The People Clusters of Southern Asia

This month, we look at the people group clusters of southern Asia.1 This region of the world is essentially India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan.

South Asia is home to seventy-three people group clusters. However, there is a significant population difference: thirty-nine of the groups have populations in excess of 100,000 people (thirty are larger than one million), while the remaining are small groups of under 100,000. These smaller groups make up 500,000 (mostly expatriate) people, including: Anglo-Americans, Bantus, Filipinos, Japanese, Lao, etc. We will not address these very small groups in this particular survey, but one should not forget their presence.

The “major” thirty-nine groups represent 1.3 billion people in southern Asia. Of the thirty-nine groups that are larger than 100,000 people in size, twenty-nine are unreached; these account for 1.2 billion people. Despite the many wonderful reports coming from this section of the world, there remains a substantial amount of work to be done in southern Asia.

The thirty-nine clusters include:

People Cluster 

Population (in millions) 

 Adi   0.4
 Assamese  5.4
 Baloch  0.1
 Bengali  217.9
 Bhil  14.3
 Bhojpur-Maithili  0.4
 Bhutanese  1.3
 Bihari  0.3
 Burmese  0.4
 Garo-Tripuri   4.8
 Gond  16.1
 Gujarati   31.0
 Gypsy  6.7
 Hindi  416.8
 Jat  26.0
 Kannada  36.4
 Kashmiri  6.3
 Kuki-Chin-Naga  4.9
 Malayali  35.7
 Maldivian  0.4
 Marathi-Konkani  59.2
 Miri-Kachin  0.7
 Mizo-Lushai  0.7
 Mon-Khmer  1.3
 Munda-Santal  15.5
 Nepali-Pahari  14.5
 Oraon  4.2
 Oriya  16.3
 Other South Asian  7.2
 Pathan  12.5
 Punjabi  16.6
 Rajasthan  45.9
 South Himalaya  4.8
 Sindhi  0.3
 Sinhala  14.4
 Tamil  52.8
 Telugu  53.8
 Tibetan  1.2
 Urdu Muslim  159.9

The Super Giant Clusters
Of these clusters, perhaps the most visible are the three “super giants”: the Bengali, Hindi, and Urdu Muslims, each with populations in excess of 100 million people (the Hindi cluster, in particular, comprises over 400 million). Together, they total 800 million. For comparison, this is nearly three times America’s 300 million, slightly smaller than the population of Africa (900 million), and greater than Europe's 700 million.

The Bengali cluster has 220 million people and is centered primarily in Bangladesh. Ninety-nine million of the people in this cluster are Bengali. Some twenty-five other groups have populations in excess of one million; the largest of these include the: thirteen million Rohingya, ten million Mahishya, seven million Kayastha, seven million Koiri, and five million Namasudra. In addition, there are some three hundred smaller groups with populations ranging from just under one million to less than one hundred. Nearly all of these groups, however, speak one of the major trade languages of southern Asia, with the vast majority speaking Bengali. By our current projections, over two thousand cross-cultural pioneer teams would be needed to reach this cluster.

The Hindi cluster has 400 million people and is centered primarily in India. The Joshua Project lists eight large groups: sixty million Brahmans, fifty-five million Yadava, forty-eight million Chamar, thirty-eight million Rajput, sixteen million Teli, thirteen million Kumhar, eleven million Dhobi, and ten million Nai.

Beyond this, there are another thirty-eight groups with populations in excess of million, and 350 groups with populations under one million. Nearly all speak Hindi. While different approaches are required with some of the larger groups, many smaller groups might be “lumped together” where strategy is concerned. Over four thousand pioneer teams would likely be needed to fully reach this cluster; perhaps more, given the geographic and ethnolinguistic complexity of the region.

The Urdu cluster has 160 million people in over 250 groups. The largest include the: seventy-three million Shaikh, twenty-five million Kunbi, fifteen million Kurmi, and ten million Ansari. There are an additional eight groups with populations greater than one million, and some 223 groups with populations of less than one million. There is a greater variety of languages spoken within this cluster: Urdu dominates, but Telugu, Hindi, Bengali, and other languages are also found in great numbers. Over two thousand teams would likely be needed for this cluster.

The Joshua Project does not carry easily-available statistics for the percentage of a group that is either already reached or already Christian. However, cross-checking with the World Christian Database (WCD) gives us an idea of the scope of the issue. The Bengali in India are 1.2% Christian, having just under one million believers. The Hindi, likewise, are just 1.5% Christian, having about two million believers. The Urdu are less than 0.1% Christian. We have an immense task before us.

No initiative to evangelize the world—or even to evangelize any significant portion of Asia—can ignore these three super clusters. Reaching any single one of them will require a massive concentration of resources, workers, and unity. Nearly ten thousand pioneer teams (thirty thousand cross-cultural workers) would likely be required. This is the equivalent of five mission agencies the size of the International Mission Board, or perhaps the whole of Operation Mobilization, focused on these three super clusters alone.

At a cost of 100,000USD per year per team (not unrealistic, and perhaps too conservative), the total cost of this effort could easily reach 1 billion USD—annually. And that's just the pioneer teams—one per every 100,000 people. These teams would do pioneer work like translation, contextualization, resource creation, distribution, and so forth. This number does not include home workers.

The Smaller Clusters
However, these three super clusters are only half of the challenge. Taken altogether, the smaller clusters of southern Asia add up to an additional 500 million people. These represent peoples speaking numerous languages (adding an ethnic and linguistic challenge) on both sides of borders (adding a diplomatic challenge), often in the midst of war or natural disaster zones. Consider these:

  • The 4.8 million people in the Southern Himalayan cluster. Most of this cluster is the 2.2 million Magar, 0.8 million Gurung, and 0.6 million (widely Christian) Monpa; however, there are dozens of groups which remain unreached. These are mostly Hindu and Buddhist groups found on the southern border of the Himalayas in Nepal and Bhutan.
  • The 5.3 million people in the Assamese cluster. This cluster includes the 2.6 million Assamese Muslims and 1.9 million Hindu Arlengs (the latter with a wide church planting effort). These groups are located in the region of India to the east of Bangladesh.
  • The 7.8 million people in the Tibetan cluster. The Tibetan peoples are strongly Buddhist and very unreached, centered on the Tibetan region of China. Work here is difficult and dangerous.
  • The 8.4 million people in the Kashmiri cluster, on the Indian side of the border. Kashmir is a war-torn, disputed province where work remains difficult.
  • The 9.4 million people in the Baloch cluster. The Baloch cluster is mostly Muslim peoples from Pakistan. All are highly unreached.
  • The 10.7 million Other South Asian peoples cluster. This cluster is comprised of over 122 groups, most with Hindu-professing populations numbering a few thousand. There are a few Muslim groups, and equally a few groups with church-planting efforts (including the Gamit, Dhanka, Gadaba, and Goanese).
  • The fourteen million people in the Sinhala cluster. Most in this cluster are Buddhist and live in Sri Lanka. Several Sinhalese groups outside Sri Lanka have established church-planting efforts.
  • The fourteen million in the Nepali cluster. Although Nepal has enjoyed massive church growth in the past several years, virtually all of the groups still remain majority-unreached, strongly Hindu.
  • The sixteen million people in the Gond cluster. The people in this cluster are part of the Gond of India, an unreached tribal Hindu people found mostly in the east-central states in India.
  • The sixteen million people in the Oriya cluster. There are several very large people groups within this cluster, including some with established churches (such as the one million Saora and the 0.6 million Shabar).
  • The 6.6 million people in the Gypsy cluster. Many Gypsy groups throughout the world have strong church movements. This is particularly true of the largest Gypsy group in the world, the Banjara of India.
  • The twenty-five million people in the Jat cluster. Of these, some 14.9 million belong to a Hindu group, and some twelve million belong to a Sikh group. Both are very unreached.
  • The thirty million people in the Gujarati cluster. There are over 130 groups in this cluster, many of whom are very small. All are very unreached, and most are Hindu. They are centered primarily on the western coast of India.
  • The thirty-six million people in the Kannada cluster. There are over 165 groups in this cluster, the largest being the nine million Lingayat and six million Vakkaliga. Most are unreached Hindu groups centered in Karnataka.
  • The twelve million people in the Pathani (Pashto) cluster. Most of the people in this cluster are refugees and immigrants from Afghanistan. These are Northern Pashtun immigrants to India, staunchly Muslim, found throughout India, but primarily in the northeast near the border of Nepal.
  • The fifty-three million people in the Telugu cluster. Found primarily in the southeast of India in the state of Andhra Pradesh, the cluster has 137 groups, over a dozen of which are fairly large. Several large groups have well-established churches.
  • The fifty-nine million people in the Marathi-Konkani cluster. There are 112 groups in this cluster, the largest being the twenty-eight million Mahratta. While a few groups have established church-planting efforts, most are strongly unreached Hindu groups, particularly the Mahratta, as well as the eight million Mahar, seven million Nau Buddh, and 2.2 million Matang.
  • The sixteen million people in the Punjabi cluster, part of the 105 million cluster centered in Pakistan. In Southern Asia, this group is unreached and Muslim.

There is an enormous challenge to grapple with in South Asia. Fortunately, there are many resources available. Unfortunately, the resources we presently have are not enough to meet the challenge. The Church needs to focus on mobilizing new resources—more prayer, more financial support, more workers, more media, more literature, more of everything!


1. Giving an overview of southeast Asia is complicated by the fact that the Joshua Project database (which we are using) approaches the peoples of southern Asia in a way that is different from other databases (such as the International Mission Board, the World Christian Encyclopedia, or Operation World). Nevertheless, abstracted to the cluster level, these complications should be kept to a minimum.

Justin Long manages and is senior editor for Momentum, a magazine devoted to unreached peoples. He can be reached at [email protected].