History of Indian Obsession with Fair Skin

Oct 2012
Des Moines, Iowa
What are the historical origins of the modern Indian obsession with fair skin? This is a very pervasive phenomenon in our culture and it could not have emerged overnight. The preference for fair skin must have developed and become entrenched over many centuries. Off the top of my head, I can identify three possible "sources" for this obsession, none of which are mutually exclusive and may have been complementary:

1) The traditional portrayal of brahmins as the "light" caste and other castes as "dark". This is often used metaphorically in writings, but it could have taken physical/literal meaning over time. I have read some texts where Buddha was denounced by his Brahmin critics because he was apparently "born as a black child" (I don't think he was; it's what others wrote about him). Apparently, at least to some people, being "black" was a bad thing, or maybe they were using "black" in the metaphorical sense rather than physical? My knowledge of Sanskrit or Pali is not advanced enough to draw a conclusion about this. On the other hand, however, the Ajanta cave paintings (for example) are full of dark-skinned beauties, and dark skin does not seem to be perceived as "ugly" by whoever made those paintings. So I am not sure if ancient Indians overall favored fair skin over darker skin, or not.

2) Political and cultural domination of medieval India by Persians, Turks, and Afghans, i.e. people with fairer skin than native Indians. Since these peoples formed the social elite of those times, there may have been a natural tendency to want to "become" like them. Indian Muslims are called "Turks" in some Indian languages, even if they are clearly native converts rather than foreign immigrants; in Telugu, for example, the world for *any* Muslim is Thurka. Association with the ruling elite is a natural thing, and advancing up the social ladder in Muslim-dominated, medieval India generally meant you had to learn Persian and adopt the Persianized culture of the elite.

3) The British Raj. Same as above, except with white Britishers replacing olive-skinned Persians/Turks/Afghans, and with the English language replacing Persian. Today, even more than ever, advancing up the social ladder in India requires a knowledge of English, and as a result many Indian elites and members of the middle class are quite Anglicized and Westernized (whether they admit it or not).

In addition, some people would argue that fairer skin is "naturally" more beautiful than dark skin, but I disagree with that, and I also find it to be a quasi-racist (not to mention condescending) view. Besides, it is quite clear that perceptions of "beauty" are different between different cultures, and that they also change over time.

What are your thoughts on this topic?
Oct 2012
Des Moines, Iowa
Many people seem to believe that the Indian obsession with fair skin, as well as the obsession with fair skin among other Asian peoples, is due to the legacy of colonialism (Point #3 in the OP). Certainly, there is much to support this argument, and it is quite clear than many Europeans (the British, in particular, were the most relevant in India's case) held racist views about dark-skinned peoples, generally viewing their skin color as "ugly". One example would be the statement by the British soldier Charles Gold in 1806, who said that the South Indian women of the Coromandel Coast were "of small stature, have good figures, and some have such pleasing and delicate features that were it not for their complexions, they might be termed beautiful”. Such views of beauty may certainly have shaped native Indian views of beauty during the long period of colonial rule, just as it shaped Indian views towards sexuality and dress (even today, Indians are quite conservative in these matters, but their ancestors clearly were not).

However, there is some convincing evidence that the colonial period did not represent the origin of such views, and that Indian preferences for fair skin existed centuries before the advent of British colonial rule. Some such evidence comes from the medieval Russian text Khozheniye za tri morya (The Journey Beyond the Three Seas), which contains the accounts of the Russian traveler Afanasy Nikitin. He visited modern-day Maharashtra in the late 15th century, which was then ruled by the Bahmani Sultanate. He says that Indian women would willingly have sex with you, if you had white skin.

Some relevant passages from the text:
This is an Indian country. People go about naked, with their heads uncovered and bare breasts; the hair tressed into one tail, and thick bellies. They bring forth children every year and the children are many; and men and women are black. When I go out many people follow me, and stare at the white man.
In the land of India it is the custom for foreign traders to stop at inns; there the food is cooked for the guests by the landlady, who also makes the bed and sleeps with the stranger. Women that know you willingly concede their favours, for they like white men. In the winter, the people put on the fata and wear it round the waist, on the shoulders, and on the head; but the princes and nobles put trousers on, a shirt and a kaftan (a long coat), wearing a fata on the shoulders, another as a belt round the waist, and a third round the head.
Women sleep with their husbands in the day, but at night they go to the foreign men and sleep with them and pay for it, besides waiting on them with sweetmeats and supplying them with food and drink, that the foreigners may love them, because they like strangers and white people, their own men being so very black. And when a woman conceives a child by a stranger, the husband pays him a salary. If the child is born white, the stranger receives a duty of eighteen tenkas; if it is born black he gets nothing, but is welcome to what he ate and drank.
Link to the full text: http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/nikitin_wielhorsky.pdf

These passages are very interesting, as well as somewhat disturbing. At any rate, if Mr. Nikitin is being even slightly truthful, there this is good reason to suppose that there was an Indian obsession with fair skin at least by the 15th century.
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Likes: Azad67


Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
Canada, originally Clwyd, N.Wales
Friends of mine from Dubai and Mumbai used to tell me about the many skin lightening creams they could buy back home and how strange it was that white women wanted a tan (as a means to say, "I can afford to lounge about in the sun") and Middle-eastern women want to be lighter.

They made the point that for them the idea of fair-skin, ofcourse being rammed into their heads by their Aunties, also came from the idealized looks they saw in hollywood. If we look now, Hollywood is an influence, more so I would argue than British contemporary media now.

But, I would also put forward that it is something even more mundane than what you're saying. Fairer skin is a sign of not spending a lot of time outside in the sun. I know in the Chinese context, royal courtiers would pride themselves on how light they were because it was a status symbol of wealth. "I don't need to spend time outside and get a sunburn or a tan, because I have servants to do that." Also, look at the many statues of Goddesses, Bodhhisattvas, Tirthankaras, Nats, Buddhas..etc,. and you'll see in some examples very light skin.

Also, I would be weary of believing too many contemporary accounts, especially of travelers, because after all many of them embellished and even created racist stereotypes of peoples. By stating 'They like white men' that would make a subtle statement of superiority... they like white men better than Indian men.
Feb 2013
There have been many other travelers to India(Ancient Greek, Persian, Arab, Chinese, etc.) that have given their accounts. I dont remember reading anything similar.

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
These passages are very interesting, as well as somewhat disturbing. At any rate, if Mr. Nikitin is being even slightly truthful, there this is good reason to suppose that there was an Indian obsession with fair skin at least by the 15th century.
Could it be that India was periodically conquered by people with relatively fair skin?

1. The Persians who conquered parts of Indian would have had relatively fair skin, as would the later Greeks.

2. The Muslims from Afghanistan and Persians, also would probably have fairer skin than than many the Indians from the South.

3. I am not sure what the skin color would have been of the Mughuls, but coming from lands that lie to north of India, it is likely they would have had fairer skins.

4. Finally the British would have had fairer skin too.

Since you had a series of conquerors with relatively fairer skin, could that have caused a subtle shift to prefer fairer skin? People often tend to imitate their socially superiors, and many of your rulers are fair skinned (relatively) that might cause you to imitate your rulers. Certainly, if you wanted to pass yourself off as one of the rulers, you it would be helpful if you looked more like them.
Feb 2013
1. The Persians who conquered parts of Indian would have had relatively fair skin, as would the later Greeks.

Persians and Greeks of ancient India are irreverent when it comes to this.

They never dominated India like the later Muslims and the British did. Their ideals, styles, etc. seeped in only bit by bit. But with the Turkic groups and the British, they held large and culturally important parts of India -- for a long period of time. Enough time to change the trajectory of where Indian civilization was going.

This was the ideal image of a female in ancient India-early middle ages India. Ironically, this is in modern day Maharashtra.

This is how it was in Mughal India.
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Its hard to tell, human perception, beholder of eye

Many of Indian mythical heroes considered dark skin and beautiful eg. Rama, Krishna etc same for women eg. draupadi, Kannagi etc

In Tamil language the word "nalla" means good and also black, in reverse in English its the word "fair"

at the sametime there were mythical stories which pointed out considered fair skin as likeable one eg. kantharvans, the celestial good looking males and females in myth nothing but people from north western side i.e ancient afghans, greeks etc


Ad Honoris
Mar 2013
I wouldn't know about origins, but certainly today we consider Fair skin to be the ideal of beauty. One only has to turn on a tv show about the Ramayana or Mahabharata and see the actors portraying Krishna or Draupadi or Rama look like models for fairness cream ads to understand that today we have an obsession with fairness.

My belief is (though i cannot prove it) that the obsession probably began during the British Rule of India. The British were white, and many Indians were rewarded by being part of the elite. The Fairness obsession may have been born out of a desire to be more acceptable to the rulers or to appear more like them in the face of their obvious racism towards "colored" people
Nov 2012
deepest recesses of your anus
I think preferring fairer skin is natural in many aspects. Yes, call me a racist if you much (I most clearly am not) but in every race where there is a variation of skin tone, the lighter range of the skin color spectrum is always preferred. The only exceptions is where all the population is basically black skinned like in western Africa, Oceania, and Dravidia. I think Marco Polo mentioned that in the Tamil country, the blacker the person the more high status he was or something.

Another point I would like to address is that ancient Hindu Indians naturally preferred fairer skin as why would brahmins be metaphorically be portrayed as white or Buddha as black?

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