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Siddhis of Karnataka: The Syncretic Ramzan of Tottilgundi

 

Siddhis in India can be broadly classified on the basis of their language or religion. In Karnataka, most Siddhis speak a dialect of Konkani at home but they can also speak Kannada and Hindi. Out of these, very few manage to speak English. There is very little trace of any African language found in today’s Siddhi populace.

 

In the case of religion, there are almost equal numbers of Muslim and Christian Siddhis and a relatively smaller number of Hindu Siddhis in Karnataka. For the longest time since they were brought to India, the Siddhis did not follow any particular religion. The Africans that were allegedly brought by the Arabs were tribal men believed to have been captured from the jungles there. Therefore, they had a set of cultural practices that did not conform to any religion. With time, they dispersed within India, assimilating with the surrounding cultures and adopting religions that best suited them. It was only after Independence that the Siddhis felt the need to affiliate themselves with a religion, to be able to identify as citizens and become more acceptable in society. The festivals and rituals that they observe or practise today are dependent on the religion that they adopted.

 

Tottilgundi, a hamlet in the northern part of the state of Karnataka, presents a peculiar case of how the Siddhis practise religion. Believers and everyday practitioners of modern-day secularism, the people of this village engage with religion in an uncommon way. Having synthesized a lifestyle that blends the beliefs of three major religions—Christianity, Islam and Hinduism—they have created a syncretic way of life that envelopes their traditional and cultural practices. In a time when communalism and secularism have become great subjects of interest in the country, and a need is felt to associate or dissociate with religions, the people of this village carry out daily negotiations with three major religious institutions, thus setting an example for many of us along the way. The Siddhis share a fluid relationship with god as they offer prayers and celebrate major festivals of these three religions, including Eid, Christmas, Shraavan Pooja and Good Friday, with equal passion every year.     

 

In the year 1969, Rosine Siddhi, a leader figure in the village, first moved to this area with her family. Densely covered by timber forest, the only man-made structures that were present in the vicinity at the time were the shrines of two brothers—Syed Sulaiman (Bade Nana) and Khadri Bashya (Chote Nana). Bade Nana, which loosely translates to older grandfather, and Chote Nana to younger grandfather, are how these two saints are addressed  by the villagers as well as the visitors to the shrines. They are both popularly known as Dudu Nana, a common label for the two saints. The other structure was a temple of the local deity Goddess Kariamma, who is considered to be the caretaking entity of the place.

 

Rosine’s family of seven, including her parents and her four siblings, lived in the premises of the shrine under a temporary shelter when they first moved to this hamlet. There was no ‘civilisation’ or other facilities for five kilometres around their location. The closest village they could access was Kirwatti, which could only be reached on foot. Even for the most basic amenities, such as drinking water or groceries, they had to travel long distances on a daily basis.   

 

Today, about 100 Siddhis reside in this village, where the only public buildings present are a temple, a church, a mosque and a state government-aided higher primary school. These spaces have become meeting points for the villagers when they want to come together to celebrate, grieve or chat.

 

Fifty-eight-year-old Rosine’s house is right across the dargah that functions as the backbone of the village. It is immensely popular and a factor contributing to the uprightness of their belief system. According to the villagers, the spirit of the Nana possessed young Rosine when she was eleven, and started professing through her. This phenomenon of Rosine getting possessed by the spirit continues till date and attracts believers from across religions, from different parts of the country, including major metropolitan cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore. They visit the dargah on different occasions to seek advice, blessings, pay their respects and offer prayers at the shrine. The spirit is believed to guide the people of the village and other visitors in every aspect of their lives.

 

Officially, everyone in the village is a Catholic Christian. However, it is hard to discern that by merely observing their lifestyles, as their cultural practices are an amalgamation of practices from all three religions. This has led to the emergence of a new culture, which is much more fluid in terms of its relationship with god. In fact, one can find many points of intersection in the ‘dos and don’ts’ that are adopted in each of these places of worship. For instance, a menstruating woman is not allowed into the shrine but is allowed to enter the church. One can enter the church wearing shoes but not the temple or mosque. Most of their rituals, including weddings, birth ceremonies and death rituals are as per the church. The people, too, follow the norms of the church and tend to be biased towards it when it comes to more traditional customs. However, the villagers do not impose their ideas, practices or customs and rituals on anyone and accommodate people of all castes, genders, religions and races who wish to participate in these celebrations.

 

All three religious centres in the village are functional and are looked after with the same vigour. Days of the week are assigned for each of these places of worship. For instance, Mondays and Thursdays are dedicated to worship at the Kariammana gudi, the Hindu temple. The cultural assimilation of the Siddhis is so strong that one can never tell them apart from the non-Siddhi folk in and around the village. They also claim to carry no cultural baggage into their present-day lives as centuries have passed since their arrival in the Indian subcontinent. 

 

The spirits of Tottilgundi

 

Rocky Siddhi, Rosine’s younger brother recalls many instances from the past that seemed rather absurd to them and did not make much sense. One of these was a long-time phenomenon where anthills would be formed every morning in their compound, despite their efforts to break them every evening. They would even see hundreds of cows wandering around at once around the dargah in the evenings but could not find a single trace of them come morning. 

 

As time passed, the family started experiencing a series of bad events including financial problems, health issues, etc. Soon after this, Rosine, the eldest daughter in the family, started experiencing episodes. She would speak in a language that was unfathomable to others and behaved ‘weirdly’. It was later discovered that she had been possessed by the spirit of the saints Dudu Nana. It had started speaking through her in a language that nobody in the family could comprehend. This turned into a nightmare for the family until they were advised to visit the main shrine of the Nana in another village. Apparently, the spirit advised them to vacate the space that belonged to the shrine and affirmed that the mishaps within the family were a consequence of this encroachment. The family moved out of the dargah and built a house opposite to it, where they continue to live till date. As per the instructions of the spirit, the dargah was renovated, and as time passed, villagers of Tottilgundi and neighbouring villages started worshipping the shrine.

 

The spirit of Dudu Nana would also manifest in another village called Hulgeri in north Karnataka. It eventually started directing many of its followers to Tottilgundi. At first, Rosine’s mother was extremely sceptical of the spirit and even compared it to Satan. However, as it seemed to have done good to their family and even brought about improvement in their financial conditions, faith in the spirit grew stronger and spread widely among nearby villages. According to legend, the two brothers Syed Sulaiman and Khadri Bashya first came to Lakhmeshwar in India and moved to different parts including Tottilgundi, Hulgeri and several other villages in the state. Even today, their spirits are said to be roaming freely between all these places and possessing different people at different times. 

 

When this shrine became an active centre for religious proceedings, it faced contestation from many religious leaders of Islam in the area as well as by the Christian authorities in the district. Without heeding to any of their demands, the villagers continued to look after the shrine. They also constructed a church in the village, where they continue to offer prayers every Sunday. They do not follow the Quran nor do they adhere to Islamic teachings per se. They only follow the instructions given to them by the spirits possessing Rosine.

 

Ramzan In Tottilgundi

 

Ramzan, one of the biggest festivals of Islam, is celebrated with pomp and grandeur in Tottilgundi. Preparations for the festival begin weeks in advance, with the women of the village coming together to wash and clean the walls of the shrines. Later, the men take up the task of repainting these walls. Every year a cloth-seller from a nearby village called Kirwatti visits Tottilgundi with her stock of fancy clothes piled in an autorickshaw and displays them in and outside Rosine’s house. As part of their annual ritual, Rosine’s family gifts new clothes to all the children in the village on Ramzan. These gifts are given out on the day of Eid, and are either worn by the children on that same day or during Uras—which is a festival following Eid, celebrated five days after Ramzan.  

 

As the villagers are all Christians by birth, Rosine is the only  member who observes roza—fasting during the season of Ramzan—as she leads the ceremonies of the festival. The village is also occasionally graced by Sufi saints who sing qawwalis to set the festive mood.

 

On the day of Ramzan, the villagers carry out a small procession from Rosine’s house to the dargah. It starts with them offering prayers through recitation of hymns, followed by the men carrying various offerings, such as new clothes, flowers, sweets, savories, etc., on their heads and proceeding towards the open shrine of Bade Nana. The women sing songs in praise and remembrance of Dudu Nana, while young boys carry flags and burst crackers.  

 

The ceremonies are led by Rosine herself who is the only woman with such proximal access to the shrines. She recites the hymns and supervises the overall event. The procession enters the dargah and walks around the shrine after which galib, a set of blankets of flowers, are laid in layers over the shrine by the men and Rosine while singing continues in the background. Once the ceremonies at the open shrine are completed, everybody proceeds to the next shrine, which is located inside a four-walled structure. Here, the women sit on one side of the dargah, a wall separates them from the actual shrine, limiting their view through a small opening in the wall. No woman except Rosine is given access to the other side of the wall. After offering prayers at both the shrines, everybody moves out to exchange sweets and greetings. The air is filled with festive wishes, laughter and chatter. 

 

Doddavara Pooje: Prayers to the elders

 

As a part of any festival that the Siddhis celebrate, this ritual of remembering their elders who are no more with them is a significant feature of this community. A man and woman are seated and imagined to be representatives of all the men and women who have passed away from their respective families. They are prayed to and blessings are sought from them by all others. On the day of Ramzan, Rosine and her nephew occupied this designation and blessed everyone across all ages and gender.

 

Temple visit

 

Soon after the ceremonies in the dargah are completed, a few women including Rosine and her sisters head over to the temple of Kariamma and offer prayers there. Kariamma is believed to be an avatar of Durga and the goddess of prosperity. People visit this temple to resolve many issues, especially those related to marriage, bearing children and personal property. This temple existed much before the Siddhis moved to this village. The goddess possesses Rosine  two days a week and this has led to their belief in the temple here. Offerings are made to the deity on the day of Ramzan and Hindu hyms are chanted before it.   

 

Prayers

 

Here are some songs that are sung during the various festivals that are celebrated by the people of Tottilgundi:

 

Dudu nana ki dost arodhin
Bade Nana ki dost arodhin
Bagh gai ki dost arodhin
Kaudi Peeran ki dost arodhin
Chote nana ki dost arodhin

 

This is a jaykar (hailing) that they chant at different points during the Eid celebrations in remembrance of the two saints. There are many other songs that they have contextualized and come to write and sing exclusively for Ramzan in Tottilgundi. Following are excerpts from some of these songs.

 

Jaya Malinge malinge malinge
Dudu nana ko gaalib chadaane jayenge

Jaya Malinge malinge malinge
Dudu nana ko Udu chadaane jayenge

 

*

 

Nana ke roze koi nahi dekhe
Nana ke roze koi nahi dekhe
Dekhe humare rasu
oh nana mere tumi hai kitne door

 

Nana ka moka koi nahi dekhe
Nana ka moka koi nahi dekhe
Dekhe humare rasu
Oh nana mere tumi hai Kitne door

 

Nana ka peera koi nahi dekhe
Nana ka peera koi nahi dekhe

 

Dekhe humare rasu
Yo nana mere tumi hai Kitne door

 

Nana ka Galeeb koi nahi dekhe
Nana ka galeeb koi nahi dekhe
Dekhe humare rasu
Yo nana mere tumi hai kitne door

 

*

 

Dooru se muskuraye
Jebo se jee bharaye
Baba mujhe tum yaad aaye
Nana mujhe tum yaad aaye

 

Ghaleeb to aami banaye
Ghaleeb toh bhoomi chadaye
Baba mujhe tum yaad aaye
Nana mujhe tum yaad aaye

 

*

 

Nana ka boodi
Nana ka boodi haatho mein lena
Nana ka naam leke duniya ko jagana

 

Nana ka limbu
Nana ka limbu haatho mein lena
Nana ka naam humare duniya ko jagana

 

Nana ka kela
Nana ka kela haatho mein lena
Nana ka naam humare duniya ko jagana

 

Nana ka Galeeb
Nana ka galeeb haatho mein lena
Nana ka naam humare duniya ko jagana

 

The tunes of most of these hymns are borrowed from popular Bollywood songs. Women sitting together inside the dargah sing them as a part of the Ramzan celebrations. There are songs for the procession, for each shrine and some general songs.
 

Food on Ramzan

 

Interestingly, the Siddhis in this village have also adopted recipes from various cultures in their process of local assimilation. The feast for this festival typically includes biryani, kebab, curry and a sweet dish.

 

The local people come together to prepare the food for the festival. Large utensils are rented from a nearby town and food is cooked in a nearby area. Soon after the prayers in the dargah are done, women and children distribute sweets to everyone around. Later a typically Muslim sweet dish, sheer kurma, is served first followed by the main course.

 

Uras

 

On the day of Uras the villagers come together to celebrate again. This day attracts many Siddhis and other people from neighbouring villages. They come together to perform their traditional dances that they had inherited from their African forefathers, they sing songs and make merry. They also go on to offer their prayers at the dargahs on this day both in the afternoon and evening. Diyug Siddhi, who is Rosine and Rocky’s brother, expresses his disappointment over how as generations go by there is a loss in their 'culture' with today’s youth having a greater affinity to Bollywood music and dance. Pre-recorded music has taken over the traditional drums that they used to dance to for cultural events and festivals. In the evening, Sufi saints from Kirwatti and other nearby towns perform songs and a procession moves towards the open shrine. One elderly man, who leads this procession, goes on to whip himself with a rope and pierce himself with sharp objects as a symbol of mourning for Bade Nana and Chote Nana. The villagers watch this performance with great fervor. This is followed by the community singing together and ending their celebrations with a grand meal.