The Aryan - Dravidian Racial Question
[in Tamil Culture in Ceylon]
|"...the term Dravida, like Arya, had no racial
significance. There was nothing in ancient tradition or literature to
show that the terms stood for different races. But there were two distinct
cultures, Tamil culture and Vedic culture.....
the Dravidians were those who spoke Dravidian languages... the
term stood for the people who inhabited that tract of land which went by the
name of Dravida in ancient Indian geography. The original home of the
Dravidians was South India; and as no relationship has yet been established
between Dravidian languages and those of any other family, the former might
be regarded as indigenous... There is a consensus of opinion among
anthropologists that the application of the terms 'Aryan' and 'Dravidian' to
signify racial categories should no longer muddle racial thinking..."
Among the topics of the day in the social and cultural field,
perhaps the most complex is what has been generally termed the Dravidian
problem. In the present context we cannot enter into a full-dress discussion on
the several issues that have been raised over the years on the problem of the
Dravidians, in particular the one that centers round their origins.
On the one hand are those who hold that the Dravidians are
autochthonous to south India. Against this view, is the hypothesis that the home
of the Dravidians may best be sought beyond the borders of India, the centre of
dispersal ranging from Central Asia to the Mediterranean lands and the islands
of the Aegean sea.
The first of these theories that the Dravidians are the children of the soil,
takes us back to the days of pre-history and beyond to the geologic eras, to the
Gondwanaland of the Perm Carboniferous Age and to the submerged continent of
Lemuria, the land mass considered to have once covered either side of India.
The Dravidian problem has so many ramifications, that in the very nature of the
subject, it is hard to come to a finality on the implications of the problem.
All that we are clear about, is the linguistic status of the Dravidian family of
languages, and of Tamil in particular, in the days of the Sangam Age, closing
phase of the pre-Christian era and the early centuries of the Christian era.
My own introduction to the Dravidian problem is linked with a
paper, " What is Tamil Culture ? " read by Prof. V. R. Ramachandra Dikshitar
before the Archaeological Society of South India on December 18, 1935.
Dikshitar contended that the Dravidians are
not aliens and that the term Dravida, like Arya, had no racial significance.
There was nothing in ancient tradition or literature to show that the terms
stood for different races. But there were two distinct cultures, Tamil
culture and Vedic culture. The lecturer believed that racial characteristics
of skin and colour were due to climatic and geographic influences.
Caldwell was nearer the truth when he looked upon the term
Dravidian as being purely philological, the name of a linguistic family.
Hence the Dravidians were those who spoke Dravidian languages. But the term
stood for the people who inhabited that tract of land which went by the name
of Dravida in ancient Indian geography. The original home of the Dravidians
was South India; and as no relationship has yet been established between
Dravidian languages and those of any other family, the former might be
regarded as indigenous.
As regards the progress of the culture of the ancient
Tamils, three distinct stages can be marked out, but no definite dates can
be assigned: the pre-historic period, the pre-Sangam period and the Sangam
On the evidence of archaeology it was pointed out that
before the Stone Age there was a Wood Age. Early man used tools of wood and
then took to tools of stone. Paleolithic implements are of stone and no
pottery is found with them, pottery first appearing in the Neolithic age.
The implements found show that many occupations were
pursued. The presence of chert proved the existence of trade by barter. The
find of megalithic tombs and of the terra-cotta sarcophagus standing on
short legs (found at Pallavaram) bearing a remarkable resemblance to
terra-cotta coffins discovered near Baghdad suggests an active intercourse
between India and the rest of the world. The pre-Sangam period was an age of
metal tools. Slowly the pre-historic Tamils took to the use of an four
metals, iron, copper. silver, and gold.
Five types of culture based on environment developed respectively in the
Neydal or littoral region, the Kurinji or hilly tracts, the Palai or
deserts, the Mullai or forest regions, and Marudam or agricultural tracts.
Later the Palai disappeared, getting merged in the Kurinji.
Here the chief economic pursuit was hunting. These mountaineers by their
contact with people of pastoral and agricultural pursuits became more and
more civilised: and the men of coastal culture, who pursued the occupation
of fishing, developed in course of time an adventurous spirit and from pearl
divers became expert sailors, occupations which persist even in historical
times. But these tribes gradually declined in numbers and became relatively
The Marudam region was agricultural. The tribes that
inhabited it had a settled and civilised life. The existence of agricultural
industry from the Stone Age in South India throws doubt upon the theory of
Elliot Smith that agriculture first developed in Egypt. It was a connecting
link between the pre-historic culture and pre-Sangam culture and of the
The development of agriculture did not mean abandonment of
pastoral life. Pastoral tribes continued to tend sheep and cattle and
supplied domesticated animals to the ploughman and milk and its products to
all communities. The pastoral stage favoured the growth of the joint family
and of the institution of kinship- the frequent contact of these tribes,
each developing a cultural type of its own, exerted a good deal of influence
on their cultures. It tended to break up traditional ruts and stimulate
Some features of this stage of culture were the total
absence of caste, the existence of two forms of marriage, Kalavu and Karpu,
the peculiarities of war and war incidents, the town as the seat of refined
manners, the use of pictographic script and the existence of village
The third stage was after the contact of the Tamils with
Sanskrit culture. In spite of its dominating influence, the Tamils managed
to preserve much of their old modes of life and forms of social
In the discussions that ensued, the hypothesis found general
acceptance, that the dominant traits, racial and cultural, in the population of
South India extend to regions far a field, into North India and beyond.
I gave expressions to my personal feeling that the movement had
probably come into India from the North West, at a time preceding the so-called
" Aryan " invasion, and that cultural development was not a steady and uniform
evolution from one stage to another.
Dr. Venkataramanayya remarked that the author had approached the
matter entirely from the Dravidian point of view and felt that other facts also
called for explanation. The Ramayana distinguishes between two parts of South
India, one inhabited by Rakshasas and another further South inhabited by monkeys
who spoke and acted like humans, the latter including a place that had been
identified with Hampi in the Bellary District. If the Dravidians were
autochthonous, must not these Rakshasas and monkeys have been Dravidians ?
Mr. T. G. Aravamuthan thought that other sources of information
needed to he considered. Lanka was occupied by Rakshasas, of whom the chieftain
was well versed in Aryan learning. If so, how could Rama be regarded as the
earliest carrier of Aryan culture to the South? And there seemed to him to be
nothing distinctive in the environmental classification of cultures to which
reference had been made, since it resembled the earliest Athenian
Caste though not mentioned in the available literature, might
nevertheless have existed, for this early literature consisted of a series of
anthologies containing excerpts to illustrate not culture but perhaps different
types of metrical composition. He thought the participation of Tamil kings in
the Mahabharata war very doubtful, references to them being very few and
probably not contemporaneous. And even if the identifications were correct, it
was quite as likely that the dynasties moved South at some period subsequent to
that war, as that the southern kings traveled North to fight in it.
Mr. R. N. Aingar suggested that this might be a suitable subject
for the society or some section of it to take up for continuous special study
and discussion, in view of its great interest and controversial nature.
The chairman Professor F. E. Corley agreed that much more
investigation was necessary and quoted the warning that an Aryan (or Dravidian)
head was as meaningless as a brachycephalic dictionary. He thought there was
much to be said for treating a particular culture as belonging to a particular
geographical area; but that did not solve the question of how it got there. New
discoveries sometimes resulted in the complete supersession of one mode of doing
a thing by another, but by no means always, and though we may use trains ears
and even aero planes, bullock carts are still in use and so are our feet. Thus
the simultaneity of different modes, does not preclude the possibility of there
having been evolution. He thought that a wood culture could hardly exist without
some tools of harder material with which to work the wood.
The racial tangle to which Prof. Corley drew attention is too
well known to need recapitulation. I had occasion to refer to it in the course
of an Address at the Rotary Club of Colombo on April 28, 1955, in these words:
"In the early days of racial studies,
certain physical characteristics were stigmatised as associated with
inferior races as for example the black Negro, the yellowish Mongoloid while
certain others were considered to be associated with the superior races as
Nordics and Alpine. These preconceived notions and prejudices developed into
the evils of racialism, which now and again disturb the peace of the world.
A notable evil was the exploitation of the doctrine of Aryanism by the
Germans during World War II.
Max Muller, the most prominent of the 19th century linguistic scholars,
introduced the concept of a unified or ethnically single race which he
called, the Aryan. The Germans gave a political twist to the idea of an
Aryan race and used it as a powerful weapon in their policy of exterminating
the Jews. The repercussions of this concept of an Aryan race were so great
that they spread all over the civilised world. Max Muller was so much
alarmed that he disowned his own baby in these strong words:
'I have declared again and again that when I say Aryan I
mean neither blood nor bones nor hair nor skull. I mean simply those who
speak an Aryan language. To me, an ethnologist who speaks of an Aryan
race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair is as great a sinner as a
linguist who speaks of a dolicho-cephalic dictionary or brachy-cepahalic
But it was too late. The idea had struck deep roots and
evoked strong views all over the East.
With the Aryan race concept was contrasted the idea of what was called the
Dravidian race equally erroneous as a racial term. The name Dravida is the
name of the people speaking a group of South Indian languages-Tamil,
Malayalam, Kanarese and Telugu. Tamil is the oldest of this family and the
parental language. The people who listed in the Dravidian-speaking country
developed a homogeneous but complex culture which is the Tamil culture. The
term Dravidian denoted a resident of Dravidadesa who spoke a Dravidian
language. That is perfectly right. That does not give us a racial type. No
racial distinction as Aryan or Dravidian is found in Indian literature.
Classification by races has not prevented the mixing of peoples. There are
no primary races today. Racial studies as such - dividing mankind on the
basis of physical features, are largely receding in the background except
for such studies in physical anthropology as are of interest to and have a
direct bearing on the culture of the people. In fact, the two sets of
studies cannot be treated in isolation. The two make for an inter-related
study, as here in Ceylon where particular problems come up for
investigation, such as the inter-blending of Europeans with the indigenous
peoples, and of European contacts with the peoples of Ceylon."
There is a consensus of opinion among anthropologists that the
application of the terms 'Aryan' and 'Dravidian' to signify racial categories
should no longer muddle thinking.
One of the recent utterances was at a meeting of the Social
Sciences Association of Madras held on 30th January, 1964, when Dr. Milton
Singer addressed the Association on Anthropology and Study of Indian
Civilisation. In the course of the address, the main trends of the problem were
passed in review covering important problems awaiting anthropological researches
including within their range 'the Aryan problem' still haunted by racial
An earlier pronouncement on the Aryo-Dravidian complex was by Prof. Arnold
Toynbee at a Press Conference at the Press Club, Madras (The Hindu, January
12, 1957) in these words:
"What we see of dance and music in South India is a fusion of
the Aryan and Dravidian cultures. The domination of Aryan culture stopped at
the Southern borders of Orissa and Maharashtra from whence the Aryan and
Dravidian cultures intermingled. Accepting much of the North Indian culture,
the Dravidian culture had exerted a strong counter influence on it. What now
obtained was a common Indian culture and the Aryan and Dravidian elements
had happily intermingled.'
At this stage we may revert to the claims of Ramayana as an
account of the Aryan colonisation of the South. As a cross-section of these
studies, I may reproduce below some of the points that are at variance with this
claim of Ramayana, as a chronicle of Aryan colonisation.
A revaluation of the Ramayana in respect of its contents
scarcely bears out this claim. Except that it is an account of the triumph Sri
Rama over Ravana, the King of Lanka, there is nothing in the pages of the
Ramayana that would sustain it as an account of the colonisation or of the
settlement of the Aryans in the South or in Lanka.
Rama's mission accomplished, he returned with Sita and Lakshmana
to Ayodhya, leaving Vibhishana as King of Lanka in place of Ravana. Ravana
himself was the son of a Saint, a Brahmin (Uttarakanda, Canto 9).
Hanuman and Vali are of celestial descent. Hanuman was the son of Vayu the Wind
God. and Vali, the son of Indra (Balakanda, Canto 7). Ravana's only
Raksha descent and Vali's Vanara descent are traceable to the Rakshasa mother of
Ravana and the Vanara mother of Vali. In his domestic life Ravana observed the
orthodox religious practices, as did his son, Indrajit. Vali performed the
Hanuman on his first encounter with Mama spoke as a man of learning which
surprised Rama. Only a person well versed in the Vedas can speak thus. He seems
to be a master of grammar. He has spoken much but. without making a single
Though we can scarcely credit Ramayana as a chronicle of the Aryanisation of the
South we may rightly appreciate it as a contemporary account of the state of
South of India and Ceylon of the days of Sri Rama. In the Deccan we gain an
insight into a number of hermitages in the Dandakaranya and its environs and a
host of tribes or Vanara descent and others.
From what we see, these hermitages were there well before Rama's
presence in the South. The hermitages have been ascribed to the Brahmana period
allegorically presented in the legends of Viswamitra cursing fifty of his sons
to go beyond the Northern homes and go down to the South and live there mixed
with the South Indian tribes. These tribes are believed to be the Andhras,
Pulindas and Sabaras.
The presumption is that the sons of Viswamitra were the pioneers
of Aryan culture. Prominent too in the Aryanisation of the South is Sage
Agastya, traditions which point to Agastya as a pioneer in the spread of Aryan
culture to the South. Of significance too is the authorship ascribed to Agastya
of the first work in Tamil. This would reveal Agastya as a link between the two
main cultures of India, the Aryan and the Dravidian.
So far, we have discussed the issues as they developed round the
paper presented thirty years ago before the Archeological Society of South India
by Prof. V. R. R. Dikshitar. Let us now shift the focus of the study, co-related
to researches in the past few years.
In the words of Prof. T. B. Nair (in his Sir William Meyer
lecture, Madras University, 1962):
"The problem of Dravidian origin is first
how to determine the original area of Dravidian speech in India and secondly
how to define both the region and the relative date at which the Dravidian
speakers entered the country.
An integrated approach has been brought to bear on the study
based on a variety of sources, linguistic, anthropological and
archaeological. In brief, these studies take us to a clearly formulated
hypothesis that the Dravidian speakers of India are to be considered
immigrants from beyond India long before the Indo-Aryan speakers arrived,
that in their advance from the North-West they left a trail behind them, a
delta of Dravidian speech among others in the Brahui of Baluchistan which
shows still so many traces of the old relationship with the Dravidian,
though separated long from its cousins in the South.
Another line of study has disclosed a large number of
Dravidian loan words in the vocabulary of the Rg. Veda. These several
findings support the theory that before the advent of the Indo-Aryan
speakers, the Dravidians were in occupation of a considerable large area of
the country including portions of North and North-West India. Dravidian
influence has been found not only in the vocabulary of the Indo-Aryan but
also in its grammatical structure."
A cultural study of these loan words in the Rg. Veda has led the
students of the subject as Prof. Nair, to postulate that when the Indo-Aryan
speakers first met the Dravidian speaking people in the Punjab, the latter were
primarily agricultural in their economy.
Based on the linguistic sub-stratum of the Mediterranean and
pre-Mediterranean world, it has been shown that "the Dravidian is not an
isolated linguistic group but the survivor of an incorporated and poly-synthetic
family of pre Mediterranean, pre-Hamito-Semitic languages which covered without
a break a vast zone of the Near East some four or five thousand years ago. The
unity of the family was shattered under the pressure of the Semites, the
Indo-Aryans and many other people."
The culture of the Dravidian speakers based on the words which
are common today to Dravidian and to the Basque, has been pictured in these
"On their arrival in India, the Dravidians raised sheep, pigs
and asses. They spun and wove wool and probably other kinds of fibre and had
in their houses ducks and no doubt other domestic birds such as pigeons,
doves and peacocks. They would also build their houses of wood. They named
their towns and villages and they appear to have lived under local chiefs or
kings. Their religion was based on agriculture with rites celebrating
fertility. They believed in resurrection and in the eternal recurrence of
life. They would till the land and they planted fruit trees though few in
number; and it seems that stock farming played a greater part than
agriculture. There is little evidence that this civilisation was martial and
there seems to have been no name for any instrument or weapon made of metal
but pottery and viticulture, on the contrary, were known."
Yet another line of study centered round the Neolithic culture
and the early Metal Age culture, both generally traced to the Near East. On the
problem of the language in relation to race, though linguistic groups and race
do not always coincide yet a co-related study has led to interesting conclusions
expressed in these terms:-
"At present linguistic groups do not coincide with uniform
racial groups and therefore it is not possible to relate any particular
language group to any specific ethnic stock. Nevertheless, where a stable
ethnic type in a linguistic group is also a major ethnic type in that group,
a not unwarranted inference would be that it was also its original ethnic
type .... It is true that Dravidian is a linguistic group and this group
taken as a whole does not coincide with any single ethnic type; but the
principal element in the racial composition of the Dravidian speakers of
South India is the dolichocephalic ' Mediterranean ' of Sewell and Guha."
A significant contribution to the subject is by J. T. Cornelius
who in the course of a learned paper entitled "The Problem of the Dravidians and
the Peoples of the Sea" read before the Annual General Meeting of the
Social Sciences Association of Madras on the 26th March, 1965,(Cornelius, J.
T.: The Dravidian Question: Tamil Culture, Vol. III, No. 2.) co-related the
Dravidian peoples to the distribution of the Mediterranean peoples, the
Pelasgians, the Ligurians, the Iberian and the Egyptian, and along the North
African Coast in Egypt, Tunis, Algeria, Morocco, South East Spain, Portugal,
South Italy and the Mediterranean and the Aegean Archipelago, Crete and the
South West Coast of Asia Minor-collectively termed the 'Peoples of the Sea'.
The data analysed covered a wide field ranging from religious
beliefs to basic occupational and economic life. It was pointed out that a
common system of religious belief animated the life of the ancient
Mediterraneans as of the Dravidians, beliefs symbolised by the Axe, the Horn,
the Stone or the Pillar, the Bull of the Ligurians and the Dolmens of the
Iberians. On the material side, three basic occupations emerge, cattle breeding,
farming and carpentry and wood work.
Finally, we have the views of the Ceylonese Committee on the
Hindu Temporalities embodied in the Report on the Hindu Temporalities Ordinance,
issued by the Ceylon Government in 1955, views generally bearing on the
Aryanisation of the Tamils. Reflecting as it does the views of the Committee
composed or prominent citizens of Ceylon, these observations are entitled to a
measure of recognition.
"The Aryanisation of the Tamils appears to
have been carried out, not as in North India by conquest, but by peaceable
process of colonisation and progressive civilisation. During such process,
Brahmans appear to have been imported from the North. The names by which the
Brahmans are designated in Tamil - Aiyar (Fathers or instructors), Parippar
(Overseers), Anthanar (Gracious Ones) tend to show that the Brahmans
acquired their ascendancy by high spiritual character and intelligence.
After the Aryanisation of the Dravidians was completed, the
Chieftains who founded the Pandya. Chola and Chera were called Kshatriyas;
merchants and titled Vellalas were sometimes called Vaisyas and the untitled
Vellalas, Sudras, which titles were quite inappropriate as these castes did
not exist among the Tamils; but often the entire mass of the Dravidians had
been dubbed by the Brahmans as Sudras however respectable their position
However, in recognition of the higher class among them, the
appellation of " Sat Sudras " was given if they were vegetarians and
conducted themselves well, and Asat Sudras to the rest. According to Agni
Purnam, however, the offspring of unions between twice-born fathers and
Sudra mothers were regarded as Sat Sudras.
"The ancient Tamil society knew no caste system of the type of Varnashrama
classification of the Smrithies of the Aryans. Scholars are of the opinion
that the caste system, even among the Aryans, is a later development.
Tholkappyam, the oldest extant Tamil grammar, has grouped the Tamils
according to the characteristics of the areas in which they lived and not
according to their occupations. Untouchability as a social or religious
institution was unknown among the ancient Tamils."
" The ancient Aryans were divided in Rig Vedic times into ' Janah ' or
tribes and the Janah into Visah, i.e. Cantons and Districts, the Visah into
Gramas, the Gramas into Gosthis (or Vrajas), the Gosthis into Gotras and the
Gotras into Kulas or Families. The people were divided into classes, and not
castes, and each class was named after the work it had to perform.
The word Brahmana, the regular name for a 'man of the first caste' says
Prof. Macdonnell, ' is still rare in the Rig Veda. occurring only eight
times, while Brahman which simply means sage or officiating priest is found
forty-six times.' During the Vedic period all the classes performed the
Vedic sacrifices, and subscribed to the orthodox Vedic faith. Those who did
not perform any sacrifice or believe in the Vedic Gods were put down as
Dasas. These Dasas were later grouped as the Sudra class.
Whether the Dasas. were Ayans or non Aryans, is still an
unsolved problem. Some scholars are of the opinion that the Dasas were
Aryans who gave up sacrifices and Vedic form of worship; others are of the
opinion that they were the aborigines whom the Aryans encountered in their
advance into India.
Even in later times when non-Aryan social groups entered the
Aryan social order accepting their Scriptures and their religious worship,
such groups formed a new caste as it were and their Gods were included in
the main Hindu Pantheon as secondary Deities.
The Tamils were also such a racial group who embraced the
Aryan social order. But unlike the other groups they have contributed a good
deal to modern Hinduism. The religious culture of the Tamils gradually
influenced the Aryans and modern Hinduism is a synthesis of both cultures.
The Aryans gave up the Vedic form of religious worship and took to temple
worship. The agamas are the result of this great synthesis."
From the little that we have presented above, it will be obvious that the
Dravidian problem is one that ever widens in its range and scope and grows more
and more exciting and fascinating with the passage of years.