Comparative Studies in Society and History

Perception of Ethnic and Cultural Differences

The Image of the Barbarian in Early India

Romila Thapara1

a1 Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi

The concept of the barbarian in early India arises out of the curious situation of the arrival of Indo-Aryan-speaking nomadic pastoralists in northern India who came into contact with the indigenous population (possibly the remnants of the urban civilization of the Indus) and regarded them as barbarians. The earliest distinction made by the Aryan speakers was a linguistic distinction and, to a smaller extent, a physical distinction. The Indo-Aryan speakers spoke Sanskrit whereas the indigenous peoples probably spoke Dravidian and Munda. However the distinction was not one of binary opposition—in fact it admitted to many nuances and degrees of variation, hence the complication of trying to trace the history of the concept. The distinction was rarely clearly manifest and based either on language, ethnic origins or culture. Political status, ritual status and economic power, all tended to blur the contours of the distinction. Added to this has been the confusion introduced by those who tend to identify language with race and who thereby see all speakers of Sanskrit as members of that nineteenth-century myth, the Aryan race.

Metrics