India's mini-Yemen thrives with Arab traditions during Ramadan

More than 200,000 descendants of Yemenis live in Barkas in Hyderabad

How the Yemeni community in India celebrates Ramadan in their special way

How the Yemeni community in India celebrates Ramadan in their special way
Powered by automated translation

It is well past midnight as a long queue of customers dressed in traditional Yemeni clothes waits outside Abdulrab bin Naser Askari's cafe for a hot cup of gahwa – a spiced Arabic coffee particularly popular during Ramadan.

Men wearing a futah, the traditional flowing Yemeni dress, and kofia caps on their heads sit on plastic chairs in semi-circles, enjoying the tea and coffee as Islamic religious songs in Arabic and Urdu blare out from a music system.

Despite the late hour, the market around the cafe is abuzz with vendors selling haleem or harees and Mandi, to abayas, futahs, dates and perfumes from the Middle East. A pushcart proudly exhibiting bottles of Vimto– a popular drink during Ramadan – stands at one corner of the bustling market.

The scene could be one from any Arab country, but it is in fact Barkas, a little-known corner of the southern Indian city of Hyderabad in Telangana state.

Barkas is known as India's "mini-Yemen" and is home to a community of Indians of Yemeni origin, whose Arabic roots are clear to see during Ramadan.

“We sell gahwa throughout the year but during Ramadan we make special gahwa with dry fruits and saffron,” Mr Askari, a third-generation Yemeni Indian, told The National.

“People start gathering here after taraweeh prayers. There is a majmaah, a congregation until 3am. It feels like a fair every evening."

‘Mini Yemen’

Barkas, a corruption of the English word 'barracks', is one of the hubs of the Yemeni community in India.

Many Yemenis were brought to India in the 18th century by the 6th Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, said Mabrook bin Muhammad AlSaari, a prominent social activist in Barkas.

The Nizam, meaning organiser in Persian, ruled over the largest and richest kingdom, the princely state of Hyderabad, under the British Raj, from 1911 to 1948.

He was once the richest man in the world and appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1937.

He was estimated to have a fortune of billions of dollars and was known to use the Jacob’s Diamond – a 185-carat gemstone that was larger that the Koh-i-Noor – as a paperweight.

The Nizam feared being surrounded by hostile enemies.

To safeguard his territory and his family, he formed a personal army of Arab warriors, mainly from Hadhramaut and Sanaa in Yemen but also from Saudi Arabia.

“The men worked as warriors, personal and treasury guards and were given military barracks in the old city of Hyderabad, the former seat of Nizam,” Mr AlSaari said.

Many came with their families and others married local women making Hyderabad their home.

After India’s independence from the British rulers in 1947 and the dissolution of the Nizam’s rule following the princely state’s invasion by the Indian military in 1948, the Arabs lost their jobs as military men.

Some decided to go back but a large number stayed and assimilated with the locals.

More than 200,000 Yemeni descendants now live in this enclave, exuding a perfect juxtaposition of Indian culture and Arabic traditions, said Talha Kaseri, a Yemeni Indian and local politician from the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen party based primarily in the old city of Hyderabad.

Mixed ancestry

Despite more than 100 years of living in India, people of Yemeni descent have held on to their customs, preserving their Arabic culture and traditions and passing these on to the next generations.

Many also speak Arabic and have relatives in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

“We are Indian nationals but culturally we are Arab and have made an Arab world for us here. You’ll find people from various clans – Wahlans, Kaseris, bin-Mahari,” said Khalid bin Hussain Wahlan, 44, who sells futahs and caps.

“The culture is the same, whether it is food or clothes. We also look like Arabs. We wear futah like the people in Yemen and Sudan and eat haleem and spend time in the mosque. We have relatives in Yemen and would like to meet them some day."

Bushra Bafa, 39, a mother of three teenagers, said she has infused Indian and Arabic traditions to raise her children.

“I have learnt everything about my culture from my mother and grandmother and I teach my children the same values, I want them to grow knowing their ancestry,” she said.

Reverse migration

While Indians are known to have historically migrated to the Middle East for work and better living opportunities, the Yemeni community in Barkas is a reverse of this dynamic.

In recent years, many people whose parents or grandparents had migrated to the Middle East, have also returned to Barkas.

One of them is Faisal Wahlan whose family had moved to Makkah three decades ago. He came to Barkas in 2018 where he runs a small eatery selling basboosa, hummus and gahwa.

“Barkas is the same as Makkah, whether it is the mannerisms or food habits, or culture and clothes of the people. It doesn’t feel different here," Mr Wahlan, 48, said.

“My great-grandfather was from Wadi Bin Ali in Hadhramaut region. My parents were born here but moved to Makkah. I chose to return. It feels good to be here. People are the same and work is good."

Updated: April 07, 2024, 4:43 AM