Wednesday, February 15, 2012

No, Really, Who Am I?

Someone recently asked whether my family is north or south Indian, and the question gave me serious pause. I know, it should be a fairly straightforward question for anyone to answer, yet I’m embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t do it. Even after a bit of research, I’m still not quite certain. Yes, I see you shaking your head and muttering “no way.” And yet…

Part of the problem is that both my parents are from Bombay, born and raised. Bombay or Mumbai, as it's now called is a little like New York. Once you move there, it’s hard to remember anywhere you’d been before. (That dig is specifically directed at my New York friends, who’ve fallen off the map, so to speak.)

And yes, at least a couple of my grandparents and possibly most of my great grandparents were born in the south Indian state of Karnataka. Some of my ancestors even took their surnames from the tiny villages in Karnataka where they lived. That makes us south Indian, right? Maybe.

The distribution of Konkani speakers along India's
southwestern coast. (Photo by ImperiumCaelestis)
The predominant language spoken in Karnataka today is Kannada, a Dravidic language like the other main south Indian languages such as Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil. Dravidians belong to one of two major civilizations that have their roots in ancient India, the Aryans being the other and from which north Indians and Pakistanis have descended. Scholars believe the Indian subcontinent was entirely Dravidian until the Aryans migrated south from Central Asia and possibly the Caucasus (southern Russia).

The two traditions are as different as night and day. The languages are completely different, though today, they reflect slight influences on one another. The Dravidic languages have curly alphabets that look and sound different from north Indian languages, which use the more linear devnagri script. Aryans are typically fairer, Dravidians darker. The two have different accents, and many would say, very different cultures, even histories. Though India is probably one of the most successful melting pots you'll find, as with any large, diverse culture, biases and discrimination exist between these groups. Not as a rule, just on occasion.

Perhaps I’m just reluctant to choose sides, you’re wondering? It’s more complicated. My family speaks Konkani, which happens to sound a lot like Marathi, the main language spoken in Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital. Konkani also shares a lot of etymology from Hindi, a north Indian language. Without much effort, I can understand a good bit of both languages (though more Marathi than Hindi), whereas I cannot understand a word of South Indian languages. I've heard quite a bit of Kannada spoken around my in-laws’ home in Bangalore but still can't understand more than a handful of words. (They, too, are Konkani, yet my father in-law can’t speak a word of it. Or maybe won’t.)

A NASA satellite image shows the location of
the ancient Saraswati River, which has since dried up.
It’s also been established that the Konkani-speaking community from which I hail, known as the Saraswats, descended from one of the five Hindu Brahmin communities that once lived on the banks of the ancient Saraswati River. Many subcommunities hail from these original Saraswats, including the Kashmiri Saraswat Brahmins, of which former prime minister Indira Gandhi was a notable member. In fact, many people from her community use the surnames of “bhat” or “pandit,” meaning priest and religious scholar. Gandhi’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru, whom I wrote about last week, was widely called Panditji, the “ji” added as a term of honor. Many Konkani-speaking Saraswats from Karnataka are descended from pandits as well, from even just a few generations back, before their own kids started moving away to study, work, and eventually take up other occupations in big cities and abroad.

Last month, after being asked about my northern vs. southern roots and stumbling over my response, I did a little research. That is, I turned to Wikipedia, where I learned that my community likely did descend from the original Kashmiri pandits – though not conclusively. (Damn you, Wiki!)

I’d been hearing bits and pieces of this theory for years, even had an American college professor who wrote a book on the topic, so it was interesting to gather more details. Beginning in the early 13th century, forced conversion to Islam had begun in Kashmir, driven in large part by a Mughal general from Turkmenistan. Between 1389 and 1413, religious persecution of Hindus was at its peak under a sultan who at the time ruled Kashmir, leading many Saraswats to head southwest to Goa (just a bit north of Karnataka), drawn there because of the fertile land along the Arabian Sea and the religious tolerance under its local (Dravidian) kingdoms. 

On their way south, the Saraswats passed through Gujarat, which may explain why Konkani-speaking Saraswats share some vocabulary with Gujarati, words even Marathi and Hindi, with their closer linguistic association to Gujarati, don’t use. (Hard to otherwise explain this fact.)
Cover page of the 1622 book,
Doutrina Christam em Lingoa
Bramana Canarim
Doctrines in the Canarese Brahmin
Language"), by Fr. Thomas Stephens,
a Jesuit missionary priest in Goa

Before the Saraswats arrived in Goa, the local form of Konkani had already been influenced by other cultures, for example, by ancient Sumerians who had settled there. Goa had long been a major trade center with the Arabs and Persians as well, so many Arab and Persian words infiltrated into Konkani – such as dhukan for “shop,” fakt for “only,” and karz for “debt.” A few centuries after the Saraswats arrived and adopted Konkani as their new language, Portuguese traders followed by Christian missionaries landed in Goa. From the 16th century until the early 19th century, the Goa Inquisition resulted in many forced conversions, this time to Christianity. To avoid persecution and/or losing their land, a great number of Saraswats converted to Catholicism and even today are known as “Brahmin Catholics.” Goa still retains this largely Christian, Portuguese-influenced Konkani culture and language.

Meanwhile, a smaller group of Saraswats moved farther south, into the small villages and towns of Karnataka. Some moved farther still, into Kerala. In both Karnataka and Kerala, they were able to practice their religion, build temples, buy land, and hold government jobs. Today along this coastal stretch, you’ll find not just Saraswats, but Konkanis of all religions and dialects, too numerous to count. Konkani Muslims in Karnataka, for example, are descended from the intermarriage between the locals and Arab seafarers as well as through conversions. The sailor-warriors from Ethiopia, known as Siddhis, also adopted the language and planted roots in the area. (Yes, there are black people in India. And they weren't slaves.)

When Bombay became a boom town in the early 19th century, a great many Konkani-speaking Saraswats – no doubt, drawing from their adventurous, nomadic roots – migrated there, so much so, that many families, such as mine, lost most of their connection with the south, while others, such as my husband’s family, retained it. Though exact numbers are hard to come by, it’s possible that today as many Konkani-speaking Saraswats live outside of India as within it.

A few parts of this history still aren't clear: how and why did we pick up the Konkani language? It appears that Konkani existed in the south long before the Saraswats’ exodus from Kashmir. The earliest-known proof of its existence dates to about the 2nd century A.D., and Konkani was already spoken on the Konkan Coast, from Goa to Kerala. But that fact only raises more questions – if Konkani was already spoken in that part of the world, what did the Saraswats speak before they moved there? And if we adopted a language that already existed in the area, could we also have been absorbed into its culture through the mixing of bloodlines? Maybe we have both north and south Indian blood? 

And why did the Saraswars adopt Konkani, of all things, and not one of the more widely spoken (read: more useful) majority languages, one with a real script?

A map adapted from A Historical Atlas of South
, Oxford University Press (1992), lists Konkani
as an Indo-Aryan language. (Image by BishkekRock)

The origin of the Konkani language is a puzzle anthropologists are still figuring out as well. It appears to be an Indo-Aryan language, related more to Sanskrit than to the Dravidic languages of the south. One article I found says these Saraswats spoke Sanskrit in public and invented a simplified version, Brahmani, that they spoke at home. Brahmani may have formed a sort of grassroots version of Konkani. A study by the Indian Anthropological Society found that some Konkani speakers (not the Saraswats) are descended from Australoid tribes that came to India from the Mediterranean in pre-historic times, spoke early Dravidian languages, and migrated to north India! (Then moved back with the Saraswats? If so, no kidding about our nomadic spirit. No wonder I'm so antsy.) 

Even the origin of the word “Konkani” is disputed. It sounds a bit like the word Kannada, but it could also have been derived from the Persian (Aryan) word kinara, meaning “the language of the coast." The anthropologists who conducted the study conclude it could just be a language born of the confluence of Indo-Aryan dialects that absorbed some Dravidic characteristics. Either way, Konkani has the structure and syntax of an Aryan language and the grammar of a Dravidic one. 

All that to say that the Saraswats who left Kashmir for Karnataka probably took along their own dialect (possibly Brahmani), borrowed some useful Gujarati words along the way, and melded it all with a Dravidic form of Konkani, which in turn borrowed from the Persian and Arabic. Sounds like a real stretch, but if it's true, it's a pretty astounding amalgamation of cultures and languages.

Either way, I’ll just have to change the subject next time someone asks me that question, don't you think?


  1. Fascinating history, Supriya. I knew there was enormous cultural and linguistic diversity in India (and a lot of interchange with Persia over centuries), but I never realized how much migration went on. I think you can pick whatever origin suits you: Dravidian or Aryan. Though if you're Aryan, you might be distantly related to my husband. :)

  2. Supriya, India is fascinating! I can't wait to get there!

  3. Very interesting read, I am a Kannadadiga and I have lot of friends whose mother tounge is Konkani living here in Karnataka and I have felt that Konkani speaking people are more open minded that say Marathis and are more tolerant towards other cultures.

    Also the Aryan Invasion theory has not been proved, it feels to me that when Europeans saw what a great civilization India was and asked themselves how do we make ourselves part(even start) of this, they came with this Aryan Invasion theory to misappropriate everything Indian, but anyways just want to end with saying the histories of different cultures in India are intertwined especially that of Karnataka/Maharashtra/Goa.

    1. Thanks, Aham, for your comment. Regardless of whether the Aryans came to the subcontinent through invasion or migration (or even a combination of both), I hadn't realized the area was entirely Dravidic to begin with. And you're right that all those regional cultures are intertwined. Personally, I just find those intersections and how they came about so fascinating. Thanks again for stopping by. It's great to get a perspective from someone who actually lives in Karnataka! :)

  4. Hi Supriya,

    You are one the most knowledgeable people I know. A few corrections however.

    1. Muslim invasions of India started in 7th century
    2. Mughals came from Uzbekistan (16th century)
    3. Timur came to India in 15th century (Mughals are his descendants)
    4. Aryans migrated to India about 2,000 years ago and settled in Northern India/Pakistan mainly (NWFP, Kashmir & Punjab). Rig Veda was actually written in Tajikstan border are of Pakistan - several proofs of this exist. The only people who do not believe this are from BJP style doctrine of Hindutava etc which is completely wrong.

    Love reading your stuff ... thanks for sharing.

  5. Point # 4 ... Aryans came to India 2,000 BCE ... (not 2,000 years ago !!) ... typo ...

  6. Kapil, I think "most knowledgeable" would be pushing it. How about most curious? ;)

    Thanks for the clarifications. I know I could have written a lot more on each of these subtopics, but even without those tidbits, I'm afraid I got a little more academic than I'd planned. Plus I was trying to focus only on the Konkani Saraswats. Who knew how interconnected we all are?

    Also, I wrote about some of the topics you touch on in earlier posts, among them:


    Thanks so much for all these great tidbits! There's so much to explore, I'm glad we have the blog to keep these conversations going. Hope you'll stay part of them.

  7. The dating of the Vedas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata is being questioned by research. The Ramayana, for example, describes the four-tusked elephant (Gomphothere) which became extinct at least a million years ago. The Nilmat Purana describes the KashyapMira Lake as covering the entire region of Kashmir. Geologists say this description was true of Kashmir 50,000 years ago, thereafter the lake dried up to a much smaller size. So when was the Nilmat Purana written- must be atleast 35,000 years back - if not close to 50,000, when people still recalled the size of the lake as covering entire Kashmir.

    The mainline history dating of the Indian scriptures is horribly off from what the emerging data shows. So to trace who we are and where we have descended from - we will never know.