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India - many peoples, but one country
Suman Srinivasan
5/21/2004

“Unity in Diversity” – How India’s Different Cultures make it a Whole

When my friend, an Asian Indian like myself, wished me a Happy New Year on April 12, it took me a minute to figure out what he meant. It also set off a long train of thought that gave me a fresh perspective on how remarkable it is that India can have “unity in diversity,” a catch phrase used in India to indicate how Indians, despite having different cultures and ways of living, are able to retain their Indian identity.

My friend is a “Telugu” – meaning that he is a native of Andhra Pradesh, one of India’s southern states. I am a “Tamilian,” hailing from Tamil Nadu, India’s southeastern most state. My friend was actually wishing me a Happy Tamil New Year day. The New Year festival in Tamil is typically the time when the harvest season has started, and it is a big event in most of the southern states.

The two terms, Telugu and Tamil, refer to the languages we speak. In India, each state has its own independent and unique language, with the barest of resemblances to the others. In fact, India’s states were created based on the regions that have the same language and culture, which probably explains why the political map of India does not have the neat structure that is obvious in a map of the United States.

My roommate is Gujurati. His parents are from Gujurat, a northwestern state that borders Pakistan. My Telugu friend’s roommate is Marwadi, from the desert state of Rajastan, Gujurat’s neighbor. To add to the complexity, my Gujurati roommate’s family has lived in Tamil Nadu for a long time, and my roommate himself has lived there all his life. My Marwadi friend’s family was from the state of Karnataka and he too lived there all his life. Neither of them know the language of the states they have settled in, which means that their local friends would have done most of the translation in day-to-day activities for them.

Such is the complexity and diversity of India.

In India, each state has its own unique features. The way children are brought up and groomed, the marriage receptions, the daily habits and even career paths – there is a huge difference in the outlook and the way people from different states in India live and work.

North and South India – Worlds Apart?

North Indians and South Indians seem to be particularly different. In the North, children are encouraged to be independent. Most young people choose an education and a career that suits their liking. They also date and get married to people they like choose the consent of parents. In the South, most children are brought up to be educated and take a career path that is similar to their parents’. Their parents, more often than not, select their spouses. South Indians typically stay with their parents, where they live and provide for their parents and children.

Perhaps the difference comes from the origins of each group. It is believed that a few thousand years ago (and archeologists tend to disagree about the exact number) a group of people called the Aryans seemingly came from out of nowhere and took over an uncultured and untamed North India and brought with them their culture and way of life and established it there. Meanwhile, the original dwellers in the South, the Dravidians, had established their long-standing culture and way of life. Even though at some points in India’s long history strong Aryan dynasties were able to unite India and bring it together, most dynasties of Southern kingdoms were typically free from influence of the Northern kingdoms and they lived their own way of life.

There are schools of thought that believe that the Aryans were European Caucasians who came and settled in India. There are indications of that – Northern Indians are typically lighter in color, taller, broader and well built. South Indians, on the other hand, are usually darker and smaller. There are cultural differences also – Northern Indians live lives very similar to the way Caucasian people live, with independence and willingness to accept new fads and culture, whereas the South has always been the bastion of convention, tightly integrated families and dependent on tradition.

India – Different Cultures and Languages, but still India

To an outsider, Indians probably look very alike to each other. However, I think that there is no other country that is truly such a melting pot of so many different people and cultures who can still identify themselves by nationality. The United States is a melting pot too - when I visited New York, I saw people from many different cultures and countries. However, it would be harder to say how many people would actually consider themselves “Americans,” defining themselves as Asian-Americans, Latin Americans, etc.

In India, there is no such difference. Even though almost every aspect of the lifestyle of people from different states from India varies, and even though sometimes people from different states in India would have a hard time getting along together because of their different lifestyles, they would all consider themselves Indians.

Because of my involvement in the issue of the human rights of Falun Gong practitioners in China, I have met many Chinese people, and it always amazes me how India and China, two ancient cultures with a deep spiritual heritage, can be so alike, and at the same time, so different. From what I have seen, Chinese people also have slightly different lifestyles, depending on whether they are from the north or the south and other factors, but they speak the same language and their frame of mind and understandings and outlook to life are almost similar.

Indians, on the other hand, are a heterogeneous mix. Depending on the place they grew up, their outlook to life, the way they live and the languages they speak can be remarkably different from each other.

Yet, there is no other country in the world where the people can be so different from each other and yet so united and proud. It amazes me that despite a long history of cultural and regional differences, people from different regions in India can study, work and live together and look at each other as Indians even if they are so different from each other.

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