Propelled by monsoon winds, African and Asian travelers and traders have exchanged goods, languages, and religious practices for more than a millennium and a half. The resulting cultural connectivity defines the cosmopolitanism of the northwestern Indian Ocean, along its littoral from the Swahili coast to the Horn of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, the Makran coast, and western coastal India.
The western Indian state of Gujarat, whose peninsula borders the Arabian Sea, has attracted travelers and traders over the course of centuries of oceanic exchange. Among these wayfarers from the African continent were Sufi saints and Abyssinian mercenary soldiers, whose legacies are intertwined with histories of forced migration and bonded labor, as enslaved captives arrived in India from ports along the Horn of Africa and the Swahili coast over at least six-hundred years.
One of the most visible faces of the African diaspora in India is the Sidi community of Gujarat, composed of Indian Muslims of East African ancestry. The pioneering research of anthropologist Helene Basu reveals that East Africans dispersed in nineteenth-century Gujarat organized themselves into a community defined by its connection to African Sufi saints who had been buried in Gujarat centuries prior. This connection, characterized by shared African heritage, translates into inheritance of the spiritual power of these saints. Sidi ritual specialists broker access to the saints’ healing power through the medium of African-derived forms of music and dance (goma) performed at shrines. Basu traces connections between traditions of music (ngoma) and healing in Zanzibar in East Africa and their diasporic expressions in the Sidi goma traditions of Gujarat.
Documentary filmmaker Beheroze Shroff details that, today, the western Indian city of Mumbai is home to Sidi families who migrated there from the neighboring state of Gujarat in earlier generations. There, the trajectory of East African ngoma described by Basu intersects with the needs and experiences of members of another Indian Ocean diaspora—Parsis, who comprise an Indian community of Iranian ancestry. Parsi forebears migrated to coastal Gujarat between the eighth and tenth centuries to trade and to preserve their ancient religious tradition, Zoroastrianism. According to Shroff, more than a millennium later, Parsis who faced economic and social uncertainties in the rapidly changing commercial center of Mumbai of the 1930s found emotional healing in a newly budded branch of the Sidi tradition. This healing entailed interacting with Makbul Bava, a Sunni Muslim who had been trained by the Sufi master Gul Hazarashah Bava to serve as the spirit medium of the Sidi ancestral saint Bava Gor.
The emotional geographies of Parsi families and the sacred geography of the Sidi Sufi tradition overlap in profound ways in the urban context of Mumbai. In the 1940s, Parsi devotees patronized the construction of a Sufi shrine that would serve as the primary site for interaction with their spiritual guide. This shrine would come to be an extension of the network of Sidi ancestor-saint shrines encompassing the African sacred geography of Gujarat. Receiving guidance from Bava Gor through Makbul Bava at this sacred site, Parsi families found spiritual recourse for a variety of personal issues, while select devotees also developed the gift of spirit mediumship. According to theorizations of researchers working in the emerging “sub-discipline of emotional geographies,” the way in which the members of this devotional community “feel and experience” the shrine as a sacred space reflects “the wider social relations” informing devotees’ choices to seek help at such a unique confluence of diasporic and devotional traditions.
In particular, the “embodied emotions” of Parsi devotees at this site who emerge as spirit mediums of Sidi ancestor-saints express “the ineffability of feeling” that Liz Bondi notes is central to some analyses of emotional geographies. One Parsi woman, interviewed by the author in 2019, serves her faith community as a medium of the Sidi ancestor-saint Mai Misra, sister of Bava Gor. As a master practitioner of a Japanese energy healing modality known internationally as Reiki, the Parsi medium describes her progress from devotee to spirit medium as her body’s increasing ability to integrate and emit the higher energetic frequencies of the saint over time. She describes her mediumship of the healing energies of the saint through the lens of her work as a Reiki practitioner, who transmits the vibrations of universal life-force energy (Reiki) through her hands to her clients.
This woman’s reflections on her mediumship abilities reveal that Parsi emotional geographies and Sidi sacred geographies not only interface with one another at this site, but with elements of New Age spirituality circulating in the global marketplace of commodified health and wellness modalities. These elements are often decentered from their original contexts and reconfigured in new ways—not unlike the reshaping of East African ngoma traditions by Africans in diaspora in Gujarat. These three geographies as they converge in twenty-first-century Mumbai reveal a unique context that informs our understanding of Indian Ocean diasporas and contemporary cosmopolitanisms in remarkable new ways.