Ethnic Groups in India

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  • 0:04 The Most Diverse…
  • 0:33 What Is Ethnicity?
  • 1:39 Language
  • 2:47 Geography
  • 4:33 Religion
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Victoria Leo

Victoria teaches college, authors books, has a therapy practice and masters degrees in anthropology and psychology.

India has been the most ethnically diverse nation on Earth for many centuries, with over two thousand different ethnic groups. Ethnic categories exist based on language, religion, geographical ancestry, and other factors.

The Most Diverse Nation on Earth

When you hear the term ''ethnic diversity'', what country do you think of? The USA? Are you surprised to learn that the most ethnically diverse country on Earth is India? You have to look to the entire continent of Africa to find more native ethnic diversity than in this single country. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. India has been extremely diverse for centuries. How this has come about is a fascinating story.

What is Ethnicity?

Before we can explore the story of India, we have to define what we mean by ethnicity. Anthropologists define ethnicity through a shared membership in an important cultural grouping. Ethnicity, like race, is a cultural category, not a biological one. Co-religionists can form an ethnic group, because members of a religious community share many cultural values, especially in India where religious identity is such an important part of personal identity. Ethnicity can also be a function of the common culture of a geographical area. For example, the people of Bengal wear a distinctive style of clothing and speak one of the dialects of the Bengali language.

People who live in a geographical area may also have a common in-migration history; yet the most common way to define an ethnic group is through the language one speaks. With the exception of highly educated mobile professionals living in the major cities, most Indians live in the geographical area of their ancestors, surrounded by neighbors who share their language, customs, religion, and other aspects of ethnicity.


Have you ever watched an Indian Bollywood movie? Do you remember the bewildering array of language options? In addition to Hindi, the native language of the people who live near Delhi, the historical capital, you might have heard Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Kannada, and Malayalam- the principal native languages of the subcontinent.

The family of languages native to South India is very different from the family that the languages of Northern India (and, interestingly, English) belong to. Large-scale migration into India from Central Asian people of a very different appearance, language, family, and customs, created this diversity. The Indo-European languages, including Hindi, are native to the north, and the Dravidian languages, including Tamil and Malayalam, are native to the south. In addition to these two major language families, India also includes members of five other, unrelated language families, mostly situated on the edges of the country near the Himalayas, in the northeast and the west, and on islands like the Andamans.

Keralans fishing.  Dravidian-speakers.  Dark-skinned southern Indian.


You may have noticed, from media or co-workers, that Indian people have distinctly varied physical appearances, corresponding to historical invasions of the subcontinent beginning approximately 5,000 years ago. From your study of world history, you know about the invasions of the Persians and Greeks of Alexander's time, followed by the Central Asian Muslim peoples who created the famous Mughal Empire of Northern India.

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