Indians – who exactly are we?

My school, Baldwin Girls’, was a fascinating place in terms of demographics.

I often wondered how my schoolmates got their surnames. Some were straightforward, like Kalyanpur, the name of the place the girl’s family came from. Or Bhardwaj, the name of the sage believed to be the forefather of the clan of Bhardwajs, many, many centuries ago.

Rao, I found, could be from Karnataka or Andhra. Bhat could be from a family of Kannada Brahmin priests, or Gujarati, or Goud-Saraswat; a Bhat could be a Kashmiri too. The girl in my class with the surname Singh, which I thought was exclusively Punjabi, turned out to be Rajasthani. Surnames ending with ‘jee’ were Bengali, those ending with ‘an’ were Tamilian and those ending with ‘appa’ were Coorgi or Kannadiga. Patels were Gujarati, Patils were Maharashtrian, Nair, Menon and Verghese were Keralite, Reddys and Rajus were Andhraite, and Shettys, Shenoys and Pintos were Mangalorean.

Names like Middleton and Dixon were Anglo-Indian. I never figured out where the girl with the mysterious-sounding surname of Bandookwala was from.  Unusual names like Tenzing belonged to Chinese-looking kids who were Tibetan refugees living in Bangalore.

'Figure-marching on Sports Day to form BGHS, 'Baldwin Girls' High School'
Figure-marching on Sports Day to form BGHS, ‘Baldwin Girls’ High School’

Our surnames encapsulate our history. My maiden name identified me as having descended from people who lived on the banks of the Saraswati River around 2,000 B.C,  migrated to Bihar-Bengal for a few generations, then settled in Goa, and more recently, in Mangalore. It also identified my mother tongue because my surname, spelt the way my family spelt it, conveyed that.

As I grew up, my interest in how Indians came to be so diverse only increased. Indian history is such a jumble, with whole centuries unaccounted for. I’m still not clear about a lot of what  happened between the disappearance of the Indus valley people in 3,500 B.C and the coming of the Persians and Greeks in the mid-5th century B.C. Nor can I claim to know much about the seven states in the east besides their names, and the names of their capital cities.

The Indian History movie in my head runs like this:

People of African descent came to India 50,000 years ago.

People of Mediterranean origin came to India much later, 8000-10,000 years ago.

Russians, known in our history books as Indo-Aryans, have been here for only about 5000 years.

Persians and Greeks came to India in the mid-5th century B.C., roughly 2,500 years ago.  When Alexander reached India’s northwest frontier, now Kandahar in Afghanistan, around 329 B.C., he was welcomed by the Greeks already living there for a couple of centuries! Their forefathers had come as soldiers in the Persian army. The Afridis of Pakistan and the Kafirs of Afghanistan claim to be descendents of Alexander’s soldiers, as do the Coorgs of India.

Either Chandragupta Maurya (340 -298 B.C.) or his son, Bindusara, is said to have married Durdhara (Greek name Diodora), supposedly the daughter of Seleucus Nicator, the King of Syria. That makes Ashoka part Greek. When the last of the Maurya kings, one of Ashoka’s descendents, died in 180 B.C, the extended family of Mauryas would have become common citizens, and their descendents, probably thousands of them, are now part of India’s population, carrying Seleucus Nicator’s genes!

Parthians and Scythians from Iran came around the 2nd century B.C. The Scythians, whom our books call Shakas, married people from the tribe called Rashtrika and got absorbed; some of the present-day Marathas are their descendents, carrying Iranian genes!

Ruins of a fairly large and important Roman town have been discovered near present-day Pondicherry, indicating that Roman traders had settled there, dating back to the 1st century B.C. or so. I suppose some people alive now are genetically related to them.

In 48 A.D. we had the Chinese trying to get into our country for the first time! The Yueh Chi, or Kushanas, had been driven out of Lanzhou, their native land, by the Huns. They established an empire in India that lasted a couple of centuries, around the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. It included Punjab, Sind and chunks of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. So, is it possible that some Gujaratis carry Chinese genes?!

The Arabs, Turks and Afghans came at the turn of the 11th century A.D. Their descendents are now Indians.

The beginning of the 16th century saw the arrival of the British, French, Portuguese and the Dutch. The last of the Europeans left a few decades ago, but some of them stayed behind, married locals and raised families here.

So this is who we are. Indians. Over one billion people, descendents of folks who came from elsewhere and settled on this patch of land at various points in time. Although the term ‘melting pot’ was not invented until recently, that’s essentially what India has been for millenia.

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11 thoughts on “Indians – who exactly are we?

    1. Yes. When Americans talk about family history, it’s like “My mom’s half-British and half-German, and my dad’s mom’s from Yugoslavia and his dad is, I think. . .” I find that interesting too!

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  1. Well.. with a boat-load (pun intended) of Americans theres a huge loss in translation be it co-inciding with the new outlook that the new immigrant was starting with to loss of communication when the person documenting the entry into a book with very many Taylors, Cooks, Smiths…..which actually was never the name but the profession that was mentioned.
    I agree on the “i think…. ” coz not too many have followed the tree of origin!

    Terrific article!

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    1. Thank you for visiting my blog. I had been to Ellis Island a few years ago so I kn ow what you’re talking about. Sometimes, sitting in the comfort of my room and reading History, I just feel sad for all the suffering people through the ages have endured – and for what? I can understand fighting or killing for food, the way animals do, but what we humans have done to each other for the flimsiest of reasons is what a lot of History is about. And we don’t seem to learn either.

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  2. Hi I am a Baldwinian from the class of 1990 and came across your blog while looking for old photos of school. On the 31st of august our batch are having a 25 yr reunion and we have over 40 class mates coming in from all over the world for it. Love the photo of the sports day formation, have wonderful memories. hope you are well. Suman

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