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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home  > The Tamil Heritage  - History & Geography > The Dravidian Problem - M.D.Raghavan

The Dravidian Problem

M.D.Raghavan
[in Tamil Culture in Ceylon]

"...the term Dravida, like Arya, had no ethnic 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... racial characteristics of skin and colour were due to climatic and geographic influences.... 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 ethnic 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 period.

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 negligible.

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 Tamils.

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 change.

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 communities.

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 organisation.


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 classification.

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 grammar.'

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 theories.

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 Sandhya Vantanam.

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 mistake.

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 words:

"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 was.

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.

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