Sir Herbert Hope Risley (4 January 1851 – 30 September 1911)

Hannah Carlan

            Sir H. H. Risley was a British civil servant, anthropologist, and linguist who published widely on the customs and social structure of Indian society. He proposed a theory of the caste system as a racial hierarchy of classification, which was highly influential in colonial administrative policy. After qualifying for the Civil Service of India in 1871, Risley completed his bachelor’s degree at Oxford in January 1873 and arrived in Bengal later that year. He was assigned to work as an Assistant Magistrate and Assistant District Collector in the tribal area of western Bengal known as Chota Nagpur (present day Jharkhand). It was here that he became interested in anthropology and began to study the tribal inhabitants of the district of Midnapur, who were thought to be an ideal representation of primitiveness.

Risley’s first publication came in the form of a survey of the hill districts of Hazaribagh and Lohardaga included in William Wilson Hunter’s Imperial Gazetteer in 1881, after which he rapidly rose through the ranks of the Civil Service.  In 1885, Risley was charged with the task of overseeing the Ethnographic Survey of Bengal, and for five years he employed a large staff of administrators, missionaries, and local Indians to gather information. The results of this work were published in 1891 in an article entitled “The Study of Ethnology in India,” soon followed, in the same year, by four volumes of The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, which consisted of both ethnographic and anthropometric data.

Risley is perhaps most well known for his role as the architect of the 1901 Census of India, and his subsequent publication The People of India (1908), based on the survey information gathered for the Census. He was appointed Census Commissioner based on the success of his studies of Bengal, in which he first presented his view of Indian society as fundamentally structured by caste. Risley argued that caste was a system of social precedence deriving from a race-based hierarchy of social life. Historical anthropologist Bernard Cohn has argued that Risley’s formulation of the racial basis of caste was his “theoretical axe to grind”[i]—his response to what he saw as the fallacious occupation-based view of caste used in earlier censuses.[ii] Risley’s reformulation of caste as social precedence had enormous consequences for the way Indian society would come to be viewed by the British colonial government, with continual reverberations in contemporary Indian politics.

Risley’s greatest intellectual influences were ethnologists whose work adhered to the evolutionary paradigm of Social Darwinism, including John Lubbock, E. B. Tylor, and Herbert Spencer, as well as the French physical anthropologist Paul Topinard. Risley championed the use of anthropometry in his work—the measurement of living humans’ bodies—a method borrowed from Topinard (who studied under physician and anthropologist Paul Broca). Risley’s approach adapted Topinard’s method of dividing physical characteristics that were “indefinite”—i.e. not reliably stable physical features within groups, such as skin color and texture—from those that were “definite.” The definite characteristics included Topinard’s “nasal index”—the ratio of the height to the width of the nose—as well as the cephalic index—the ratio of the length to the width of the head. These features were thought to be reliably stable physical features that could be easily ordered in a hierarchy from long-headed and thin-nosed (superior varieties) to round-headed and wide-nosed.[iii]

These anthropometric methods were seen as scientifically valid measurements of race, which had particular relevance to India for Risley. He argued that widespread endogamy and India’s relative geographic isolation provided the ideal conditions in which discrete physical traits could be neatly classed in a Linnaean-style taxonomy, with seven racial types represented in India. Endogamy, or marriage within caste groups, was thought to preserve physical traits such that different castes ultimately represented different races. Risley collected his anthropometric data to conform to his theory of India’s seven racial types. He carefully chose his “specimens” and used sample sizes ranging from just 30-100 individuals, allowing him to draw sweeping conclusions about the correlation of caste to race based on highly selective data.[iv]

In The People of India, Risley presented an explanation for the creation of the caste system as a consequence of the initial contact between the invading Indo-Aryans and the native Dravidians. According to his theory, the largely male Indo-Aryan marauders arrived in the subcontinent and intermarried with Dravidian women, but maintained strict hypergamy and prevented Indo-Aryan women from marrying Dravidian men. Thus, the two races remained distinct, and caste was devised by the Indo-Aryans as a way to prevent racial miscegenation. Risley argued that its continued influence in Indian society today cannot be understood as a product of religious doctrine since caste was evident in Christian and Muslim populations as well. Instead, caste was tied to one particularly crucial innate characteristic of Indian society writ large—what Risley saw as its “particularist instinct” and “tendency to morcellement.[v] Whereas European societies tended to fuse together under the umbrella of “the nation,” no such solidarity was to be found in India, where endless splintering prevented the consolidation of Indian nationalism. The origins of caste, Risley argued, were thus rooted in “a basis of fact and a superstructure of fiction”[vi]: while endogamy explained the racial integrity of distinct castes, the Indian mind’s “lax hold of facts” and “its passion for endless division and sub-division” prevented it from overthrowing this system of social precedence.[vii] Ultimately, it was Risley’s formulation of the caste system as a racial hierarchy that would go on to dominate colonial policies of governance in the form of subsequent censuses and surveys. The legacy of Risley’s work is still palpable in India today, where the colonial understanding of caste as rigidly hierarchical has provided the basis for affirmative action policies since independence.

Risley received several honors toward the end of his life, including the Order of Companion of the Star of India in 1904, Knighthood of the Order of the Indian Empire in 1907, and appointment as the President of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1910. Upon retiring from the civil service and leaving India in 1910, he succeeded Charles J. Lyall as Permanent Secretary in the India Office, where he served until his death at Wimbledon in September 1911.


Bates, Crispin. “Race, Caste and Tribe in Central India: The Early Origins of Indian Anthropometry.” In The Concept of Race in South Asia, edited by P. Robb. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Cohn, Bernard. “The Census, Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia.” In An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays, 224–54. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Risley, Herbert H. The People of India. 2nd ed. Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1915.

Trautmann, Thomas R. Aryans and British India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

[i] Cohn, “The Census, Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia,” 247.

[ii] Denzil Ibbetson, the Deputy Superintendent for the 1881 Census in Punjab, had advocated for the use of occupation to categorize castes, which was subsequently adopted in the 1891 Census of India. The occupational approach was seen as an alternative to earlier Censuses’ method of classifying castes according to the Brahmanical system of the four varnas, which Ibbetson saw as inapplicable to the realities of social life. Risley’s objection to occupation as the basis of caste was both due to the empirical fact that occupation and caste do not always overlap (people can and had been changing their occupations), combined with his theoretical position that whereas occupations change, caste is immutable and does not allow for upward mobility.

[iii] In his introduction to the 1915 edition of The People of India, William Crooke, another colonial ethnographer of India, notes that the “value of anthropometry as a test of race… cannot be expected to give uniform results” (xviii). Franz Boas had already completed his study of head forms of Jewish immigrants in the United States and had found that the head was not a stable physical characteristic, but rather that features are substantially shaped by their environment. Boas’ findings were not accepted by Risley or Crooke.

[iv] Bates, “Race, Caste and Tribe in Central India: The Early Origins of Indian Anthropometry”; Trautmann, Aryans and British India.

[v] Risley, The People of India, 79–80.

[vi] Risley, The People of India, 273.

[vii] Risley, The People of India, 275.