When one thinks of the vast number of ethnicities and nationalities that were part of the melting pot of Kerala, the Sindhis are probably the last community that comes to mind. Given their traditional sense of enterprise and migrating in search of opportunity, it should hardly surprise anyone that the community found themselves in Calicut in the 19th century.
A few years after the 1857 War of Independence, news spread in the historic city of Multan in southern Punjab (now Pakistan) that there were several opportunities in the Malabar region of Madras Presidency. A pioneering group of Sindhi lenders then embarked on a long journey first overland to Karachi, then by sea to western India and again overland to let them reach Calicut. Nineteenth-century Malabar was less volatile than rural Punjab and Sindh, where disputes over borrowed money and repayment occasionally inflamed communal tensions. The Sindhi entrepreneurs were also armed with the knowledge that they would have the protection of the British Raj. They were also devotees of Jhulelal, whom many believers considered an incarnation of Varuna, the Hindu god of water.
In his book, Calicut Tourist Guide, the city’s most famous guide, K Mohan, wrote that the Sindhis arrived in Calicut before the railways. “It was reported that they came after crossing the Beypore (Chaliyar) river up to which the railway line extended until 1861,” according to Mohan.
The first group of settlers consisted of only men, but soon the community began to bring their wives and start families in Calicut. Although they all practiced the same profession, they formed a close-knit community. The Moneylenders lived in houses on Silk Street, using part of their house as an office. They also built the Sindhi Darbar, a community temple which survives to this day.
Loans to traders and exporters
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Calicut was an important port from which spices, tea, and timber were exported. It attracted migrants from all over India who sought to make a fortune from the demand for Kerala products in the West.
The local Sindhi community was at the forefront of providing loans to these traders and merchants. They seemed to be immensely successful in the booming city during this time. In his book, Mohan wrote that very few traders failed to repay their loans. “Those who defaulted were not taken to court, but were settled out of court,” according to Mohan. Loans were granted by a Sindhi lender only after consultation with other members of the community.
It was a daily practice for members of the community to meet in the evenings and discuss the day’s business. “They really knew the pulse of people and the money market,” Mohan wrote.
Although members of the community became fluent speakers of Malayalam and were well integrated into the wider society, they did not intermarry with Keralites or other townspeople. Sindhis have also managed to preserve their language, religious and cultural customs, celebrating festivals with enthusiasm and inviting members of other communities to participate.
Numbering a few hundred at its peak in the 1930s, Calicut’s Sindhi community began to decline in the 1950s. They blamed a combination of union politics and harassment of shopkeepers by overzealous bureaucrats for the economic decline of the city. After Indian independence, the community had no “home state” to migrate to as Multan went to West Punjab and the whole state of Sindh became part of Pakistan at the time of the division of the country. Some families moved to Mangalore, while others settled closer to Bombay. A few even went to Cochin, which had a small community of Sindhis who came to the city after the partition of India.
Currently, Calicut has about 10 Sindhi families. The Sindhi Darbar remains the main center for community activities such as the celebration of festivals such as Cheti Chand. Members of the wider Sindhi community in Kerala set up a Facebook account page in 2011 but unfortunately it has not been updated for 10 years.
Given Calicut’s mix of ethnicities, it is difficult to distinguish light-skinned Sindhis from others in the traditional city center. Even their Malayalam has the distinct accent that is a trademark of this region. Those familiar with the Sindhi language would probably be able to make out their accent and Saraiki word usage, things that have survived their long journey from southwest Punjab to the Kerala coast.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a freelance writer and journalist, primarily based in Mumbai)