Peoples of South Asia

South Asia: peoples


Vicissitudes of history and variations of (geography on the Indian subcontinent have created an intricately patterned cultural fabric, woven but also rent along strands of language, religion, and caste. Over the millennia, newcomers by land and by sea have added to the fabric’s design—Aryans, Arabs, Turks, Afghans, Moguls, and British among others. As the portraits around the map show, the peoples of this distinctive world defy generalization.

Beginning some 3,500 years ago, Central Asians filtered in from the northwest, subjugating Dravidian speakers and bequeathing Sanskrit, the source of most Indo-European languages in South Asia. Today in India alone there is 15 official written languages, hundreds of more mother tongues, and countless dialects.

The birthplace of Hinduism and Buddhism and an exporter of Islam, South Asia embraces a multitude of faiths. Hinduism’s caste system of social tiers based on descent and occupation still orders Indian life, though less rigidly than before.

British administration tied the subcontinent together, but independence movements led to the painful birth in 1947 of Islamic Pakistan, from which Bangladesh split away in 1971, and the secular, predominantly Hindu, Republic of India.

The world’s most populous democracy and a leading industrial power, nonaligned India contains three-quarters of South Asia’s billion people. Like its neighbors, India confronts severe problems. The young nation struggles to maintain political integrity, control population growth, and improve a lot of its diverse peoples.

PAKISTAN AND NORTH INDIA
For thousands of years, the passes of the Hindu Kush funneled waves of colonizers from Central and Western Asia. Virtually all 97 million Pakistanis and many Indians follow Islam, the legacy of Muslim invasions that began in the eighth century.
Long the home of Punjabi and Sindhi farmers, the irrigated Indus Plain increasingly lures semi-nomads— the fiercely independent but hospitable Pathans and Baluchis—from the arid mountains. Purdah-observing Muslim women veil themselves from head to toe, but modern Punjabis prefer a trouser-shirt combination. Despite Islam’s egalitarianism, Muslims retain social ranks; Sayyids are among the gentry.
Traditionally India’s priests, Brahmans also work in government and the professions. The enterprise of Sikh Jats and the sweat of Chamars, largest of the once untouchable castes, help make India self-sufficient in grains. Too dry for a large farming population, Rajasthan gave rise to the now widespread Marwari merchant castes. As laborers, brightly clad Rajast

HIMALAYAS
A barrier but sometimes a bridge between India and China, the Himalayas (Sanskrit for “abode of snow”) fuse natural beauty and exotic peoples, derived from Central Asia, Tibet, and India. The soaring peaks and plunging valleys so isolate the populace that a herder-farmer in one valley may speak a different language from his neighbor in the next.
Kashmiris are renowned for their shawl weaving, using cashmere wool from mountain goats. Ladakhis, who speak a dialect of Tibetan, herd yaks, goats, and sheep, and coax crops of barley and buckwheat from irrigated terraces. In Nepal, Newars reap greater rewards in the lush Kathmandu Valley. Courageous, proud, and disciplined, the Gurkhas (a name misleadingly applied to all Nepalese soldiers) are recruited mainly from the Magar and Gurung peoples. The British and Indian Armies still count brigades of these fierce fighters. Life in the Kingdom of Bhutan, where serfdom was formally abolished in 1956, centers on land-rich monasteries once closely tied to Tibet.

SOUTH INDIA AND SRI LANKA
The fragmented Deccan interior, which connects the mostly Indo-European north and the Dravidian south, shelters large agrarian castes, such as the Marathas, and tribes of Bhils and Gonds. Dry farming of millet contrasts with lowland wet-rice farming—as on the east coast by the Reddis, a major peasant caste, and the Oriyas. Like the Reddis and Marathas, the landowning Nairs extol their military past. The Tamils, with a cultural tradition of two millennia, take pride in their art, dance, and literature. English fares well among professional groups, especially the cosmopolitan Parsis of Bombay. Pre-Muslim Syrians brought Christianity to the Kerala coast; Portuguese traders spread the faith in Goa and other maritime locations in the 1500s. Buddhists, active in Sri Lanka for more than 2,000 years, and Lingayats, whose sect emerged in India in the 12th century, represent a continuing rejection of Brahman domination in Hinduism.

HIMALAYAS
A barrier but sometimes a bridge between India and China, the Himalayas (Sanskrit for “abode of snow”) fuse natural beauty and exotic peoples, derived from Central Asia, Tibet, and India. The soaring peaks and plunging valleys so isolate the populace that a herder-farmer in one valley may speak a different language from his neighbor in the next.
Kashmiris are renowned for their shawl weaving, using cashmere wool from mountain goats. Ladakhis, who speak a dialect of Tibetan, herd yaks, goats, and sheep, and coax crops of barley and buckwheat from irrigated terraces. In Nepal, Newars reap greater rewards in the lush Kathmandu Valley. Courageous, proud, and disciplined, the Gurkhas (a name misleadingly applied to all Nepalese soldiers) are recruited mainly from the Magar and Gurung peoples. The British and Indian Armies still count brigades of these fierce fighters. Life in the Kingdom of Bhutan, where serfdom was formally abolished in 1956, centers on land-rich monasteries once closely tied to Tibet.

EAST INDIA AND BANGLADESH
Easterners are as varied as their land of forested hills, monsoon-drenched plains, and dissected tablelands. A score of Mongoloid Naga tribes, each with its own dialect, raises a range of crops by slash-and-burn farming. Headhunters until recently, the Nagas constitute about 90 percent of Nagaland’s population, and more than two-thirds are Christians. Also mostly Christian are the well-educated Khasis. Some Khasis still erect megaliths to honor their dead. In steamy Bangladesh, with nearly 100 million people squeezed 1,800 to a square mile, Muslim farmers wear sarong-like lungis. Although separated by religion and nationhood, Bangladeshis and West Bengalis share geography and language. Through language, Santals hope to preserve their tribal culture from inroads by land-hungry Bengali and Bihari peasants. The unclassifiable tongue of the fewer than 500 Sentinelese pygmies bespeaks their long isolation in the Andaman Islands.

National Geographic

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