India’s narrative from antiquity has been unity in diversity. A plurality of thought, religion and languages have thrown up a vast array of literature and culture strongly held together with a common religious pursuit, customs, festivals, arts, family and social values. A thousand years of colonisation first under Islam and then under Christianity battered the civilisation but failed to destroy it. One of the most diabolical and successful projects of the colonialists was to create the Aryan-Dravidian divide. The reverberations of this project is still being felt today. Colonial administrators and evangelists were adept at dividing people of the Indian subcontinent based on concocted histories and racial myths. The most audacious of their exercises was to invent a race called Dravidians. In their painstakingly researched book Breaking India, Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan have explained how this divide was created. Here is the story, summarised from their book

British administrators Francis Whyte Ellis and Alexander Campbell studied Tamil and Telugu grammar and proposed that these were from a different language family than other Indian languages. [The truth is quite to the contrary. A lot of the vocabulary between Tamil and Sanskrit are the same. The structure and grammar have many commonalities. Rishi Agasthya wrote in both Sanskrit and Tamil. For anyone interested, R Nagaswamy’s Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit is a good source]

It was another administrator, Brian Hodgson, who conflated language and race to invent the term Tamulian as a different race of non-Aryan indigenous people.

But they were Bishops Robert Caldwell (1814-91) and George Pope (1820-1908) to whom the credit for creating the Dravidian race goes. Caldwell proposed that Dravidians were indigenous people who were cheated by the cunning Aryan Brahmins. He went on to say that it was the duty of the Europeans to rescue the Dravidians from the oppressive clutches of the Aryans.

A significant point is that even though Ellis and Campbell studied both Tamil and Telegu, the separation was made for Tamil only. Telugu was left undisturbed.

The plan was to first decouple the Dravidians from a strong Hindu root and then give Dravidian ‘religion’ a Christian origin. The objective was to make them vulnerable to conversion. To begin with, Elis’s theory that Tamil had commonalities with Hebrew was used to theorise that Dravidians were descendants of Noah’s son Shem, unlike the Aryans who were said to have descended from Ham. His strategy to separate Tamils from other Hindus entailed

•    Praise Tamil texts like Thirukkural, Saiva Siddhanta and Tamil devotional literature to Tamil scholars
•    The next step was to isolate the strong points of Tamil literature and show it as different from Hindu texts
•    The third step was to argue that such ethical underpinning was only possible because of Christian influence
•    The fourth step was to concoct the myth of Saint Thomas to show the existence of quasi-Christianity in the early period

The aim was to associate Sanskrit to the exploiting Aryans and appropriate Tamil for the racially different Dravidians. The next logical movement was to disown Sanskrit and discover the biblical influence on their religion. The concoction of a Lemurian origin and the myth of Saint Thomas were the main pillars of creating a separate Dravidian identity.

Lemurian origins of Tamils

In 1864, British zoologist Philip Lutley Sclater formulated the theory of the lost continent of Lemuria (Kumari Kandam) spread from Madagascar to India and Sumatra. He thought this explained similarities in the flora and fauna of Africa and India. In no time, this idea from natural science was lapped up by sociologists to support the race theory. Tamil scholars began to construct a positive identity to offset the racially inferior position given to Dravidians by Caldwell.

In 1884 Madam Blavatsky, who co-founded the Theosophical Society, waded into the narrative and added a mystical spin to it. She said that Lemurians had an advanced civilisation. In the theosophical fantasy, the Aryans originated in the lost continent of Atlantis and came to India first, followed by the Lemurians! According to Blavatsky, idol worship was a gross superstition and a degeneration of the Vedic culture. However, now the Dravidians can claim their own glorious past with their origins in Lemuria.

Despite being discarded by geologists, the idea of Lemuria has government backing. The State Government museum in Kanyakumari has exhibits on Lemuria.

Myth of Saint Thomas

The myth of Saint Thomas places the apostle in India in 53 CE. The story goes that the peaceful apostle ministered the dark-skinned Indians but was killed by a jealous Brahmin. This myth has no historical basis but that has not stopped the church to use it as a powerful tool to appropriate the Hindu culture in Tamil Nadu. When the theory was first propounded Christian scholars, notably the Jesuit, Father Henry Heras (1888-1955), rejected it. However, in 1970 the myth was revived. M Deivanayagam began twisting Tamil texts by superimposing a Christian meaning on them. Though rejected by scholars, the academic bodies controlled by Dravidian politics began promoting Deivanayagam. Thus, Saint Thomas Dravidian Christianity began to take root. 

A Saint Thomas museum was established by the church in 2006. One exhibit shows Saint Thomas holding a Bible in one hand and blessing Gondophares, the king of Mylapore, with the other.

However, Gondophares was not the king of Mylapore but of the distant Kabul valley. Moreover, he predates Saint Thomas by a century. Secondly, the bound Bible came into being in 1455, a good 1,400 years after Saint Thomas is shown holding a Bible. Even the papyrus Bible came into being a good hundred years after Saint Thomas. 

Similarly, the altar at the Mount Church of Saint Thomas at Guindy, Chennai, displays a painting of Jesus and Mary said to have been painted by Saint Luke and brought by Thomas. However, art historians say that the painting belongs to the Italian Renaissance period (14th-17th century)

The Portuguese discovery of St Thomas’s tomb at San Thome Church has been thoroughly repudiated by even Christian scholars. Archaeological studies by the Indian government are categorical that the church was built on the destroyed Kapaleeswarar temple since the site has inscriptions of Rajendra Chola (died 1044). The attempts to plant false archaeological evidence was publicly exposed by Madras High Court in 1975

The Saint Thomas story received a setback when in 2006 Pope Benedict gave a speech in which he said Saint Thomas came to India from Persia and preached only in north-west India (present-day Pakistan). This upset the powerful Thomas lobby and, as a result, this reference was expunged from the published version of the speech. The Times of India ran an article with the headline “Thomas’s Visit Under Doubt” (December 26, 2006)

The gospel of Thomas was discovered in a Coptic papyrus manuscript in 1945 at Nag Nammadi, Egypt. According to Richard Valantasis, the scholarly consensus for the date of the gospel is between 60-120 CE that is simultaneous to the time Thomas was said to be in present-day Tamil Nadu. Elaine Pagels of the Princeton University puts forth the possibility that, instead of Thomas bringing Christianity to India, the reverse happened. Thomas brought Buddhist influence to early Christianity.

The lie of Saint Thomas did not stop Christians from exploiting it to the hilt. In 1969, Deivanayagam, a Hindu convert to Christianity, published a book, Was Thiruvalluvar a Christian? His thesis was that Saint Thomas had converted him. He also interpreted Thirukkural as having Christian thought. For example, the verses praising the rain was interpreted as praise for the holy ghost. Verses praising those who had renounced worldly life was interpreted as praise for Christ, the sacrificed son of God. Deivanayagam was brushed off by Tamil scholars as a crackpot but it received support from both the DMK and the church.

In Kerala, a plot was hatched to plant archaeological evidence to support the myth. A parish priest proclaimed having unearthed a stone cross from 57 CE in a very famous Hindu pilgrim centre in the forests of Kerala. The location was close to the Mahadeva temple at Nilakkal, in the sacred 18 hills of the deity of Sabarimala. Soon, a church was erected there. This created tensions between Hindus and Christians. When the Hindus insisted that the cross be examined by the ASI, the perpetrators of the fraud retreated and moved the church to another location.

Dravidian academic-activist network

Yale University’s project of Dravidian etymological dictionary served as a geopolitical tool to boost Dravidian identity politics. At the Harvard University, studies were conducted to identify numerous linguistic fragments in India to establish who all were run over by foreign Aryans. In Berkeley, the Tamil chair has successfully created a rift between Tamil and other Indian literature.

The Dravidian Etymology Dictionary was compiled by Murray Barnson Emeneau of Yale and Thomas Burrow of Oxford. Emeneau’s work in 1949 concluded that India was habited by unconnected languages. Thomas Burrow occupied the prestigious (notorious from an Indian perspective) Boden chair of Sanskrit. They prepared a list of loan words from Dravidian languages to Sanskrit. Their basic premise was that Dravidian was older than Sanskrit. The dictionary was published in 1968. However, in 1980 Emeneau stated that the words loaned from Dravidian to Sanskrit are mere suggestions, speculative and unprovable. The backtracking was albeit mild. By the time this dictionary had become a guide for Dravidianists and Emeneau’s retraction was simply ignored.

In 1979 Franklin Southworth of University of Pennsylvania analysed that the comparison between Dravidian and Sanskrit suggests a wide range of cultural contacts and disproves one sided borrowing. No picture of technological, cultural or military dominance emerge. Burrow being more powerful in academia, in effect, shut Southworth up.

TN Sheshan’s biography

“There was clearly a foreign hand behind Dravidian agitation… Some Dravida leaders had been influenced with American money….and became ready instruments of destabilisation. Annadurai perhaps did not know it but he was becoming an effective plaything of American intelligence machinery.”

European universities have started Tamil studies, too. The Institute of Indology and Tamil Studies at Cologne has developed linkages with the Gurukul Lutheran Seminary, De Nobili Research Institute at Loyola College and the Institute of Asian Studies. The Free University at Amsterdam has missionary connections with India.

Present-day international nexus

Caste, conflated with race, was blamed on Aryan conspiracy and Dravidian Christianity offered as a solution. Many conferences through the decade of the 2000s claimed that Dravidian mysticism, literature and art were manifestations of Christianity rooted in Saint Thomas. A short chronology of the propaganda is given here

•    In 2000, the Institute of Asian Studies organized a conference in Chennai. The declaration of the conference was that Dravidians should free themselves from the ongoing Aryan oppression. Second, they should declare their religion as Dravidian

•    In 2001 at the United Nations Durban conference, activists continued the theme of Brahminical conspiracy. Devakala, daughter of Deivanayagam, distributed their book International Racism Is The Child of India’s Casteism. The main conclusions were that Sanskrit came after Christianity, which was brought to India by Saint Thomas. Racism was originated by Aryan Brahmins and it penetrated Christianity because Europeans were made to believe that they were the Aryans.

•    In 2004, Devakala published another book India Is a Thomas Dravidian Christian Nation. The book is full of hatred. Dravidians were fooled by cunning Aryans. Aham Brahmasmi is an evil atheist idea. Sanskrit originated after Christ and was created by Thomas Christians.

•    In a 2005 conference in New York, Institute of Asian Studies, Dravidian Spiritual Movement and New York Christian Tamil Temple came together. Here again, the claim that India’s classical traditions had been shaped out of Christianity was made. The souvenir had images of Thiruvalluvar listening to Saint Thomas in rapt attention. For the first time, an attempt was made to appropriate the entire spectrum of Indian spiritual traditions including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

•    In 2006, Deivanayagam’s supporters formed the World Tamil Spiritual Awareness Movement.

•    In 2007, there was a second international conference on the history of Christianity in India, this time in Chennai. Here besides repeating their narrative they added that the Siddha literature was influenced by Christianity.

•    A 2008 conference in Chennai saw the return of Lemuria and Tamil was claimed to be the world’s first language.


We can see how the Aryan theory was used by British administrators and missionaries to create the Aryan-Dravidian divide which still reverberates in India. The methodology of creating the divide is classical. Create myths backed by pedantic sounding arguments. Then use the myths to separate groups from mainstream Hinduism. The British used this to divide and rule and the missionaries to harvest souls. Despite scholarly, textual and archaeological objections such myths persist because of vote bank politics, evangelical money power and the power of western academia. The colonial constructs of previous centuries have transformed themselves subtly and become more radical and dangerous than before.