When thinking of the vast number of ethnicities and nationalities that formed a part of Kerala’s melting pot, Sindhis are probably the last community that comes to one’s mind. Given their traditional sense of enterprise and migration in search of opportunities it should hardly surprise anyone that the community found itself in Calicut in the 19th century.
A few years after the 1857 War of Independence, word spread in the historic southern Punjab city of Multan (now in Pakistan) that there were several opportunities in the Malabar region of the Madras Presidency. A pioneering group of Sindhi moneylenders then embarked on a long journey first through land to Karachi and then via the sea to western India and again overland till they reached Calicut. Nineteenth century Malabar was less volatile than rural Punjab and Sindh, where disputes over borrowed money and repayment inflamed communal tensions from time to time. 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, who many believers considered an incarnation of Varuna, the Hindu god of water.
In his book, A Tourist’s Guide to Calicut, 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 till 1861,” according to Mohan.
The first group of settlers consisted only of men, but soon the community started to bring their wives and start families in Calicut. Although they were all in the same profession, they were a closely-knit community. The moneylenders lived in houses on Silk Street, using a portion of their home as an office. They also built the Sindhi Darbar, a community temple that survives till this day.
Loans to traders and exporters
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Calicut was a major port from where spices, tea and timber was exported. It attracted migrants from all over India who looked to make their fortunes from the demand for products from Kerala in the West.
The local Sindhi community was at the forefront of providing loans to these traders and merchants. They seemed to enjoy immense success in the booming city during that period. In his book, Mohan wrote that very few traders defaulted on their loans. “Those who defaulted were not taken to a court of law, but they were settled from out of court,” according to Mohan. Loans were only given by a Sindhi moneylender after consulting 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 dealings. “They really knew the pulse of the people and the money market,” Mohan wrote.
Although members of the community became fluent Malayalam speakers and were well integrated into the wider society, they did not intermarry with Keralites or others in the city. The Sindhis also managed to preserve their language, religious and cultural customs, celebrating festivals with gusto and inviting members of other communities to take part in them.
Numbering a few hundred at its peak in the 1930s, the Sindhi community in Calicut began to dwindle in the 1950s. They blamed a combination of trade-union politics and harassment of traders from over-zealous bureaucrats for the city’s economic decline. Post-Indian independence, the community did not have a ‘home state’ to migrate to as Multan went to West Punjab and the entire state of Sindh became a part of Pakistan at the time of the division of the country. Some families moved to Mangalore, while some other 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.
At the moment, Calicut has about 10 Sindhi families. The Sindhi Darbar remains the main centre of community activities such as the celebration of festivals such as Cheti Chand. Members of the wider Sindhi community in Kerala set up a Facebook page in 2011 but unfortunately it has not been updated in 10 years.
Given how much a blend of ethnicities Calicut is, it is hard to tell the light-skinned Sindhis apart from others in the traditional city centre. 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 tell their accent and usage of Saraiki words apart, things that survived their long journey from southwestern Punjab to the coast of Kerala.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, primarily based in Mumbai)