Barkas, India: a slice of Yemen in Hyderabad

The town is home to millions of descendents of Yemeni migrants who moved to India in the 17th century

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At the first signs of daylight, the call of the muezzin from the tall minarets of Jamia Masjid reverberates through the lanes of Barkas, serving as a cherished wake-up call.

It’s not yet 7am, but the area surrounding the car park in this old neighbourhood in Hyderabad, India, is already buzzing with activity.

Groups of men stand along the road with pushcarts and bicycles, picking up guavas, mulberries and rose apples, and arranging them elegantly on the carts and in baskets. The scene in this Yemeni-dominated area has not changed much since the era of the reign of Mir Mahboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad. Growing — and then selling — fruit started out as a hobby for the community, with some turning to it as a full-time job to supplement other income.

In the bustling township of Barkas, every scent and sight makes one feel as if one is in an Arab country, because the migrants — most notably the Lahmadi tribe — have retained their distinct culture and lifestyle.

Barkas has been home to migrants from Yemen since the 17th century. The town derived its name from the word “barracks”, after the large areas where Arab soldiers and refugees brought into Hyderabad lived with their families. What started out as a space for a few hundred families now houses more than 200,000 Arab descendants from 150 tribes, most of whom are Yemeni.

In his soon-to-be-released book, Five Partitions: The Making of Modern Asia, historian Sam Dalrymple says the current percentage of Yemeni migrants is still way less compared with before the 1947 India-Pakistan partition. “The Nizams brought over a huge number of Arab soldiers from Yemen prior to the partition. After Hyderabad was annexed into India, most of them were sent back to Yemen in 1948, which created a sort of chaos in Yemen,” Dalrymple says. “The current migrants are those whose grandparents were already settled in Hyderabad.”

It is a common sight to see men in kanduras, ghutras and amamas streaming out of their homes to perform fajr prayers.

Clothing and culture aside, the Arab tradition of maintaining the family tree (shajra) and adhering to tribe surnames such as Al Amoodi, Al Qureshi, Al Hashmi and Al Qarmooshi, has helped to preserve identity.

While some migrants work in the private and government sectors, most have their own small businesses. Amir bin Osman Hamadi runs a clothing shop with his elder brother. “We sell all types of traditional clothes worn by men. I am so glad that we still follow our traditions and haven’t forgotten our roots,” he says.

Elsewhere, restaurants such as Hadrami Harees, which launched more than a century ago, serves Arabic dishes, including its namesake harees (incidentally, the Hyderabadi dish haleem is a version of harees, Indian dal and Telangana spices, Dalrymple says).

The neighbourhood also houses a Yemeni video library, tailors and shoe sellers, as well as Dubai Bazaar, an all-purpose shop.

Yemeni migrants from Barkas can also be found in other GCC countries, as well as Australia, the US and the UK. Mahmood bin Ali Balahwal, a resident of Barkas, works in Dubai and visits Hyderabad during Ramadan. “We’re the fifth generation of Yemen migrants settled in Hyderabad; my ancestors moved here some 150 years back,” Balahwal says.

According to a study titled Understanding Homeland & Identities — A Study of Barkas in Hyderabad by Anushyama Mukherjee, most second and third-generation Yemenis were born in Hyderabad and have never visited Yemen. Most of the present generation cannot converse in Arabic, and instead use a mix of Deccani Hindi and Urdu. To overcome this, some families are now sending their children to mosques to learn how to speak and write in Arabic, because they still believe the Gulf is their second home after Hyderabad.

Updated: May 27, 2022, 6:02 PM