Monday, April 16, 2007

The races of India

'What are the major races in India?', my visitor asked.

I was stumped. I knew about India's many religions, languages, castes and sub-castes, but races? I wasn't sure. I mumbled something about the Aryans in North India, Dravidians in the South and the Mongloid people of Eastern India, but I felt like a fool for not being more specific.

So I looked it up, and here is w
hat I found.

First, there is a difference between 'race' and 'ethnic group'. Race is used to denote people that share common physical and genetic traits. Whereas ethnic group denotes people who have common cultural, behavioural, linguistic, ritualistic, or religious traits.

There are 2000 or more ethnic groups in India. These are, however, divided into very few racial types. I'm going to use the classification suggested by Founder-Director of the Anthropological Survey of India, Dr. B. S. Guha (this is itself open to a lot of debate, but hey, at least it's a start):

Negritos: These broadheaded people from Africa were the earliest to inhabit India. They can still be found in the Andamans, and among hill tribes in South India like the Irulas, Kodars, Paniyans and Kurumbas.
Pro-Australoids or Austrics: This group was the next to come to India after the Negritos. They are a brown race of people with wavy hair, spread over the whole of India, Burma and the islands of South East Asia. They are said to "form the bedrock of the people". They cultivated rice and vegetables and made sugar from sugarcane. Their language has survived in the Kol or Munda (Mundari) in Eastern and Central India.

Mongoloids: Found in North Eastern India, these people have features that are common to those of the people of Mongolia, China and Tibet. These tribal groups are located in Assam, Nagaland and Meghalya and also in Ladakh and Sikkim. Generally, they are people of yellowish complexion, oblique eyes, high cheekbones, sparse hair and medium height.

The next group is
Mediterranean or Dravidian: This group came to India from the Southwest Asia and appear to be people of the same stock as the peoples of Asia Minor and Crete and the pre-Hellenic Aegeans of Greece. They are said to have built the city civilization of the Indus Valley, whose remains have been found at Mohenjodaro and Harappa and other Indus cities. The Dravidians spread to the whole of India, supplanting Austrics and Negritos alike. Dravidians comprise three sub-types, Paleo-Mediterranean, the true Mediterranean and Oriental Mediterranean.

Nordics: Nordics or Indo-Aryans are the last immigrants into India. Nordic Aryans were a branch of Indo-Iranians, who had originally left their homes in Central Asia, some 5000 years ago, and had settled in Mesopotamia for some centuries. The Aryans must have come into India between 2000 and 1500 B.C. Their first home in India was western and northern Punjab, from where they spread to the Valley of the Ganga and beyond. These tribes are now mainly found in the Northwest and the Northwest Frontier Province.

And then there's one last small group - the Western Brachycephals. These include the Alpinoids, Dinaries and Armenois. The Coorgis and Parsis fall into this category.

So there it is. An entire smorgasboard of skin colour, height, hair and facial features. That's what India is made up of. And it is further complicated by a lot of intermingling and intermarriage.

There is a lot of debate around racial classification in India, especially around the Aryan-Dravidian classification. Studies have proved that there is no genetic basis for differentiating between fair-skinned Aryans and dark-skinned Dravidians. Very sensibly, the Census of India has dropped the concept of race, preferring instead to focus on ethnic groups, which are identifiable by language and culture. Racial classification, which was essentially a colonial construct, has thankfully disappeared from official publications.

But I'm glad I looked up this stuff. The next time someone asks me about the races of India, at least I'll know what to say.

Acknowledgement: The information for this post came from here and here.

Updated in 2015: There is a gene study in 2013, which has found that all populations in India are a genetic mixture of two ancestral groups: Ancestral North Indians (ANI) and Ancestral South Indians (ASI). The ANI are outsiders (they are related to Central Asians, Middle Easterners, Caucasians, and Europeans) and the ASI are primarily from within the subcontinent. The Study was published by scientists from Harvard Medical School and the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India. This study effectively debunks all previously held concepts of racial differences among Indians. According to this study around 4200 years ago, there may have been groups in India which were purely ANI and those which were purely ASI. But they began mixing, and by 1900 years ago, there were no groups which were purely ANI or ASI. For the past 1900 years, we have been a mixed genetic stock of people. 


CanisLupus said...

Très intéressant!! Though I learnt about Aryans and Dravidians in school, I never thought about 'races' in India.

I think growing up in B'bay, one tends not to think about these things. An interesting aside is that, whenever I speak Marathi, people ask my last name. 'Ad naav kai, tumcha ?" .I used to wonder why, until someone told me that they were tracing my lineage by my last name and a Marathi speaking TamBrahm throws their system out of gear!!!

And when they wonder how I learnt Marathi, my answer is always 'Bombayth vaadlo, marathi bolailach paijey'.

helga said...

How peculiar.. I would really never think of "races" that much in relation to Inida.. Ethnic groups maybe..(for the cultural part).For me people only are "divided" in groups if they seem to feel about it that way themselves..But "ethnic groups" exist next to eachother -vertical lines) and then (at least in some) the complicated still existing feeling of cast crosses some "horizontal lines in,Next thing you have is "a raster" with all little boxes as to where people "belong"..There is a Dutch expression, which literaly translated would be "box-minded"..
what it is used for though is parochalisme/pettymindedness when you can't appreciate anything/anybody beyond yr own little box..(own people.. own culture, own habits as in "us" and the rest of the world..
People can surpise you though in how they see things..
One person (and I would say she is sweet but "boxminded"..) trusted me with the amazing remark about her 2 sons-in-law, let's call them A (arranged mariage)and B..(nothing arranged .. great girl put up a fight an won the battle in getting her own chosen one)
A is of our cast B is not but yet B turns out to be the far better man..
But then also a guy "made my day"..(I asked him a few things about culture an ethics in India, differences and so on and he's the clear opposite of "boxminded")in telling me he's happy to let me in as far as he knows BUT he's NOT really Indian, since..he claims
"I am not originally Indian as I am a descendant of the original Persians who came to India about a thousand years ago"..
I still have to "crawl" up since I killed myself laughing falling off a chair...THOUSAND YEARS??? And you still deep inside feel you are NOT Indian???? Do I spot an unexpected "boxthinking" there???

Deepa Krishnan said...

The Parsi's have kept their distance from the Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and other religions that originated in India. They don't marry outside their community. If they do, they are excommunicated. This sort of 'outsider' status allowed Parsis to be effective intermediaries between the British and the rest of the population. It is not surprising that your Parsi friend said 'Oh but I'm not really Indian.'

The concept of India and Indian-ness itself is quite complex.

helga said...

"complex" would be the perfect wording if THOUSAND years still is not enough to "belong"...and distance between Parsi's and "locals" is still there...Parsi's in that sense I can imagine would be perfect "intermediaries" in politics and social issues.(between Brits and "the rest" in India)..with an outsider "above all" neutral status kept intact..for an amazing THOUSAND years and my pal there is NOT "really Indian"..
Yet - he is not on his way yet/ or even too keen to "belong" "Iran" now-a-days either ...I still will ask him if not "Indian" (and surely not Iran)where on earth..(litteraly) he feels he "belongs".. Would Hindu's as Indian mayority feel he - as a person, not his great, great and so on grandfather -is still "not Indian" ???
I am Dutch...very Dutch even if I have to believe my international friends and if giving it a thought at all I might say I "belong" here..(some people do not yet.. as in second generation migrants...but the third generation is as Dutch as I am)
THOUSAND years ago.. where I happily sit now was an unhabited "swamp'..and I am "the end result" of people fully "ignoring" or even fighting any "closed own community": I have French, Swedish.. German.. Rumanian, gypsy even, far as I can "trace" back..(and that's a sorry 500 years only..)ohh.. not to forget "the variety of Christian branches fighting eachother where-ever"..involved..
While Parsis are (still?? even now??) excommunicated if marrying outside their own group..I am.. pure Dutch and all the "result" of this kind of "excommunication"..on a level of my great great great.. whatever ancestors and not on my grandparents level since they were "pure Dutch" as well..
The "mystery of the human race"..
But I am curious though...would the "parsi" guy - not being Indian-still have something in common with my recently - as in 30 yrs back - arrived Iranian neigbour and his.."very Dutch"..daughter of 26?

Anonymous said...

your parsi friend doesn't understand the concept of biculture - and i strongly disagree with your comment about second generation people not belonging here- as someone who considers herself 1.5 (born in india, grew up here) i know more about american history, presidents, war, politics and foreign policy than i will ever know about Indias. I know the states, the streets in my hometown in VA, cultural differences between western, eastern and southern US far better than i know the differences in India. This person may choose to identify himself as Parsi, and you may disagree with that but identity is a very complex and personal issue that he has to come to peace iwth on this own terms.

vivek said...

I am of indian origin. born in the caribbean, but my father is indian. this dividing a countries people into racial factions is crap although its neccessary to know ones identity and true origins. when a person asks me what race i belong to i tell them i am indian for we cannot say that we are indo aryan, dravidian or parsi or what so ever. as it is our "indian" ancestors came into india so many thousands of years ago that anyone saying that he/she is aryan or so is lieng because of mixing we cannot be of one pure race. so when i am asked what race i belong to i say that i am indian. for the way i see it my origins is from india and i try to encompass all indian attributes, although it may be culturally diffrant to other parts of india from where my father came. in the case of the parsi your still indian as far as i am concerned.

Anonymous said...

This article really helped us to know the concept of different races and ethanic groups. Before this we really didn't have any ideaof different type of races that exist in India. We were actually unaware of our origin.But what so ever have been our origin the modern people of India consider themselves to be Indian.

arshil said...

well i think in india rarely children get to know the concept of races not bcoz we r too good nd dont abuse eachother, but reason is that-we probably have the largest number of ways to devide people.since ours is a mixed race and getting mixed again & again,this criteria does not qualify

Anonymous said...

too much nonsense in your post
nobody knows if the Arya's were nordics, they could also have been of mediterannean stock as they had a similar religious pantheon during the time of ancient greeks and their languages are related

stop talking pls

Anonymous said...

To the idiot who "fell of his chair in laughter" instead of commenting on other people's notions of race and ethnicity maybe you should go out there and do something useful for your country. Your friend doesn't even consider himself to be Indian and yet his people have done more for this country than is fathomable, whereas on the other hand people who consider themselves to be inherently Indian are preoccupied with inconsequential issues. Maybe you should take a lesson in integrity and dedication from your parsi friend instead of mocking him in public as a means to justify some outlandish and contrived theory. And this is coming from a true Indian.
Jai Hind....

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nanu said...

hi, this is Lucent this material really helped me a lot. As i m preparing for my class to give a lecture on this but what i need is a brief notes on race of the India what i have got from your wtittings

Anonymous said...

Wow! India is truly very complex when it comes to races. I was very curious about this so I looked it up. I was curious because I see so many different colored Indians with so many different features. This really gives me a good insight on what I was thinking.

Deepa Krishnan said...

This subject is not just complex but also controversial. I visited a historian called Murag Baig in Delhi recently and he gave me his book, which addresses the "Aryan myth". Once I read it, I will probably need to update this post :)

In summary, there's a lot that we don't know!


deep ganguly, kolkata said...

thanks deepa. this precise classification (though not complete in academic terms) is quite useful and most importantly, brief

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Sandro Heckler

Anonymous said...

hey ya.. well written... plz post the references from which u have compiled this article.. it will add more authenticity to the article


In short, the older view that north Indians are mainly Caucasoid whereas southern Indians are mainly Australoid is incorrect. Indians, both from the north and the south, seem to be a racially admixed population with each individual genotype exhibiting membership in multiple gene clusters, albeit in varying degrees in terms of Caucasoid/Mongoloid/Australoid admixture ratios. South Asian populations consist of an indigenous Australoid base combined with both Caucasoid and Mongoloid racial elements; Indo-Caucasoid (Indo-Aryan speakers and Coon’s hybrid Mediterranean strain) peoples tend to be concentrated in the east and west of India, Indo-Mongoloid (Tibeto-Burman speakers) seem to be concentrated in the north eastern region of the country, and Proto-Australoid/Indo-Dravidian peoples (Austro-Asiatic and Dravidian language speakers) are mostly found in the south, with peoples of full Australoid or “Negrito” origin located on the archipelagos (e.g. the Great Andamanese and Jarawa) surrounding the southern tip of the subcontinent.

To repeat, most of the major Indian populations are so racially admixed that they exhibit membership in multiple gene clusters and are therefore homogeneous genetically on a subcontinental level.

manu jha said...

good ,simple and enlightening.however,there could be many debates.but it is lucidly written and has complete clarity.

turd said...

Sorry, the Y chromosome for Sikhs of the Jat clan is from Central Asia.

Pakistani Warrior said...

Hahahahah, no, on gene test, Pathans, Jats, Sindhis, Balochis, and Kashmiris cluster together, the other races are as far away as the Pakistanis are from Persian people, Pashtuns have 20% ASI, Punjabis have 40% ASI, the Kalash have 22% ASI, the Sindhis and the Balochis are about the same, and Jatts have the most Scythian blood in the whole area, especially Haryana Jatt people.

Anonymous said...

However, it would be wrong to think that science has proven that all South Asians are extremely mixed and there are no pred.-West-Eurasians and pred.-East-Eurasians in the region. The people in East Pakistan (Punjab, Sindh) and neighboring states in north-west India (Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan), as well as many upper castes from the rest of South Asia, range generally from 70% to 80% West Eurasian, and they are thus considered predominantly West Eurasian. Likewise, many tribals in South and East India have very little West Eurasian ancestry, and they are predominantly East Eurasian. This also correlates with phenotype.
The ANI-ASI theory is also, now, outdated. Instead of ANI and ASI, it is better to think in terms of West Eurasian and East Eurasian ancestry. The West Eurasian ancestry in South Asians stems from multiple sources - Indus Valley Civilization, Neolithic Iranians, Eurasian Steppe, etc. - instead of just a single group of Ancestral North Indians. Similarly, the East Eurasian ancestry in South Asians is derived from many different sources such as Austroasiatics, Southeast Asians, and Paniya-like people, instead of just a single group of Ancestral South Indians. More research in the future will provide more insight into the ancestry of South Asians.