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The People of India, Ethnic and Cultural Groups

westernmost state, Dravidian language, Sino-Tibetan languages, Bhil, adivasis

India’s population is rich with diverse ethnic and cultural groups. Ethnic groups are those based on a sense of common ancestry, while cultural groups can be either made up of people of different ethnic origins who share a common language, or of ethnic groups with some customs and beliefs in common, such as castes of a particular locality. The diverse ethnic and cultural origins of the people of India are shared by the other peoples of the Indian subcontinent, including the inhabitants of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka.

The overwhelming majority of India’s population share essentially the same physical characteristics. There is no concrete scientific evidence of racial differences within this majority, although there are ethnic and cultural differences, such as language and religion. In physical appearance, Indians have brown skin of many shades, mainly straight black hair, and, with few exceptions, brown eyes. Other physical characteristics, such as nose shape, in most cases do not clearly differentiate one group from another. People of different regions are, on average, different from others in skin shade and height, but the overlap is great.

There are also groups of people in India that have been identified by the government as tribal, meaning they belong to one of the more than 300 officially designated “scheduled tribes.” The tribal people are sometimes called hill tribes or adivasis (“original inhabitants”) and in 1991 made up about 8 percent (more than 65 million people) of India’s population. For the purpose of affirmative action, the Indian government publishes “schedules” (lists) of the tribes, as well as of some other disadvantaged groups, such as the former Untouchables. Members of India’s various hill tribes are thought to be indigenous and tend to be ethnically distinct. These groups typically marry within their community and often live in large, adjoining areas, which are preserved by government policies restricting the sale of land to tribe members.

Major tribes include the Gond and the Bhil. Each has millions of members and encompasses a number of subtribes. Most other tribes are much smaller, with tens of thousands of members. Very few tribal communities now support themselves with traditional methods of hunting and gathering or with shifting cultivation (also known as slash-and-burn agriculture) because of government restrictions aimed at protecting the environment. Instead, they generally practice settled agriculture. Tribal groups tend to live in rural areas, mainly in hilly and less fertile regions of the country. Less than 5 percent practice traditional tribal religious beliefs and customs exclusively; most now combine traditional religions and customs with Hinduism or Christianity. Eighty-seven percent identify themselves as Hindus, and 7 percent, mainly in the northeast, as Christians.

Most tribal groups live in a belt of communities that stretches across central India, from the eastern part of Gujarat (the westernmost state); eastward along the Madhya Pradesh-Maharashtra border; through Chhattisgarh, parts of northern Andhra Pradesh, most of interior Orissa, and Jharkhand; and to the western part of West Bengal. The western tribes speak a dialect of Hindi, the central tribes use a form of the Dravidian language, and the eastern tribes speak Austro-Asiatic languages.

The other major concentration of tribal people is in the northeastern hills. Tribe members make up the majority of the population in the states of Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Arunachal Pradesh. These people, many of them Christian, speak languages of the Sino-Tibetan family. Sino-Tibetan languages are also spoken by the Buddhists who live along the Himalayan ridge, including the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttaranchal, and Jammu and Kashmir (specifically, the region of Ladakh). In the Himalayas particularly, isolation on the mountain flanks has led to languages so distinct that ethnic groups living within sight of each other may not understand each other. Other tribes live in southern India and on India’s island territories, but their numbers are not large.

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