The Cultural Diversity of the Indian Subcontinent

  By Sreenivasarao Subbanna, 5 April 2007; Revised
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The opening lines of the South and Southeast Asia segment speak about the rich cultural diversity of the Indian subcontinent. Let us dwell on that.

1. Prof. Arnold Toynbee defines civilization as a pattern of interactions between challenges and responses. The challenges may come from different directions; say from environment or from social and cultural stresses. To these, the people living in a land mass over a great period of time develop their responses to ensure individual and collective survival. What is important in such situations is; the responses should always be individually satisfying and socially relevant. The web and warp of these responses and corrections, over a period, weave the cultural pattern of a society. The story of the Indian subcontinent is no different.


2. Bharatha Varsha

2.1. Indians in their daily prayers still refer to themselves as those belonging to the land -mass of Jambu-Dwipa (Sanskrit) a geographical area comprising the present day India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria and Corinth. Within this vast stretch of land, Indians identify themselves as those residing in Bharatha Varsha. They call it a country situated to the north of the ocean and to the south of the Himadri, the snowy mountains, and where the descendants of Bharata (a distant ancestor of Rama) dwell.

2.2..Rig Veda mentions Bharathas ruled the land that spread over the banks of the rivers Parushni (Ravi) and Vipasa (Beas) .Kautilya (c. 350-283 BC), the renowned author of the Artha shastra, names Bharatha Varsha as the land that stretched from Himalaya to Kanyakumari ; he also called it Chakravarthi –Kshetra ( the land of the Emperor). An epigraph of Kharavela (209 - 179 B. C?) who ruled over the region of the present day Orissa, found in Hathigumpha (near Bhubaneshwar in Orissa) uses the nomenclature of Bharatha Varsha. There are, of course, innumerable references to Bharatha Varsha in various Puranas.


3. Composite Culture

3.1. Rig Veda often regarded as the source, if not the beginning, of Indian culture repeatedly refers to the composite character of its society and to its pluralistic population. The other ancient records also state that even from the early years of its history Bharatha Varsha, the Indian land mass, has been multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-lingual. For instance , its society included, among others, Bhalikas (the Balks), Kiratas (hill tribes), Bhotas (Tibetans), Hunas (from Jungara), Sakas (Scythians), Parasikas (from Persia), Airakas  (from Iraq),Yavanas (from Iona), Maidas (from Media) and Kambhojas (from Cambodia). This composite culture was the result of continuous influx of people from other regions and a dynamic interaction with them.


4. The Influx

4.1. The influx of foreigners continued down the ages. About 500 years B.C.E the Greeks, the Sakas (Scythians) came to India. The Persians have of course been a part of the Indo-Aryan heritage even from the times of the Rig Veda. In the early centuries before the present era, the Kushans from Central Asia entered through the North-West. In the first Century A.D., the Spanish Jews as also St.Thomas, the Apostle, reached the Malabar Coast in South of India. This process continued with the arrival of Huns in the fifth century, Arabs in the eighth century, and with the Mughals who invaded and settled in India during the 15th century. Around the same period, Portuguese landed on the coast of South India and eventually made Goa their home. On the other side of the sub continent, the Mongoloid Shans entered Assam while Mongolians inhabited the upper tracts of the North. Thereafter the western traders such as the Dutch, the French and the British vied with each other to get a foothold in India. Eventually the British prevailed not only over its rivals but also over the native Indian rulers. The British Empire lasted in India for nearly a century thereafter. The continuous influx of foreigners over a long period rendered Indian scene complex and colorful.


5. Assimilation and Amalgamation

5.1. The much-hailed composite culture did not come easily. It demanded its price. The several foreign invasions and aggressions caused large-scale cultural stress. Indigenous populations were exposed to cultural and social influences that were altogether alien to them. They had to under go untold hardship and misery. There were long periods of political subjugation, economic exploitation and religious suppression and there was general degeneration in the quality of man and his life. The ordinary man in India was no longer in peace with himself, his age-old style of life was shaken rudely and his view of his fellow beings and life was confused .The process of assimilation and amalgamation spread over a long period is still going on. It is an on –going dynamic process.

5.2. A number of Scholars and various Commissions have studied the racial and social amalgamation in India.

Meghasthenes (350 B.C.E to 290 B.C.E) a Greek traveler and Geographer, in his book Indika wrote "It is said that India, being of enormous size when taken as a whole, is peopled by races both numerous and diverse, of which not even one was originally of foreign descent, but all were evidently indigenous". He gives a detailed classification of the ethnic groups in India of his time. The racial groups described are too numerous to be mentioned here. Please check the following link.

5.3. Among the other studies on the subject, in the recent past, the report of the British anthropologist Sir Herbert Hope Risley, the Census Commissioner for India in 1901, is fairly well known. Let me add a word of caution here; Risley’s theories and classifications are now only of historical interest. The Government of India and the National Census of independent India do not recognize any racial groups in India. The erstwhile group names are generally considered as linguistic terms, rather than ethnic terms.

Risley’s account of racial characteristics of Indian population provides an interesting aspect of the composite nature of the Indian populace.

Turko-Iranian (the frontier provinces)

Indo-Aryan (Punjab, Kashmir, Rajasthan)

Scytho-Dravidian (Madhya Pradesh, Saurastra)

Aryo-Dravidian (U.P, Rajasthan, Bihar)

Mangolo_Dravidian (Bengal, Orissa)

Mongoloid (Nepal, Assam, Himalayan region)

Dravidian (South India, M.P, Chota Nagpur)

Negrita (Kadars and Mala-pantarans of Kerala)

Proto-Austalaid (tribes)


6. Cultural Diversity

6.1. The reasons for cultural diversity may lie in the combination and interdependence of geographical, economic and ethnic factors. Toynbee's thesis of the "challenge of environment" mentioned earlier, might explain to some extent why and how unique cultures developed in certain regions. This may even pertain to a region such as the Indian subcontinent.

6.2. The diversity in the Indian cultural is not merely in its ethnic or racial composition. It is in every walk of its life. Starting with the geographical features, climatic conditions, and the vast regional and intra regional differences one can go on to religion , customs ,attitudes, practices, language , food habits, dress , art , music , theatre and notice that no two regions are alike in these matters. Each group, each sub group has its own set of identities. Then, what holds India together?

6.2. M. C. Chagla, a legal luminary and a statesman, said there is an Indian- ness and an Indian ethos, brought about by the communion and intercourse between the many races and many communities that have lived in this land for centuries. He said, there is an Indian tradition, which overrides all the minor differences that may superficially seem to contradict the unity. This, according to him, is what holds India together.


7. Unity in Diversity

Heinz Werner Wessler says India’s traditional multi-cultural society that came into being in the pre-modern context, is probably the most important resource for a political and cultural vision of "Unity and Diversity". Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Independent India’s first Prime Minister, often said India’s strength is “the unity in diversity”. While a majority accepts this motto, some lay stress on its inevitability. Because, they remark, the motto may imply to mean that while we recognizes the actually existing diversity we also appreciate the need for unity. Hence, they say, unity and diversity are not contradictory but complementary. At the same time, the modern state in principle always approves of diversity and looks for ways to enable minorities to identify themselves with the state as much as possible. This is a complex situation.


8. Concept of a Nation

8.1. Nations are, in the words of Ernest Renan, ultimately a consensus among people who wish to be included in a nation. Over the centuries, the notion of an India nation has exerted a powerful influence on the peoples who make up India. However, it was not easy to make it a reality because of several constraints. India was not a homogeneous country, by any classification. In addition, the boundaries of India changed very often. It was difficult to sustain the image of a nation since the four famous criteria of the State viz. land; people, government, and sovereignty were not always present. An amorphous feeling of belonging may bring together people of different culture, language, and even religion. However, that alone will not transform them into a nation. There has to be a political awareness of belonging to a single entity. That solidarity and commitment to the concept and reality of nation is essential. In India, the essentials for a nation did not materialize until recently.

8.2. Whatever may be the debate about political unity and cultural diversity in India, the fact is the diverse peoples of India have developed a peculiar type of culture far different from any other type in the world and have learned to live together as one people. This unity transcends the countless diversity of blood, color, language, dress, manners, sect et al.