The beauty of solo travel is that you can take all the detours you want. I sometimes feel I’d have been better off as a student of anthropology than the sciences I eventually followed. Much to the chagrin of my wildlife travel partners, I often want to visit and interact with the people living beside our wilderness areas. “Why would you not come on a safari instead?”, is the usual, animated reply I get. There wasn’t any of it on a recent visit to Dandeli. I wasn’t doing any safaris and I had no travel partners. My day would begin with an aimless walk in a woodland, followed by drives wherever a JLR guide would accompany me and they’d end with whatever I had energy left for.

I’ve always been fascinated by the multitude of tribes that Dandeli is home to. The Gawlis, the Lambanis, the Medars – each of them have a distinct culture, something that’s probably pronounced by the location of Dandeli at the edge of Karnataka and Maharashtra. Fortunately for me, my inability to speak in Kannada isn’t a handicap in Dandeli. The tribals switch between Marathi and Kannada with consummate ease, to an extent that you’d struggle to pinpoint their real origins – speaking of which, brings me to the Siddis of Dandeli. With no partners to veto me, I left Mallikarjun, a boatman at the Kali Adventure Camp, little choice but to accompany me to Gadghera – a Siddi village on the fringe on Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve.

Gir's African Origin Tribals

The Siddis have a long history in India. Originally imported into India as slaves in the 7th century, the Siddis slowly assimilated themselves into Indian culture as warriors, farmers and artists. Historians trace their origins back to the Bantu people of Southeast Africa, and there’s often a debate on whether they are the Luba of the Congo, the Kikuyu of Kenya, the Zulu of South Africa or another of these ethnic groups. With oral histories being the only way of passing down culture, most current day Siddis can’t tell much about their place of origin. In rural areas, they marry early and have children early, so it isn’t unnatural to see four generations share space in the same house. And when the time between generations is that short, the stories you hear aren’t very old. When I first met Siddis in Gujarat, there was little African about them except their looks and their rather typical Dhamal dance. They spoke fluent Gujarati – and that too as a first language.

2 Siddis

Gadghera was a natural choice to visit and interact with Siddis. Pascal, one of the ex-watchmen at the Kali Adventure Camp, was a resident of this village and Mallikarjun knew his son, Lucas. It’s always easier to meet people you know than to inconvenience people who you have no connection to. There’s little romantic about Gadghera though. The village doesn’t have a proper approach road, and very few buses ply from here to town. The houses range from being nondescript structures such as the one you see, to just slightly better maintained dwellings. The last time a politician visited this place was during the assembly elections. For as long as I was around, the village had no electricity.

3 Siddis

Lucas is one of the better-off members of his village. He owns land and as a matter of fact, was to head to the market with his farm produce, shortly after I left the place. For once, I was at home speaking to a local in Karnataka. Lucas and the rest of the village folk I met speak Marathi – albeit a rather odd dialect. In fact, aside from their Christian names, most villagers have a rather Marathi sounding last name. In Lucas’ case, it was Kambrekar.

4 Siddis

Adjacent to Lucas’ farm is that of his brother’s. Francis is about 11 years elder to Lucas. Between the two brothers, there’s enough to go around by way of farm produce. It was fascinating to know that most farmers in the village use little or no fertilisers or pesticides and are majorly organic in their means. And while animal lovers may cringe at the sight of bullocks to till the land, Lucas says that they’re more sustainable than tractors when it comes to conserving their limited land holdings.

5 Siddis

Surprisingly or probably not, the most well-developed structure in the village was the church. Most villagers seem to be Christians. I found it quite incredible that the villagers had put up such an impressive structure for their place of worship while several homes lacked basic sanitation. Oh, well – a topic for another day.

6 Siddis

A short walk from Lucas’ farm revealed this shady area that hosts a rather important temple for the Siddis of Gadghera. They call this deity Kalappa. Lucas and Francis seem to associate great importance to this deity even as they follow Christianity as their primary faith. On that hot day, the temple area was a welcome resting spot for the cattle as they took a break from work in the fields.

7 Siddis

Lucas’s wife Annie makes her living by doing small tailoring jobs. I spent a lot of time talking to her and their two daughters – Anshita and Loreta. By all accounts, Annie is a splendid folk dancer. She and her troupe have travelled far and wide to perform. Annie and Lucas excitedly showed me a set of magazines and books which carry her dancing photos. In fact, Annie’s probably travelled more than anyone else in her village. Yet, her talent doesn’t really pay the bills for the house.

8 Siddis

Annie’s neighbour Natal, on the other hand, lives an even more spartan life. The difference between the two adjoining houses was stark. While one had tiled flooring, the other was a traditional mud house. While one had a bunch of semi-modern amenities, the other had little to go by. I didn’t get to talk much to Natal about their source of livelihood, but it was quite evident that they lived off limited means.

9 Siddis

However limited the means may be, it’s amazing how children always find a way to have fun. The sight of a rather strange city boy with a largish camera was a source of much amusement for the kids. As I relaxed in Natal’s backyard, these children decided to group together for an impromptu shot.

10 Siddis

Handicrafts or farm produce, all roads lead to the weekend town markets for most of Gadghera’s residents – for that matter, for all the tribals in and around Dandeli. Selling their work allows them to buy the things they don’t produce themselves. By the time I eventually got to the market, it was time for people to pack up, though it was evident that business over the weekends is fast and often profitable.

111 Siddis

Our drive back to the resort was a rather sobering experience. When we entered Gadghera we’d seen an old man, a woman with an infant and young boy head out to the bus stand. After a couple of hours when we left the village, we passed by the same bus stand. Pedro was still standing there, waiting for transportation to town. His grandchild had been ill for the last two days – they needed to see a doctor. The village didn’t have a primary health centre – no dispensary or clinic either, within a 50 km radius. When I dropped Pedro off about 20 kilometres from Haliyal, he said to me, “I don’t know if you got to know us well. We’ve been here for centuries – my great grandfather came to Gadghera over a hundred years back. And yet, it seems that we’re invisible, forgotten people. Our importance is apparent only at election time. When it comes to hospitals, roads, transportation, electricity – we don’t exist. Thanks for the ride.”