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Following free traders and artisans who migrated to and traded with India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia in the fist centuries of the common era; from the 1300s onward, East Africans from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and adjacent areas entered the Indian subcontinent, mostly though the slave trade. Others came as soldiers and sailors. From Bengal in the northeast to Gujarat in the west and to the Deccan in Central India, they vigorously asserted themselves in the country of their enslavement. The success was theirs but it is also a strong testimony to the open-mindedness of a society in which they were a small religious and ethnic minority, originally of low status. As foreigners and Muslims, some of these Africans ruled over indigenous Hindu, Muslim and Jewish populations.

Besides appearing in written documents, East Africans, known as Habshis (Abyssinians) and Sidis, have been immortalized in the rich paintings of different eras, states, and styles that form an important part of Indian culture. Africans in India features dramatically stunning photographic reproductions of some of these paintings, as well as photographs.

As rulers, city planners, and architects, the Sidis have left an impressive historical and architectural legacy that attest to their determination, skills, and intellectual, cultural, military and political savvy. The imposing forts, mosques, mausoleums, and other edifices they built — some more than 500 years ago — still grace the Indian landscape. They left their mark in the religious realm too. The 14th century African Muslim Sufi saint Bava Gor and his sister, Mai Misra, have devotees of all origins, not only in India, but also in Pakistan. Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Zoroastrians frequent their shrines.

From humble beginnings, some Africans carved out princely states — Janjira and Sachin — complete with their own coats of arms, armies, mints, and stamps. They fiercely defended them from powerful enemies well into the 20th century when, with another 600 princely states, they were integrated into the Indian State.

Sylviane A. Diouf, “Black History Month Exhibition! Africans In India: From Slaves To Generals and Rulers,” New York Public Library 1/31/13
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