Who Are the Aryans?



India has been a homeland of many foreigners from the very early times. People from different regions have entered into Indian lands through invasions, migrations and other means. Among them the arrival of the people known as Aryans have been much debated among the historians, archaeologists and other scholars.The so-called “Aryan issue” has its roots in the genesis of the Aryans. Some of the fundamental mysteries surrounding them and the topics of controversy include when, wherefrom, and how they travelled to India. These issues have not always been considered purely scholarly but have also taken on significant political consequences. The Aryan debate have been used for various political agendas during the colonial and the post-colonial times. When large parts of Africa and Asia were colonized by the Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many scholars interpreted history as a movement and interaction of various races. For some scholars the term ‘race’ only meant an ethnic or cultural group while as others classified the people into various races on their physical and other features. Most of these classifications were racist in nature and provided the pseudo-scientific justification of superior European subjugation of inferior Asian and African people.

Meaning of Arya:

The composers of Rig Veda called themselves as arya or the worshippers of Indra were called arya. The term appears in various Indo-European languagesand has an ethnic or cultural connotation.The term in the Rig Veda also connotes a cultural community. O. Szemerenyi has studied all the arguments and concluded that it is not an Indo-European but a Near Eastern, probably Ugaritic, loan word meaning ‘kinsman’ or‘companion’.The term arya has been foundin the ancient texts which belonged to the eastern branch of the ancient Indo-European languages. It is mentioned in both the Rig Veda and the Avesta. The word Iran is also linked with the term arya. Afghanistan had been inhabited by the Indo-Aryans and the Iranian Aryans for some time and a part of this region had become known as Araiya or Haraiva. King Dairus of Persia had claimed himself as an Aryan in the sixth century B.C. The people who were speaking the Indo-Aryan and the Indo-Iranian languages were known as Aryans.The Avesta have pointed out that the country of the Aryans had been located where the Zoroastrianism had begun. It indicates that the area is Ariana of classical writers and covered the regions of Afghanistan, part of Persia, Media and some parts of Bactria and Sogdia. Megasthenes has also mentioned about Arianois as one of the peoples that had settled the lands contiguous to India. The terms of ‘Indo-European’ and ‘Indo-Aryan’ used by historians and linguists have no racial classifications. These are the linguistic terms and refer to the families of languages and their speakers. The Indo-Aryans were the speakers of a sub-group of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of the languages.

There are two main groups of Aryan languages: Iranian and Indo-Aryan. In this, the language of the Mitanni Aryans, as rightly pointed out by T. Burrow, should be called proto-Indo-Aryan, as its native speakers never had been to India. Linguistically, proto-Indo-Aryan would fall under the stage of the development of Indo-Aryan languages before the migration of their native speakers to India. Nuristani languages, spoken in the territory of modern Afghanistan, are derived from that language.

Where is the Original home of Aryan?

The original homeland of the Aryans has been a matter of debate among the philologists, linguists,historians, archaeologists and other scholars. Now, let us consider some predominant views or theories about the original home of the Aryans. The five important theories have been put forward about their original homeland. These theories are

European Theory:

Many scholars believed that the Aryans belonged to Europe and the ancestors of the Aryans that came to India were related to them. In 1786 Sir William Jones had expounded this theory on the basis comparative linguistics. He had pointed out that the languages of Greek, Latin, Gathic, English and Sanskrit had similar words for father and mother. However, the scholars differ about the region inhabited by the ancestors of the Aryans. Giles has pointed to the plains of Hungry while as Panka and Shroeder have referred to Germany and France respectively as their places of origin. P. Nehring has pointed out the steppes as their homeland.

The German homeland of the Aryans was notably advocated by the archaeologist Gustaf Kossinna, who believed that Proto-Indo-European peoples were indistinguishable from the Corded Ware Culture of Neolithic Germany. This idea was widely circulated in both intellectual and popular culture by the early twentieth century. Several more recent authors, like the French anthropologist Vacher de Lapouge in his book L’Aryen, agreed that this so-called superhuman wing could be determined biologically through the cephalic index (a measure of head shape) and other marks. He promoted the idea that the long-headed “dolichocephalic-blond” Europeans, commonly discovered in northern Europe, were natural born leaders, predestined to dominate more “brachiocephalic” (short headed) peoples. This theory was without any historical grounds. Moreover, it was picked up by Nazis in order to justify their policy of expansionism and extermination of allegedly inferior different peoples, to expand the Lebensraum (living space) of Germans. Nowadays, that misanthropic theory is totally rejected by competent historians.

Central Asian Theory:

According to the most widespread version, before their incursions into India, the Aryans had occupied the areas of Central Asia situated along the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers, right up to the Aral and Caspian Seas. This theory was mainly advocated by Max Muller after making a comparative study of Vedas and Avesta. He had concluded that the ancestors of the Indian and Iranian Aryans must have lived together for a long period. The vegetation and animals mentioned in the two texts are found in the lands of Central Asia and it must have their original homeland. Some scholars have differed with the opinion of Muller and have referred to the different regions as the place of origin of the Aryans. E. Meyer has opined that the region of their origin was Pamir and Hertzfield pointed to the regions of Russia and Turkistan.  Gordon Child, on the basis of the archaeological findings at Boghazkoy, and other western scholars have expounded the theory that Asia Minor was the place of origin of the Aryans. It was from this region that they had spread out to Iran, Afghanistan, India and Europe.According to R. N. Dandekar, individual Indo-European tribes had migrated southeast from the territory of modern Kazakhstan to the area where modern town of Balkh (Afghanistan) is situated. He believed that their language had developed here and later on constituted the basis of the languages of the Ṛig Veda and the Avesta. Moreover, their mythology had become the mother of the mythology of the Aryans of Iran and India.At the beginning of the 20th century, cuneiform archives from Amarna and Boghazkoy, and documents from Mitanni, Nuzi and Alalakh were found.Thishad made it possible for scholars to find Aryan traces by their origin words embedded in texts written in other languages. Those words were names of kings and noble people, horse-breeding terminology and names of gods. One of the characteristic traits of those historical documents is the fact that only masculine names of nobility are Aryan by their origin, which attests to mixed marriages between noble Aryans and women from local royal and high-ranking families. Obviously, this had resulted in the speedy assimilation of Aryans in the local nobility. Besides, most likely that the number of less noble Aryans was not high either, which was the cause of their assimilation into local population.

ArcticRegion Theory:

Balgangadhar Tilak considered the Arctic region as the homeland of the Aryans by making the comparative study of the Vedas and the Avesta. According to him the northern region was suitable for living and it was the original homeland of the Aryans. Later on the changing climatic and geographical conditions had made them to move out to other places. Georg Biedenkapp is another scholar who has proposed this theory.  

Indian Theory:

Many Indian scholars believe that the Aryans were the dwellers of India and some have gone so far to claim that the Harappan Culture and the Aryan Culture were same. Sampurnanand and A.C. Das have referred to Sapta-Sindhu as their homeland. Ganga Nath Jha has mentioned Brahmarishi Desh while as L.D. Kala mentioned Kashmir and R.B. Pandey has pointed out Madhya Pradesh as the original homeland of the Aryans.R. C. Majumdar and other Indian scholars have persistently argued or indicated that the Vedas mention Panchanada (contemporary Punjab region) as the original homeland of the Aryans.The region of the contemporary Punjab, Panchanada, was considered to be ritually clean by the Ṛig Vedic Aryans, because the PanchaJana, the five (Aryan) peoples (Puru, Anu, Druhyu, Turvaśa, and Yadu), lived in its territory.  The prayers were held and offerings to the Aryans gods were made. In the later period, these lands were lost for the Vedic Aryans, as they migrated to the east and south-east regions of India. The Indus Valley was henceforth considered to be unclean, since the Aryans did not make their sacrifices to honour their gods anymore. However, R. N. Dandekar claims contrary to it and pointed out that after the Aryans from Central Asia had settled in the region Balkh for such a long time that they began to regard it as their original home.He further noted that it was in the region round about Balkh that the Aryans had developed their language and religio-mythological thought. B.B. Lal and Trivedi are the other scholars who have proposed this theory.

Tibetan Theory:

Swami Dayanand Saraswati has expounded the theory that Tibet was the home land of the Aryans. He substantiated his view by referring to the Vedas and the other books of the Aryans. Only few have accepted this theory.Archaeologists have also tried to find out the connections of the various post-Harappan Cultures with the Aryans. The painted Grey Ware (900 B.C-500 B.C.) has been connected with the craftsmanship of the Aryans. Finding the similarities between the texts of Rig Veda and Avesta the archaeologists have tried to search the resemblances in pottery, paintings on ceramics, copper objects and other findings. The study of similarities between the Iranian Chalcolithic and the post-Harappan assemblages were made to support the view that the Aryans had migrated to India from West Asia. Although there has been no disagreement about the linguistic similarities between the two texts but they do not point to the large-scale migration. The similarities found between the chalcolithic remains of India and West Asia are also infrequent.

The main source of information on the early history of the Aryans in India are the Vedas and they reveal a close association with the region of Iran. It is not clearly known when, where and why the Indo-Iranians and the Indo-Aryans had separated from each other. Although most of the historians have given up the idea of the Aryan invasion of India in favour of the various waves of their migrations, there is no consensus about the routes and time period of these migrations. The Indo-Aryan languages, non-Sanskritic or Dardic, spoken in the mountainous areas of north-west India may signify the first wave of the Aryan immigration. The advanced military skills and the use of horse and chariot may have given them the greater advantage to become dominant in the land of the seven rivers (Sapta-Sindhu).The culture of the Indus valley civilization is completely different from the culture of the ancient Aryans. It cannot be considered in the context of the Vedic culture.  The Indus valley civilization was urban and in many ways it reminds of the civilization of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Originally, Aryan tribes were nomads, that is why they did not become the engine of further development of India, but rather local population was conductive to continued progress of the Aryans. Tribal elders played a significant role in the midst of Aryan society, while the carriers of the Harappan Culture had more complex management and administration.


Thus different hypotheses were taken into consideration concerning the location of the original homeland of the Aryans. To date, there is still no consensus on this issue within the scientific community.The studies of comparative linguistics and the various theories have added to the dimensions of the Aryan debate. Some political agendas have also coloured the studies of the Indo-Aryans and the baseless concept of superior and inferior race had been popularised for the achievement of political goals. The family of the Indo-European languages constitutes the largest linguistic group of the world. Therefore, the problem of the Aryans also needs to be studied not with reference to any specific and modern geographical frontier. In light of the widespread belief among scholars that the Aryans are native to the Indian subcontinent. Therefore, research on “Aryan concerns” must have an “Indic outlook.”

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)


Mr. Lokesh Durga is a Ph.D. scholar at the Department of History (Centre for Advanced Studies), University of Delhi (Institution of Eminence). He has published his studies in national and international publications and delivered research papers both in India and abroad. His pieces have appeared in a number of Odia newspapers, including Sambad and Sakala.  His twitter handle is @LokeshDurgaDU

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