Europeans in South Asia generally fall into six categories: 1) diplomats and journalists; 2) development workers; 3) retired British residents; 4) Christian missionaries; 5) religious seekers; and 6) tourists.

The European powers left a small ethnic imprint on India. The Portuguese came first and left last, but at no time had they extensive dominions such as the Indian kingdoms and empires or the lands of the British in India. The Austrians, Danish, Dutch, and French had yet smaller territories for shorter periods. [Source: Library of Congress *]

By the time truly large numbers of Europeans came to spend their working lives in India as part of the British Raj, racist prejudices that were largely absent in earlier centuries had developed in the Europeans. Improvements in transportation (the steamship and the Suez Canal) also had made travel swifter and safer so at least the more prosperous classes could return to Europe on leave to marry or choose brides coming on the so-called "fishing fleets" for tourism and husband-hunting. *

There are around 730,000 Portuguese Indians, commonly known as Goans or Goanese, about half of whom live in the state of Goa and the others elsewhere in India. They are descended from Indians in the former Portuguese colony who assimilated to Portuguese culture and in many cases are the descendants of Indo-Portuguese marriages, which the Portuguese civil and religious authorities encouraged. *


The term Anglo-Indian used to be used to describe British people who lived in India. Now it is largely used to describe people of Indian and European descent. These have generally been characterized by their English mother tongue, Christian religion, European lifestyle at home, Western clothes, English education and employment in administration and service positions that require fluency in English. The singer Engelbert Humperdinck is Anglo-Indian.

The largest group of European Indians are descendants of British men, generally from the colonial service and the military, and lower-caste Hindu or Muslim women. From some time in the nineteenth century, both the British and the Indian societies rejected the offspring of these unions, and so the Anglo-Indians, as they became known, sought marriage partners among other Anglo-Indians. Over time this group developed a number of caste-like features and acquired a special occupational niche in the railroad, postal, and customs services. A number of factors fostered a strong sense of commu-nity among Anglo-Indians. The school system focused on English language and culture and was virtually segregated, as were Anglo-Indian social clubs; the group's adherence to Christianity also set members apart from most other Indians; and distinctive manners, diet, dress, and speech contributed to their segregation. [Source: Library of Congress *]

During the independence movement, many Anglo-Indians identified (or were assumed to identify) with British rule, and, therefore, incurred the distrust and hostility of Indian nationalists. Their position at independence was difficult. They felt a loyalty to a British "home" that most had never seen and where they would gain little social acceptance. They felt insecure in an India that put a premium on participation in the independence movement as a prerequisite for important government positions. Some Anglo-Indians left the country in 1947, hoping to make a new life in Britain or elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Nations, such as Australia or Canada. Many of these people returned to India after unsuccessful attempts to find a place in "alien" societies. Most Anglo-Indians, however, opted to stay in India and made whatever adjustments they deemed necessary. *

Like the Parsis, the Anglo-Indians are essentially urban dwellers. Unlike the Parsis, relatively few have attained high levels of education, amassed great wealth, or achieved more than subordinate government positions. In the 1990s, Anglo-Indians remained scattered throughout the country in the larger cities and those smaller towns serving as railroad junctions and communications centers. *

Constitutional guarantees of the rights of communities and religious and linguistic minorities permit Anglo-Indians to maintain their own schools and to use English as the medium of instruction. In order to encourage the integration of the community into the larger society, the government stipulates that a certain percentage of the student body come from other Indian communities. There is no evident official discrimination against Anglo-Indians in terms of current government employment. A few have risen to high posts; some are high-ranking officers in the military, and a few are judges. In occupational terms, at least, the assimilation of Anglo-Indians into the mainstream of Indian life was well under way by the 1990s. Nevertheless, the group will probably remain socially distinct as long as its members marry only other Anglo-Indians and its European descent continues to be noted. *

Black Africans in South Asia

Blacks of African descent live in South Asia. They have black skin, kinky hair and facial features like black African but the speak South Asian languages, eat South Asian food and have lived in South Asia for hundred of years. They main thing that sets them part culturally is their music. [Source: Kenneth Cooper, Washington Post, April 13, 1999]

South-Asian African blacks include the Siddis, who live along the northwest coast of Gujarat, the Sheedis who live in Karachi, and the kaffirs (a term that does not necessarily have racist connotations in South Asia), who live in southern Sri Lanka. The African black communities are relatively small, ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands. Despite being excepted in their community, there is relatively little intermarriages between African blacks and other groups.

Africans in South Asia seem be descendants of slaves and servants that arrived in South Asia in three distinct waves: first with Arab traders, then with the Portuguese and lastly with the British. There are relatively few of them because the slave trade was never extensively developed in South Asia. When asked Africans in South Asia have said they would like to visit Africa but know very little about it.

Although most African-origin Indians are descendants of the large influx of slaves brought to western India in the seventeenth century, the first Africans reportedly arrived on the Konkani Coast in the first century A.D. as a result of the Arab slave trade, and there was an important African presence, including several short-term rulers, in Bengal in the fifteenth century. [Source: Library of Congress


Siddis are descendants of black Africans who have been classified as indigenous tribe by the Indian government. Also known as Sidis, Sheedis and Habshi, they originated from the east coast of Africa. Siddhis means lord or prince in African usage. The name is derived from the Arabic word "”sayyid”," a Muslim title of respect, a name that reportedly has its origin in the Indian custom of giving exaggerated titles to people of low status." “Habash” comes from the Arabic term for Abyssuna (Ethiopia), “Habash.”

Siddhis are found in Gujarat, Daman and Diu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and other states and union territories, where small groups of Siddis live in the west Indian coastal states of Karnataka, Maharastra and Gujarat and the Sindh in Pakistan. In Gujarat hey occupy a lower Muslim caste for servants and religious mendicants. In Karnataka there are Hindu, Muslim and Christian Siddis. Some live in the Gir Forest of Gujarat, home of the Asiatic lion. Like a caste they have a traditional occupation: collecting firewood. Some are shopowners or drivers. As a rule they are not economically very well off. Some have said they occupy a position lower than Dalits (untouchables).

Siddhis sometimes rose to prominent — even ruling — governmental and military positions during the Mughal and British periods. Most modern-day Siddhis are Muslims and are engaged in agricultural pursuits. They are designated as Scheduled Tribe members. In Hyderabad in southern India, there is a community of Africans known as the A.C. Guards, brought to the region by a former princely ruler. There are also small community in Goa and in Bombay.

Siddi Saints, Shrines and Dances

In Gujarat, the lives of Siddhis is closely related to Muslim saints. The most important of these is Bava Gor, who, according to legend, was an Abyssinian military commander who was sent by the Prophet to India to battle a female demon. The Siddhis in Gujarat regard themselves as descendants of soldiers who accompanied Bava and his brother and sister. Their communities are set up around shrines dedicated to these saints.

The Siddhi shrines are visited by Muslims, Hindus and Parsis. The Siddhis themselves often act as ritual specialists who act as mediators between humans and supernatural beings. There are male shrines and female shrines. Women are generally excluded from the male shrines and men are generally excluded from the female shrines. Siddhi women perform ritual tasks related to a cult that has grouped around their shrines. The central activity of Siddi rituals is drumming known as “damal” or “goma”, words derived from the word for “breath” and the Swahili term for “dancer. Dances are performed in various contextes not usually associated with celebrations that mark the death of the saints. It is said that when the Siddi men and women dance there are possessed by saints of their own sex. Traveling Siddhis perform these dances for alms and work as clowns, famous for their lewd jokes and obscene gesturing. Siddhis who live in Jambur, Gujarat, are known for their holiday performances of the African-style "dhamla" dances to the rhythms of distinctive drums.

Origins of Siddhis

Most Siddhis are believed to be descendants of people that were brought to India by Muslim traders in the 15th and 17th centuries. Many are believed to have been slaves from the east coast of Africa as far south as Mozambique that were carried to India by Arab traders who supplied slaves for all the Muslim world. Slaves were brought to India through the mid 19th century but never in great numbers. They were mainly employed by local rulers as soldiers, bodyguards and servants.

In an effort to figure out exactly where in Africa they came from, musicologist have tried to match the rhythms of Siddhi drumming with rhythms in specific area of Africa. Some people have observed that Siddhi drumming is exactly like the drumming of Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia. Others have proposed links with regions in Cameroon, Nigeria and the Gambia.

The Sheedis of Pakistan speak Baluchi, a language of southwestern Pakistan, and live mainly in the Karachi area, where they hold wild donkey cart races on the weekends. The Sheedies are believed to have been brought to coastal region of Baluchistan, where they were reportedly treated like slave. The Makrani. also of Pakistan, are descendents of slaves brought from the sultanate of Oman, when they ruled the region.

The Kaffirs of Sri Lanka live in thatch huts and live like some other Sri Lankans. Some kaffirs wear beads in their frizzy hair. Their African heritage remains very much evident in music, dance, and speech. Some participate in choral groups that sing African songs in creolized Portuguese. Kaffirs are believed to have descended from Africans brought to Ceylon by the Portuguese. They probably originated from Mozambique. Later the British brought other Africans to fight against the Ceylonese armies in "kaffir regiments." Kaffirs are mostly poor and uneducated. Few hold regular jobs. Their name apparently is linked the fact they are Catholics. Kaffir" is an Arabic word that denote someone who is not a Muslim.


The Paniyan are a group of “bonded laborers” (people who required to work their whole lives to pay off a debt). They live mainly in Kerala around the Western Ghats and have curly hair, dark skin and broad noses, which has led some to conclude they are of African origin. Paniyan means “laborer.” There are believed to be around 100,000 of them.

In the old days most Paniyan worked for large landowners who bought them for a few rupees and made sure they couldn’t find work anywhere else if they fled. Bonded labor is now illegal and some Paniyan own land, However some degree of bonded servitude remains in some places. The Paniyan continue to live like slaves in some places. In the old days some were employed as coffee thieves. At night they would sneak into plantations and strip coffee plants of berries and deliver them to their landlords.

Chinese and Tibetans of South Asia

There are about 130,000 Chinese living in India. They live primarily on the large cities. The are often involved in running shoe shops and Chinese restaurants. In Calcutta, they operate several tanneries. In historical times some Chinese crossed the Himalayas to get to India. Other arrived n trading ships. Most of those that live in India today are descendants of Chinese that arrived in the last century as tea plantation laborers, carpenters, road builders and seamen’s launderers. Most came from Guangdong, Hunan, Fujuan or Jixian provinces and speak Cantonese of Hakka. They tended to settle in the large coastal cities. Most of the security guards in New Delhi are Nepalese.

There are about 100,000 Tibetans in India, many of them in Dharamsala. Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “Set high on a ridge, in the shadow of snowbound peaks, the town is a mix of refugee community and hippie retreat, with dreadlocked Israeli backpackers jostling among freshly shorn monks. For the more than five million Tibetans living inside Chinese borders, the Dalai Lama remains a venerated figure, and he is surprisingly present in their daily conversation. Families in Tibet routinely contact his office with the request that he name their newborns. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

See Tibet, China.

Gypsies originally came from India. Some still live in Rajasthan.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last Updated May 2015

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