The great difficulty of writing anything very clear or consecutive regarding Indian ethnography or art arises principally from the fact that India was never inhabited by one, but in all historical times, by at least three distinct and separate races of mankind. These occasionally existed and exist in their original native purity, but at others are mixed together and commingled in varying proportions to such an extent as almost to defy analysis, and to render it almost impossible at times to say what belongs to one race, what to another. Notwithstanding this, the main outlines of the case are tolerably clear, and can be easily grasped to an extent at least sufficient to explain the artistic development of the various styles of art, that existed in former times in various parts of the country.

When the Aryans, descending from the plateau of central Asia, first crossed the Indus to occupy the plains of the Panjâb, they found the country occupied by a race of men apparently in a very low state of civilisation. These they easily subdued, calling them Dasyus,1 and treated as their name implies as a subject or slave population. In the more fertile parts of the country, where the Aryans established themselves, they probably in the course of time assimilated this native population with themselves, to a great degree at least. They still however exist in the hills between Silhet and Asam, and throughout the Central Provinces, as nearly in a state of nature2 as they could have existed when the Aryans first intruded on their domains, and drove the remnants of them into the hills and jungle fastnesses, where they are still to be found. Whoever they were these Dasyus may be considered as the aboriginal population of India. At least we have no knowledge whence they came nor when. But all their affinities seem to be with the Himalayan and trans-Himalayan races, and they seem to have spread over the whole of what we now know as the province of Bengal, though how far they ever extended towards Cape Comorin we have now no means of knowing.

The second of these great races are the Dravidians, who now occupy the whole of the southern part of the peninsula, as far north at least as the Krishnâ river, and at times their existence can be traced in places almost up to the Nerbudda. It has been clearly made out by the researches of Bishop Caldwell3 and others that they belong to the great Turanian family of mankind, and have affinities with the Finns and other races who inhabit the countries almost up to the shores of the North Sea. It is possible also that it may be found that they are allied to the Accadian races who formed the substratum of the population in Babylonia in very ancient times. It is not however known when they first entered India, nor by what road. Generally it is supposed that it was across the Lower Indus, because affinities have been traced between their language and that of the Brahuis, who occupy a province of Baluchistan. It may be, however, that the Brahuis are only an outlying portion of the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia, and may never have had any direct communication further east. Certain it is that neither they nor any of the Dravidian families have any tradition of their having entered India by this road, and they have left no traces of their passage in Sindh or in any of the countries to the north of the Nerbudda or Taptee. On the other hand, it seems so improbable that they could have come by sea from the Persian Gulf in sufficient numbers to have peopled the large tract that they now occupy, that we must hesitate before adopting such an hypothesis. “When their country is first mentioned in the traditions on which the Râmâyaṇa is based, it seems to have been an uncultivated forest, and its inhabitants in a low state of civilisation.4 In the time of Aśoka, however (B.C. 250), we learn from his inscriptions, confirmed by the testimony of classical authors, that the Dravidians had settled into that triarchy of kingdoms, the Chôla, Chêra, and Pândya, which endured till very recent times. From their architecture we know that these states afterwards developed into a comparatively high state of civilisation. The third and by far the most illustrious and important of the three races were the Aryans, or Sanskrit speaking races, who may have entered India as long ago as 3,000 years5 before the Christian era.6 In the course of time—it may have taken them 2,000 years to effect it—they certainly occupied the whole of India north of the Vindhya mountains, as far as the shores of the Bay of Bengal, entirely superseding the native Dasyus and driving the Dravidians, if they ever occupied any part of the northern country, into the southern portion, or what is now known as the Madras Presidency. There never was any attempt, so far as is known, on the part of the Aryans to exterminate the original inhabitants of the land. They seem on the contrary to have used them as herdsmen or cultivators of the soil, but they superseded their religion by their own higher and purer faith, and obliterated, by their superiority, all traces of any peculiar civilisation they may have possessed. At the same time, though they never seem to have attempted physically, to conquer or colonise the south, they did so intellectually. Colonies of Brahmans from the northern parts of India introduced the literature and religion of the Aryans into the country of the Dravidians, and thus produced a uniformity of culture, which at first sight looks like a mingling of race. Fortunately their architecture and their arts enable us to detect at a glance how essentially different they were, and have always remained. Notwithstanding this, the intellectual superiority of the Aryans made so marked an impression during long ages on their less highly organised Turanian neighbours in the south, that without some such material evidence to the contrary, it might be contended that the fusion was complete.

There are no doubt many instances where families and even tribes of each of these three races still remain in India, keeping apart from the rest, and retaining the purity of their blood to a wonderful extent. But as a rule they are so mixed in locality and so commingled in blood, that it is extremely difficult, at times, to define the limits of relationship that may exist between any one of the various peoples of India with those among whom they are residing. Their general relationships are felt by those who are familiar with the subject, but in the present state of our knowledge it is almost impossible to define and reduce them into anything like a scientific classification, and it certainly is not necessary to attempt anything of the sort in this place. The main features of Indian ethnography are distinct and easily comprehended, so that there is little difficulty in following them, and they are so distinctly marked in the architecture and religion of the people, that they mutually illustrate each other with sufficient clearness, for our present purposes at least. No one, for instance, at all familiar with the subject, can fail to recognise at a glance the many-storeyed pyramidal temples of the Dravidians, and to distinguish them from the curvilinear outlined towers universally employed by the northern people, speaking languages derived from the Sanskrit. Nor when he has recognised these can he hesitate in believing that, when any given temple was erected, the country was either inhabited, in the one case by Dravidians, or by an Aryan people, more or less, it may be, mixed up with the blood of the native Dasyus;7 but in either case the architecture marks the greater or less segregation of the race, by the purity with which the distinctive features of the style are carried out in each particular instance.

  • 1. Confr. V. de St. Martin, Geog. du Veda, pp. 82, 99.
  • 2. Gen. Dalton, Descriptive Ethnography of Bengal (Calcutta, 1872), is by far the best and most exhaustive work on the subject.
  • 3. Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages by Bishop Caldwell, 2nd edit., 1875.
  • 4. See Indian Antiquary, vol. viii. pp. 1—10.
  • 5. Confr. V. de St. Martin, Geog. du Veda, p. 9.
  • 6. I have always looked upon it as probable that the era 3101 years before Christ, which the Aryans adopt as the Era or the Kali Yug, may be a true date marking some important epoch in their history. But whether this was the passage of the Indus in their progress eastward, or some other important epoch in their earlier history, it seems impossible now to determine. It may, however, be only a factitious epoch arrived at by the astronomers, computing backwards to a general conjunction of the planets, which they seem to have believed took place at that time. Colebrooke’s Essays, vol. i., p. 201; vol. ii., pp. 357, 475.
  • 7. See History of Indian Architecture, p. 210 et seq., 319 et seq. in passim.