Often, we have been under the delusion that our ancestors were a tribe of Aryans coming from the west and spreading culture and civilisation to the entire subcontinent. Most people mistakenly believe this. What is worse they glorify the same thinking it is part of historical truth.

What is true, however, is that Indo-Aryan did gradually spread across north India and incorporated in the process elements of Austro-Asiatic and Dravidian. But what the above should indicate, and is not taken for granted and has to be introduced as a novel idea to most of us, is that the above are actually not tribes of people. They are rather language clusters.

Indo-Aryan then is a speech group, much like Autro-Asiatic and Dravidian. These are not races. In fact, the racial identity of those who spoke Indo-Aryan languages is unknown.

According to the historian par excellence, Romila Thapar, “when textual sources refer to ‘arya’, the reference is generally to an identity that involves language, social status and associated rituals and customs.”

The Aryan then is but a cluster of people sharing a a common backdrop – that of language, rituals and customs. The Aryan is generally thought of in the common imagination today as a group of people from northern India as opposed to people from southern India: the Aryan versus the Dravidan, but this is not true.

It is language that divides, not race. Race in itself is a category constructed and generally thought to be based on physical or biological markers. I could go into the fascinating subject of what the eighteenth century Western philosophers thought of race, how it was biologised in the 19th century in the West, etc but that is the subject beyond the scope of this post.

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