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  • Uliya

Racial mythology and colorism in South Asia

There is an obsession with being light-skinned in India and South Asia. There's a lot of talk about how that's simply a colonial hangover or due to the continued fetishization and supremacy of the West, but I've learned that it's deeper than that.


Yes, I do believe that colonialism reinforced ideas that being lighter is better and meant higher-status, but I think it was building on existing belief systems in South Asia.


In a Youtube video, I recently learned that in muslim communities that being lighter-skinned means your ancestors were conquerers from West Asia (ie, Mughals, etc). And that if you are darker-skinned then you converted because your ancestors are indigenous to South India.


That echoes the same story that among Hindu communities — that even Hindus want to downplay — that upper-caste people are lighter-skinned and that if you are darker you are lower caste or of non-elite communities. Of course, there are upper-caste dark-skinned people too. Color does not always fall along caste-lines, but colorism and casteism are interrelated [side note: there's an Equality Labs webinar I need to watch about this.]


But where does this come from? Does it come from an unspoken and downplayed but pervasive myth of upper-caste people being exclusively descended from light-skinned Northern conquerers?


Of course, there is no "racial purity" even among upper-caste people, even though this is what the RSS and casteists might purport. These are false and racist myths and pseudoscience. At this point, in South Asia, we are all "mixed up" (here and here) even though there is genetic evidence of the legacy of caste.


And yet, the idea of a nativist fantasy that Hindutva is putting forth to try to quell anti-caste movement and create a Hindu fascist populist movement is also dangerous, false propaganda.


Based on what I've loosely learned about the origins of Sanskrit (here and here) and the origins of "Vedic religion", there was indeed an Indo-Iranian "invasion" (1500 BC) that heavily influenced a failing Indus Valley Civilization (Harrapan?) that heavily influenced what is now North India linguistically (and culturally) and pushed the existing language and culture to the South (hence Dravidian vs Indo-European languages in South Asia). It is unclear the size of this group of Indo-Iranians (so-called Aryans), and whether it was a large group that supplanted the existing occupants or if it was just small influential group that happen to come during a time of great upheaval and impressionability. The origins of Hinduism, vedism, which is NOT "ancient Hinduism," was a combination of Indo-Iranian traditions and the traditions and spirituality indigenous to the area at the time.


The vedic scriptures do mention varnas to varying degrees but it was the later-vedic periods and the laws of Manu (200 BC) that really solidified caste as hereditary and relegated the majority of people to servitude and subjugation. The Brahminization of India (by followers of Manu and the like?), communities, cultures, etc (the root of Hindutva) was perpetuated by a relatively small group of people who came up and had the ear of kingdoms and rulers. [side note: I'm sure someone could argue that there was a vedism, eg Bhuddism, that was practiced that the scriptures don't capture (a folk vedism maybe) or that vedism looked different before the rise of Brahminism, but that doesn't take away from the fact that vedism and caste apartheid are intrinsically connected.]


It must have been a seductive (and diabolical) philosophy because it granted those in power divine right to rule, subjugate, and enslave others. [side note: it's interesting to read about the anti-settler anti-colonial perspective of Indigenous communities in the US. There is an honoring and reclaiming of ancestral ways and as I understand my own "Brahmanical" ancestral ways, I find myself wanting to reject them and embrace something new and different. I think both can coexist but I wonder what that would look like and what tension could arise from that.]


If I am being honest with myself, I would have liked to believe something else because it means I have to take a look at my own ancestry and what my ancestors perpetuated. My father once mentioned to me that we were given the surname Rao because of how we helped out royalty. I didn't quite understand what that meant at the time, but now I understand what that must mean. My ancestors came down to South India from the North (where Brahminism began) to spread Brahminism and help legitimize and solidify feudal power maybe 1000ish years ago.


Yes, I'm sure there was intermarrying and intermixing with the populations there [side note: I think my family's appearance and my ancestry DNA test shows this to be true as does this one.] They are still Tuluva people, and they spoke Tulu (albeit likely a more sanskritized version). I wonder if they learned Tulu in order to proselytize and control or if it was a natural part of the assimilation and integration process...or maybe both? I'm sure they had a Tuluva identity. But they still isolated and separated themselves from everyone else, with likely only tenuous integration, and actively subjugated caste oppressed people as caste supremacists. Research shows that there are separate Tulu dialects and communities based on caste and Tulu Brahmins are known to be separate from everyone else.


I sit with the weight of this. It isn't that I felt drawn to my South Asian heritage and ancestry in any particular way — I hadn't bought into heroic folklore about my family. But I did allow it to be shrouded in mystery to some extend to allow for ambiguity that it could be bad or it could be good...but I just can't know.


But the reality is I can know. The legacy of caste is enduring and the fact that both sides of my families are aware and participate in endogamous arranged marrying and some level of "caste pride," that inevitably tells me a lot about my family's history.


It leaves far less room for ambiguity.