Everyone knows about Hyderabad’s lineage with the Nizams, but little is spoken about its Afro-Arabian past. Our contributor time travels to rediscover this oft-forgotten history. By Pratika Yashaswi
I’ve been waiting for over an hour outside the restaurant, Chicha’s. We were scheduled to meet at 3 pm, but Hyderabad has its own standard time. I got Wajid’s contact from a kind man months ago. Before long, he arrives on a scooter donning a colourful African-style lungi. He beckons my friend and I to follow. We ride through the capillaries of Hyderabad’s AC Guards area and find ourselves in a tiny shed with ‘KGN Arabic Duff’ painted on it in bright red.
Six men are seated in the room, a handful of the last living descendants of the Hyderabadi Nizams’ African Cavalry Guard. Their ancestors were brought to India from Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) hundreds of years ago. In the 18th Century, the Nizams began employing them in their cavalry, until the monarchy dissolved in the 20th Century. Descendants of the Abyssinian guards are known as Siddis. The Nizam also had Yemeni soldiers and guards in his employ—their descendants, still shaping Hyderabad’s cuisine and culture today, are known as Chaush.
Only one or two of the gentlemen I meet show any seriously unmistakable signs of their Abyssinian or Yemeni ancestry. Generations of Siddis (or habshis, as they are also known) and Chaush have through inter-cultural marriage and otherwise, amalgamated so well into the local culture that their manners and tastes are practically Hyderabadi.
“How do you know about your roots and history?” I ask the gentlemen. “Our grandparents would tell us,” says Wajid. “Sometimes when we’re walking down the street or travelling, we see someone and think ‘Oh, he looks a bit like us…could it be?’. We also have family in Gujarat. My grandfather’s brother lived there,” he adds.
Wajid and his ilk follow Islam, and identify as Hyderabadi; no longer remembering the languages their ancestors spoke. But they remain cognizant of their heritage. One element is still alive and well to this day, and that is a traditional Afro-Arab style of drumming that both, Siddis and Chaush, partake in with enthusiasm: Marfa, also known among the locals as Arabi.
Duff Marfa is a type of kettledrum that produces unique sounds. While Siddis often work as drivers and contract labourers, some even hold government jobs. But they always make time to play the Marfa and teach it to their children. “We’ve been learning it since we were about four-five years old,” says Mohsin, who owns KGN Arabic Duff.
With large, close-knit families, Hyderabad’s Siddis and Chaush lead lives of contentment, if not of prosperity. Living among Muslim kinfolk in a city that’s accepted them for hundreds of years, they thrive in their own way.
Over the years, Siddis and Chaush have contributed immensely to Hyderabad’s culture. There is Marfa, of course, and the famous Mandi biryani adapted from a Yemeni dish. They’re also a part of Hyderabad’s design culture. The logo on the cap of Farooky Tooth Powder, a ubiquitous provision found in Hyderabad—which is as popular as the Zinda Tilismath, a herbal medicine—features the face of a Siddi member of the African Cavalry Guard. They are living, breathing remnants of Hyderabad’s Nizami heritage.
“How do you feel knowing about your ancestry? Do you ever want to go and see what it’s like in Africa?” I ask. A man named Mohammad Khan answers, as his friends nod along–“It’s all in the past. What does it matter? We are here now, and this is home.”