From spice roots to modern routes: Revisiting Leicester's diverse legacy

This South Asian Heritage Month, Tiyanna Mistry explores community, resilience, and celebration in local south Asian communities.

Photo of Belgrave Neighbourhood Centre
Belgrave Neighbourhood Centre

Leicester is a city that stands as a testament to the beauty of cultural diversity. It is renowned for its rich multiculturalism and strong south Asian presence. However, beneath this vibrant surface lies a captivating and often overlooked narrative of how this south Asian identity came to be.

With South Asian Heritage Month under way, it’s only right that we unearth Leicester’s south Asian history and trace its foundations by speaking to the south Asian residents of Leicester and learning more about the city’s south Asian history.

South Asian community growth and settlement 

Photo of Leicester Belgrave Mela celebrations in the city centre © Kiran Parmar
Leicester Belgrave Mela celebrations in the city centre

South Asian culture is a renowned part of Leicester’s tourist pull, but how did this come to be and how was this culture ingrained into Leicester?

The south Asian community in Leicester primarily consists of individuals with roots in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. With a population of around 566,000 as of 2023, around 43.4% of the population identifies as Asian.

This cultural presence traces back to the first wave of south Asian immigrants who arrived and settled in Leicester in the 1950s and 1960s. These individuals contributed greatly to Leicester’s economic and cultural landscape by creating new businesses, introducing new foods, and bringing an influx of new culture and celebration to the city.

Retired mechanical engineer, Dhirajlal Karsonbhai Vanmali who migrated here in the 1960s described his first experience of settling in Leicester: “I came here in 1961, long before the Ugandan expulsion of Asians in 1972. So, at the time there were hardly any Indians, and it was a strange and scary new place to navigate.

“Though I have grown accustomed to life here, it wasn’t an easy journey to get to where I am now as I faced hard times to try to make a living for myself and my family.”

“In my first job in this city, I went door to door selling saris out of a suitcase, and sometimes I would have to do this work in such harsh conditions where the snow reached my knees, and it was near impossible to even walk outside.”

This perseverance was a huge part of many south Asian lives in Leicester, as their initial settlement laid down the foundations for the rich south Asian culture we see in the city today.

Local business leader, Uday Dholakia explained how south Asian life in Leicester has evolved over the years: “As a generational family we have faced all the pressures of modern British life, but we have found our heritage, faith, and family to be our support and reference point in the troubles of life. I would also say that we in our south Asian community have become more tolerant of ourselves – we have a model community here of all faiths and none.”

Dholakia also expressed gratitude for the warm welcome: “We are indebted to Leicester’s communities for taking us into their hearts and minds, like the Caribbean community”.

South Asian resilience

Photo of people lighting candles during Go Puja © ISKCON Leicester
Lighting candles during Go Puja

There is something to be said about the south Asian resilience in Leicester.

Despite the easy adaptability of Leicester’s south Asian community, they have also overcome much adversity. Discrimination, economic hardship, and social barriers have also been aspects of south Asian life and have been faced with determination and resilience.

Dholakia explained how the resilience of the community has contributed to the city’s vast history: “We have punched above our weight and grown the economy of this small city.

“We see our history reflected in the wider community – as an example, Leicester Museum recently shared the stories of grit and determination shown by our east African forebears who were expelled from Uganda. Nowadays, the bright saris sold on Belgrave Road are the envy of our extended families in Mumbai, Dubai, Kampala, and Ahmedabad. Leicester has become a tourist destination based on the social pull of friends and families.

“Hard work and resilience in business have led to common prosperity. The resilient attitude coupled with a tenacious stride towards education and civic engagement makes the socio-economic life something to celebrate. For all the celebrated millionaires and self-awardees, the majority remain grounded and modestly low-key. That remains Leicester’s hidden charm.”

“The prosperity and dynamism of Leicester must be credited to the tenacity and resilience of Asian women. When there are challenges in the life of the city, it is often due to the lack of capturing the wisdom, empathy, and the natural sisterhood Asian women have.”

A retired factory worker, Parvatiben Mistry spoke about her experience when she first arrived in Leicester: “I came to Leicester in 1965, when there were limited south Asians and walked to work every day. I put in any extra hours I could, taught myself how to read, write, and speak English, and then come home to care for my family.

“Life was incredibly hard, and I have fought to get where I am today. I remember working tireless hours in the mornings whilst my husband worked nights meaning we didn’t get much time together and were constantly pushing through to make sure our children had the best life in this new country. 

“The south Asian community we see now has definitely flourished due to the hard-working efforts of earlier generations who settled in Leicester and created this community”. 

These resilient efforts of Leicester’s early south Asian community are certainly not to be forgotten in vain as the city’s identity would not be what it was without it.

The city buzzes with a festival atmosphere

Photo of Go Puja festivities © ISKCON Leicester

South Asian celebrations and festivals are a huge part of what makes Leicester such a great city to live in as it is constantly abuzz with culture.

Some key celebrations and festivals include Leicester’s Belgrave Mela Festival, the annual Diwali lights switch on and the Indian Summer Festival.

Dholakia spoke on Leicester’s community celebrations: “This city celebrates the Irish Saint Patrick's Day, the Muslim Eid-el-fitr, the Sikh Vaisakhi and of course at Diwali we have the largest mela in Europe. It's good to see everyone recognised, valued, and respected.”

Leicester is renowned for its Diwali celebration as the city holds the biggest Diwali festivities outside of India, from the fireworks to the food and dance.

Technical director, Umesh Mistry, recalls the moment this tradition first started in 1983: “I remember the excitement in the air when they first closed the road off on a cold autumn day for the Diwali celebrations, it was nothing I had seen before, and it created this buzz of anticipation around the area.

“As I’ve got older, I realise how profound that moment was because Belgrave Road (the Golden Mile) sits at the heart of Leicestershire’s south Asian community. Seeing the entire road closed to celebrate the joyous occasion of Diwali, makes me proud to be a British-Asian.

“It was also good to see people from other communities celebrating south Asian culture with us with similar excitement. I am proud to have been and born raised in a city that is thriving with south Asian culture.”

Leicester is without a doubt a city that lives and breathes culture, from its food to its residents and for that reason, it stands as a hidden charm of the east Midlands.

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