses a bridge over a river with two crocodiles sunning themselves on the muddy bank. They look huge even from a distance, like prehistoric dinosaurs. Now that city fumes aren’t clogging my nostrils and eyes, I savour the distinct feeling I often get in India and love—a feeling of travelling back in time, of discovery and bewilderment.
In Jhagadia town, 25km from Bharuch, I ask about sights in the area. One man tells me of an old and well-known dargah located atop a hillock about 6-7km away. He warns me that there are plenty of leopards in the sugar-cane fields that surround it.
Isn’t that dangerous, I ask him.
“It is because the jungle has been cut down,” he shrugs, informing me that one gluttonous leopard had killed and eaten three cows belonging to a local farmer the day before.
My taxi driver voices misgivings, but I urge him to continue into the hinterland. Signs along the road caution travellers about leopards. The driver cheers up when we chance upon an Adivasi family roasting poonk by the roadside, and stop for a snack. Poonk is a local nibble of toasted fresh jowar or sorghum beans. Archaeologists have found traces of cultivated jowar at excavations in Gujarat dating back to before 2000 BC. The beans were probably consumed by the Harappan people in much the same way as the local tribes prepare them today. According to newspapers, buying poonk in cities is dicey since it is frequently adulterated with other inferior cereals. But here the family roasts the fresh millet ears on an earthen stove right before our eyes. The roasted ears are put into a cloth bag and beaten. Finally, the contents of the bag are sieved to remove the husk and consumed straight away, mixed with homemade lemony sev.
Replenished, we drive on a potholed uphill road through a parched jungle to Ratanpur. It has a tiny market area with a handful of souvenir stalls and makeshift canteens. Sitting down to have a cold soda at one of them, I realize that the people running the shops look rather African. I get the feeling that I am not in India any more. How is this possible?
I soon realize that these are the famous Siddis, the remnants of the many ancient African peoples who had traded back and forth over the Indian Ocean since antiquity, the first of them arriving perhaps as far back as 4,000 years ago, as the millets that I had just nibbled on by the roadside are thought to have originated in Africa, and were consumed even during the Harappan days. The Siddis were not just merchants; due to their imposing stature, some worked in India as brawny bodyguards and magnificent mercenaries protecting harbours such as Bharuch, which was once known as Barygaza. This is why most Siddi settlements in India today are located along the western coastline, as far south as Karnataka.
I learn about their life today by chatting with Yunus, who lives here in the village but was educated outside. He is part of a dance troupe that has toured Africa and Europe, so he is well aware of his African lineage. I ask what it was like to go back to Africa and dance.
“Like people here in India, they found it hard to believe that we are Indians. But we eat like Gujaratis and generally do everything like Gujaratis.” During his visit, Yunus discovered that the Swahili he and his family speak at home is a very ancient form of the language. “In Africa, they found it hard to follow what I said. It was like a modern Indian trying to have a conversation with somebody speaking Sanskrit,” Yunus explains.
Impressively enough, despite integrating in certain ways, the Siddis have maintained the cultural expressions of their African roots. The dance that Yunus performs, a ritual performance known as goma or dhamal, is one example of their distinct heritage. I don’t get to see the dance, but Yunus shows me a photo album of performances. Goma has been showcased at Republic Day parades in acknowledgment of the diversity Siddis add to Indian culture. The name comes from the Swahili or Congolese ngoma, a type of long drum. Judging by the photos, it is a percussion-heavy performance.
The Siddis are also the custodians of the dargah I had come looking for. Climbing up a hillock, I find a nondescript boxy, concrete structure, austere, unlike most pilgrimage sites in India. But it is a reminder that Ratanpur was once an important place where agate, a semi-precious stone coveted by ladies around the world, was mined. From here it was transported to Khambhat, 100km north-west, where, according to local lore, the craft of bead-making was started by a man named Baba Ghor. He is variously described as an Ethiopian merchant or Abyssinian military commander, but it is believed that he sailed from Africa to Khambhat around 500 years ago and set up a prosperous gem-trading venture in Gujarat. It’s to this man that the dargah is dedicated.
On a visit to Khambhat, I found it is one of the few places where bead-making, from both agate and carnelian, is practised in much the same way that it was 4,000 years ago at Lothal, the nearby Harappan-era port town. Since bead-making is a many-millennia-old tradition, it is fair to assume that rather than creating a new business, Baba Ghor revived an existing one and made Khambhat prosper through new trade links with African ports. His followers, who settled in Ratanpur, supplied raw mineral to the workshops in Khambhat.
Baba Ghor came to be revered as a saint and his remains are entombed in the shrine at Ratanpur. I find a small crowd inside; the dargah also attracts Sufis, Hindus and Parsis. But it is most sacred for the local Siddis, who are believed to have travelled to India with Baba Ghor. In fact, the community’s name may be a local pronunciation of Sayyid, the title for a Muslim person of high rank or important lineage.
Baba Ghor’s followers in Ratanpur number about 35 families today. The women have handsome African model-like looks. The men look powerful, like Hollywood heroes. Yunus himself can trace his roots back 17 generations to an ancestor who migrated from Sudan, then known as Nubia, he informs me.
As their Baba is believed to have vanquished demons, so too the shrine is said to cure demonic possessions (on Thursdays, when there are special rituals), apart from blessing impotent men and infertile women with new energy. In general, Baba Ghor can exorcise most bad things, and in that sense he certainly remains a protector of the Siddi community—his eternal presence here lends them influence and status among the other communities of the area who seek blessings and boons at the dargah. Apparently, devotees can do penance by getting their feet chained and running up the hill shouting the Baba’s name. But if the chains don’t fall off by themselves, you risk being labelled a sinner for life.
I don’t go that far to improve my life, but at a souvenir stall outside the shrine I browse until I find a metal-studded leather wristband which might be good for my karma. It looks expensive, but when I ask the fetching Siddi seller who mans the stall together with a cute toddler in an Afro hairdo, he offers it to me for Rs50. I go for it. Who knows, it might at least protect me from those leopards.
Zac O’Yeah is a writer of crime fiction and travel tales. His latest novel is Hari, A Hero For Hire (Pan Macmillan India)
Make a side trip
Kadia Dungar, 23km east of Baba Ghor’s dargah, is a picturesque hill with seven rock-cut caves similar to those at Ajanta but much smaller, probably constituting the remains of a minor Buddhist monastery. According to local belief, the Pandavas spent some time here during their exile. A visit to the caves that offer beautiful views over the jungles did give me an idea of what ancient penthouse apartments would have been like!
What’s more, Hanuman’s impressive footprint can be seen atop the peak.
Visit the shrine
Baba Ghor’s dargah is open daily. On Thursdays, there are qawwali and special rituals. Dress conservatively in long pants and long-sleeved shirts, and remove your shoes. There are souvenir and basic food stalls at the foot of the peak.
Getting there: On Google Maps, the shrine is spelt as Bava Gor, and its location as Bawa Ghore Road. Rent a taxi in Bharuch (30km/1 hour away; Rs1,700 for a day), or take a bus to the taluk headquarters at Jhagadia (6km away), from where you can find local transport. If you consider walking, beware of leopards.