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Title: Mleccha  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Abhira tribe, Chandragupta II, Yona, Anga Kingdom, Kalachakra
Collection: Ethnic and Religious Slurs, Ethno-Cultural Designations, Pejorative Terms for People
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Mleccha (from Vedic Sanskrit mleccha meaning "non-Vedic", "barbarian", also romanized as "Mlechchha" or "Maleccha") referred to people of foreign extraction in ancient India. Mleccha was used much as bárbaros (Ancient Greek: βάρβαρος) was used in Classical antiquity: originally to indicate the uncouth and incomprehensible speech of foreigners and then extended to their unfamiliar behaviour, and also used as a derogatory term in the sense of "impure and/or "inferior" people.


  • Name 1
  • Language 2
  • Territory 3
  • Cultural behavior 4
  • Literature describing the Mleccha 5
  • See also 6
  • Further research 7
  • Notes 8
    • Bibliography 8.1


The Vayu, Matsya and Brahmanda Puranas state that the seven Himalayan rivers pass through mleccha countries.[1] The Brahmanas place mlecchas outside the varna system.[2] Southworth suggests that the name comes from miḻi- "speak, one's speech", derived from one of the Dravidian languages and related to the etymology of the word Tamiḻ.[3] The term Mencha, probably a tadbhava, was also used by the medieval Marathi saint Samarth Ramdas, a Hindu sant, author and Advaita Vedanta philosopher, to refer to the invading Mughals, who were both Muslims and ruled by Mongols.[4]

Pali, the older Prakrit used by Theravada Buddhism, uses the term milakkha. It also employs milakkhu, a borrowing from a Dramatic Prakrit.[5]


Some explanations of the name "mleccha" suggest that the word was derived from the Indo-Aryan perception of the speech of the indigenous peoples. Namely, "mlech" was a word that meant "to speak indistinctly." As such, some suggest that the Indo-Aryans used an onomatopoeic sound to imitate the harshness of alien tongue and to indicate incomprehension, thus coming up with "mleccha".[6]

Early Indians spoke Sanskrit, which evolved into the various local modern Sanskrit derived languages. Sanskrit was believed to have all the sounds that are necessary for communication. If unfamiliar languages were detected, early Indians would club them as foreign tongue "mleccha bhasha". As the Sanskrit word itself suggests, "mlecchas" were those whose speech was alien.[7] Historians cite that knowledge of "correct speech" was a crucial component of being about to take part in the appropriate yajnas (religious rituals and sacrifices). Thus, without correct speech, one could not hope to practice correct religion, either.

The notion of being Arya suggested a knowledge of Sanskrit in order to effectively perform ritual hymns; thus suggesting the importance of language. Parasher discusses the importance of knowing the correct speech in order to perform sacrifice and ritual in the religion of the brahmanas. Parasher continued that: "The best experts of the sacrificial art were undoubtedly the various families of the brahmanas who, placed in a hierarchy within the Indo-Aryan social system, became the upholders of pure and best speech".[8]

Historians note that early Indo-Aryans believed Sanskrit to be the superior language over all other forms of speech. As such, mleccha or barbarian speech was said to have meant any of the following: "1) a language which was not necessarily alien, but the speech of the person or persons was improper because it was either hostile or vulgar; 2) a language, and here most probably Sanskrit, that was mispronounced and, thereby, incomprehensible: 3) finally, any foreign tongue which was naturally incomprehensible because it was unintelligible to those who did not understand a particular language".[9]


Historians have stated that the notion of foreigners in ancient India - those living outside of the Indian subcontinent - was often accompanied by the idea that one was a barbarian. Still, it seemed that groups who did not come from outside of these areas, as well as foreigners, were designated by the term mleccha, which carried with it a barbarian connotation.[10]

Thus another distinction that was made between the mlecchas and non-mlecchas was area of habitation. Though they were considered a marginal group, the area characterize as the mleccha-desa (the natural border that separated their lands from that of the Aryans) was never permanent. Instead, it was defined by the changing ideas about the Āryāvarta. Parasher noted that "the only consistent areas dubbed as mleccha desa were those regions inhabited by 'primitive tribes' who for long periods of time did not come under the sway of the brahmanical, Buddhist or Jaina influence".[11]

Though the area of the aryas expanded with time, the notion that was held over all of the land was that of "purity." As Vedic literature refers only to the places and territories that were familiar to the Indo-Aryans, these lands eventually became part of the Āryāvarta. Parasher thus indicates that the Āryāvarta was designated as "[t]he region where the river Sarasvati disappears is the Patiala district in the Punjab. The Pariyatra mountains belong to the Vindhya range, probably the hills of Malwa. The Kalakavana is identified with a tract somewhere near Prayaga." Still, other interpretations of the Āryāvarta refer to those areas where the black antelope roams, for these areas are fit for the performance of sacrifice. Early Vedic literature focused on defining the area of habitation of the aryas for this land was considered pure; yet there is no actual reference to the mleccha country or behavior. Wherever the territory, though, the implications of naming such lands as the Aryavarta is that any lands excluded from that area were considered impure.[12]

Further, there is evidence that Indians of the Vedic period actually had contact with people outside of the subcontinent, namely the Persians. The Persians, who ruled over the Indus river valley during this time (522-486 BC) were not designated as mleccha, perhaps because they did not interfere with the brahmanical way of life.[13]

Later Vedic literature speaks of the western Anava tribes as mlecchas and occupying northern Punjab, Sindh and eastern Rajasthan. The tribes of the north were mlecchas either because they were located on the frontiers such as Gandhara, Kashmira and Kambojas and therefore both their speech and culture had become contaminated and differed from that of Āryāvarta, or else, as in the case of South Indians, they were once Aryas but having forsaken the Vedic rituals were regarded to mleccha status.[14]

Cultural behavior

The word mleccha emerged as a way for the ancient Indians to classify those who did not subscribe to the "traditional value system," though the characteristics of the so-called system were ambiguous. In sum, though, the idea was that the mlecchas were peoples who did not conform to what was culturally acceptable.[15]

Early writings refer to these foreign peoples as "half-civilized, unconverted people who rise or eat at improper times." They stated that monks and nuns should avoid certain areas of habitation because they were unsafe. Namely, that "the ignorant populace might beat, harass, rob them under the impression that they were spies from hostile villages." Further, while some of these non-mlecchas, such as those of the Jaina faith, had established contact with people of the forest tribes, they were automatically designated as mlecchas. Such was the typical attitude of people from the plains who took pride in their norms of settled agricultural and urban lifestyles.[16]

Historians note that there were also systems in place to determine the validity - or "purity" - of certain customs, which would ultimately be judged by the brahmanas. As such there were intricate rules in place to define purity from impurity, laws of behavior, as well as rituals and customs, in an effort to educate the members of the brahmanical system. Namely, these advisors took great pains to ensure that peoples of the brahmanical system did not subscribe to any mleccha customs or rituals.[17]

The sanskritizing of names was a common feature among both indigenous and foreign mlecchas who slowly tried to move away from their status of mleccha. Very often, in the case of ruling families, it took one to two generations to make a transition. One of the most direct forms of the expression of the brahmanical ritual purity was the form and type of food which a brahman could eat. He was forbidden to accept cooked food from any nonbrahman. Thus when the Punjab became a mleccha area the staple food was given a lower place in the food-ranking. By the twelfth century AD wheat was described in one lexicon as 'food of the mlecchas' and rice became the 'pure' cereal. Onions and garlic were also regarded as the food of the mlecchas and therefore prohibited to the brahman. Mlecchas drank alcohol and ate flesh of the cow, and this in later periods was strictly forbidden to an Indian.[18][19]

Literature describing the Mleccha

In the Mahabharata, some Mleccha warriors are described as having "heads completely shaved or half-shaved or covered with matted locks, [as being] impure in habits, and of crooked faces and noses[20] They are "dwellers of hills" and "denizens of mountain-caves. Mlecchas were born of the cow (belonging to Vasishtha), of fierce eyes, accomplished in smiting looking like messengers of Death, and all conversant with the deceptive powers of the Asuras".[21]

Swami Parmeshwaranand states the mleccha tribe was born from the tail of the celestial cow Nandini, kept by Vashishta for sacrificial purposes when there was a fight between Vishvamitra and Vasistha. The Mahabharata gives the following information regarding them:

  • Mleccha who sprang up from the tail of the celestial cow Nandini sent the army of Viswamitra flying in terror.
  • Bhagadatta was the king of mlecchas.
  • Pandavas, like Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva once defeated them.
  • Karna during his world campaign conquered many mlaccha countries.
  • The wealth that remained in the Yagasala of Yudhisthira after the distribution as gifts to Brahmins was taken away by the mlecchas.
  • The melecchas drove angered elephants on the army of the Pandavas.

"This shows mlecchas were against Pandavas and Brahmins".[22][23]

The term is not attested in the Vedas, but occurs for the first time in the late Vedic text the Shatapatha Brahmana. The Baudhayana sutras define a mleccha as someone "who eats meat or indulges in self-contradictory statements or is devoid of righteousness and purity of conduct". Mleccha could refer to any being who follow different teachings than Vedic beliefs. In the Indian history some indigenous rulers in Assam were called the Mleccha dynasty. In the Bhagavata Purana, the term is used in the context of meat eaters, outcastes.

Medieval Hindu literature, such as that of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, also uses the term to refer to those of larger groups of other religions, especially Muslims.[24] In medieval India, a foreign visitor al-Biruni (died 1048) noted that foreigners were regarded as 'unclean' or 'Mleccha' and Hindus were forbidden any social or matrimonial contact with them.[25]

See also

Further research

  • Parasher, A (1991), Mlecchas in Ancient India, Munshiram Manoharlal, ISBN 978-81-215-0529-1
  • To learn more about the History of India, see


  1. ^ Sharma 1978, p. 152.
  2. ^ Nath, Vijay (2002). "King Vena, Nisāda and Prthu: A Recurrent Purānic Myth Re-Examined". Indian Historical Review 29: 59.  
  3. ^ Southworth, Franklin C. (1998), "On the Origin of the word tamiz", International Journal of Dravidial Linguistics 27 (1): 129–132 
  4. ^ Savant 2011, p. 83.
  5. ^ "search". Pali-English Dictionary. Pali Text Society. Retrieved 24 July 2015. 
  6. ^ Thapar, Romila (October 1971). "The Image of the Barbarian in Early India". Comparative Studies in Society and History 13 (4): 409–410.  
  7. ^ Thapar, Romila (October 1971). "The Image of the Barbarian in Early India". Comparative Studies in Society and History 13 (4): 408–409.  
  8. ^ Parasher, Aloka (1991). Mlecchas in Early India: A Study in Attitudes toward Outsiders up to AD 600. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers Pvt. Ltd. pp. 48–49. 
  9. ^ Parasher, Aloka (1991). Mlecchas in Early India: A Study in Attitudes toward Outsiders up to AD 600. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers Pvt. Ltd. pp. 80–81. 
  10. ^ Parasher-Sen, Aloka (2004). Subordinate and Marginal Groups in Early India. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 276–277. 
  11. ^ Parasher, Aloka (1991). Mlecchas in Early India: A Study in Attitudes toward Outsiders up to AD 600. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers Pvt. Ltd. p. 90. 
  12. ^ Parasher, Aloka (1991). Mlecchas in Early India: A Study in Attitudes toward Outsiders up to AD 600. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers Pvt. Ltd. pp. 94–96. 
  13. ^ Parasher-Sen, Aloka (2004). Subordinate and Marginal Groups in Early India. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 279. 
  14. ^  
  15. ^ Parasher, Aloka (1991). Mlecchas in Early India: A Study in Attitudes toward Outsiders up to AD 600. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers Pvt. Ltd. pp. 76–77. 
  16. ^ Parasher, Aloka (1991). Mlecchas in Early India: A Study in Attitudes toward Outsiders up to AD 600. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers Pvt. Ltd. pp. 101–102. 
  17. ^ Parasher, Aloka (1991). Mlecchas in Early India: A Study in Attitudes toward Outsiders up to AD 600. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers Pvt. Ltd. p. 114. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations By Romila Thapar
  20. ^ ."Mlecchas in early India: a study in attitudes towards outsiders up to AD 600
  21. ^ Mahabharata, Drona Parva, Section 92.
  22. ^ Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Puranas: (A-C) ; 2.(D-H) ; 3.(I-L) ; 4.(M-R) ; 5 ... By Swami Parmeshwaranand
  23. ^
  24. ^ Vedabase.
  25. ^ Rizvi, S.A.A. (1987), The wonder that was India, volume II, pages 252-253, Sidgwick and Jackson, London


  • Sharma, Tej Ram (1978). Personal and Geographical Names in the Gupta Inscriptions. Concept Publishing Company. GGKEY:RYD56P78DL9. 
  • Savant, Arvind (2011). Discovery of God. Xlibris Corporation.  
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