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IT has become common among statesmen and historians to speak of ‘unity in diversity’ with regard to India. To some, this many afford an easy escape from considering seriously either the nature of unity or of diversity. In analysing the differences between the cultural regions in India one does not, of course, commit oneself to a denial of their fundamental unity. That there are significant elements of continuity in race and culture between the different regions of India is not merely a question of ideology, but a historical and scientific fact.

The terms ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ have generally been used to emphasise the distinctiveness in both race and culture of the people of North and South India respectively. This is unfortunate, for both these terms refer to linguistic categories which may not coincide with racial or biological categories. Strictly speaking there is no Dravidian race, although there is a Dravidian family of languages, and one may even loosely speak of a Dravidian culture. The confusion of racial and cultural categories has been an unfortunate feature of much of nineteenth century ethnology. It persists among educated laymen who continue to speak with confidence about the Dravidian race, if not the Aryan race.



The concept of race has been critically examined in recent years. Some anthropologists, like Ashley Montagu, have indeed argued that the older conception of race as a localized and pure physical type may have to be jettisoned. Human populations in even fairly small areas are so diverse, and their patterns of heredity so complex, that it becomes almost impossible to make any kind of ethno-geographical classification. Not only is there no such thing as an Aryan race, but the population of North India is so diverse that it is difficult even to identify the many physical types that have gone into its composition. Many physical types have for many generations intermixed with one another, some coming from outside and others perhaps local to the soil.

There are, then, no pure physical types either in the North or in the South, the population of North India being perhaps more mixed than that of the South. This diversity within each area reduces the contrast between the two regions, North and South. Thus, although a Kashmiri, as a physical type, may stand in sharp contrast to an Andhra, the Bengali, who is North Indian, may be closer racially to the latter rather than the former. Thus, there are many elements of continuity between the people of North and South India considered as racial types. In this regard some North Indian groups may stand closer to the South Indians than to other groups in North India.

Earlier ethnologists thought of the Aryans and Dravidians as constituting two distinct and pure physical types. Groups which did not fit either of these types were explained as being mixtures of the two. Thus, Risley spoke of the population of Bihar as being Aryo-Dravidian and the Maharashtrians as being Scytho-Dravidians. The people of Bengal were, according to Risley, Mongolo-Dravidian. Recent researches tend to show that these anomalies may not be so easily accounted for. Diversities within each of the regions and continuities between them cannot be explained simply in terms of intermarriage across the border.

Excavations in Harappa and Mohenjodaro have shown that diversities in the population existed even before the ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ cultures had crystallized as such. The skulls from the Indus Valley sites contain both ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ types. It should cause little surprise, therefore, to find in the contemporary population ‘Aryan’ types in the South and ‘Dravidian’ types in the North.



The criteria generally used in racial classifications in India are somatic traits such as skin-colour, hair form, stature, shape of the head as measured by the cephalic index and form of the nose as given by the nasal index. Any population that is homogenous and distinctive in the possession of a number of such traits may be regarded as a race. As indicated earlier, a race in this sense is an ideal rather than an existing fact. There is considerable overlap between adjacent populations, and hardly any group is homogenous with regard to even a small number of criteria.

Skin-colour is, in general, lighter among North Indians than among South Indians. But here again there are many exceptions and North Indians are by no means homogenous in this respect. From the Punjab through Uttar Pradesh and Bihar into Bengal the colour of the skin becomes progressively darker. On the other hand, the Saraswat Brahmins of Mangalore, to take one example, are usually of a fairly light skin-colour. The average stature also is higher in the North than in the South, but here again similar exceptions are noted. The Coorgs, for instance have a higher average stature than the people of Bengal or Gujarat. South Indians are more commonly dolichocephalic or long-headed, but there are some notable exceptions. In the North, long-, medium- and broad-headed populations are found intermixed in quite a complicated manner. South Indians are usually medium-nosed (mesorrhine), and this is perhaps true for most North Indians too. However, the proportion of narrow-nosed (leptorrhine) people is considerably greater in the North as compared to the South.

Dr. Guha, in his racial classification of India, has divided the population into six basic types. Of these, the Negrito and the Pre-Dravidian are to be found mainly in the tribal population. A third type, the Palae-Mongoloid is confined to tribal and semi-tribal groups living in the Himalayan foothills. The Nordic type, in its pure form, is also confined to a small section of the population in the extreme North. The two remaining types, namely the Mediterraneans and the Western Brachycephals, account for the remaining bulk of the Indian population. Each of these again has three sub-types.



The Mediterranean type is of slight build and is characteristically dolichocephalic or long-headed. The skin-colour varies from dark to light brown. It is found typically among the people of South India, although many North Indians also belong to this type. The Western Brachycephals are, on the other hand, broad-headed, and occur typically in the population of Maharashtra and Bengal, as also in other North Indian states. The Coorgs of South India, however, belong to this group, being both tall and broad-headed. We conclude, therefore, that no hard and fast lines can be drawn in racial, i.e., biological, terms between the peoples of North and South India.



The terms Aryan and Dravidian, as explained above, refer to linguistic divisions, and there are major differences of language between the people of North and South India. The North Indian languages, such as Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali and Gujarati, belong to the Indo-Aryan family and are related to the modern European languages. The South Indian languages, such as Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada, belong to the Dravidian family. The North Indian languages are inflectional in nature whereas the South Indian languages are agglutinative. The formation of words is based upon different principles in the two groups of languages.

However, in language also there are many common elements between the people of North and South India. English has been the language of higher learning in both divisions of the country for almost a hundred years. More important than this, the influence of Sanskrit has acted, although unequally, over both North and South Indian languages. All South Indian languages, including Tamil, have a substantial stock of words derived from Sanskrit. Telugu and Kannada are heavily Sanskritised in their vocabulary, and the copiousness of Sanskritic words is an index of a high-flown and literary style in these, as in so many North Indian languages.

Attempts have been made from time to time to prepare maps of cultural zones in India. These maps show the distribution of culture traits – mainly traits of material culture – throughout the country. In such distribution maps the primary division tends to be between North and South, although the culture zones do not coincide exactly with geographical divisions. Items of dress and diet vary between North and South, although such marginal areas as Bengal and Maharashtra tend, as often as not, to share features of South Indian material culture. An interesting account of variations in material traits is to be found in N.K. Bose’s paper on Culture Zones in India.

It may be pointed out here that regional variations have also been corroborated to a certain extent by the findings of archaeology. In the Palaeolithic period, the hand-axe culture was concentrated in the South, and important sites have been discovered in Madras and Mayurbhanj. The Soan Valley sites in the Punjab show, on the other hand, an entirely different cultural type, namely, the flake and pebble complex. Neolithic tools again are found in East and South India and are largely absent in the North and West. These differences, of course, may be of little or no significance to the present-day distribution of cultures.



Many of the cultural differences between North and South India have been attributed to the differential impact of Muslim rule. Muslim dynasties ruled in North India continuously for more than five hundred years and Muslim culture influenced local ways of living in many important respects. Muslim influence came later in the South and was on the whole much more superficial. It is on these grounds that some have claimed that South Indian culture has preserved in a more pure and pristine form the traditional Hindu ways of living.

These differences are expressed perhaps most strikingly in the architecture of North and South India. The most impressive examples of North Indian architecture are the monuments created by the Muslims. No doubt these were influenced in varying degrees by Hindu styles, but they are basically Islamic in expression. Even Hindu architecture in the North, as Professor Kabir shows in The Indian Heritage, reveals the influence of Muslim styles. The temples of South India, on the other hand, belong to an entirely different tradition. They contrast with North Indian mosques and mausolea in their absence of domes and in their rich and elaborate ornamentation.



Muslim influence is also alleged to have affected differentially the social organization of the people of North and South India. The greater rigidity of caste in South India, and the importance of purity-pollution concepts, have been attributed by some to the absence of a strong and lasting Muslim influence. There are, however, a number of other facts which appear to be responsible for these differences. The different types of castes which have been dominant in the different areas may be one of the factors to be taken into account.

Throughout South India, and particularly in Madras and Mysore, castes are divided into three groups, viz., Brahmins, Non-Brahmins and Untouchables. This division serves to highlight the unique position of the Brahmin, and his social importance. In North India, the Brahmin is not to the same extent separated from the rest of the population, and his position appears to be not quite as unique. Social anthropologists have noticed the importance of secular criteria of caste dominance in North India in contrast to ritual criteria which appear to be more important in the South. This might indicate a significant cultural difference between the two regions which will have to be investigated in greater detail.



Castes in all parts of India are endogamous or inmarrying. However, differences in marriage rules lead to differences in kinship alignments between North and South India. In North India, marriage is generally not allowed between persons who are closely related to each other. In South India, the opposite is the case and preferential kin-marriage is a widespread phenomenon. Marriage with the mother’s brother’s daughter or the elder sister’s daughter is practiced by most of the castes of South India. This leads to the fact that one’s relations by blood and by marriage happen to be the same. Thus, there are many ties of kinship and affinity between the same set of persons in South Indian society. It is in this connection that Mrs Karve has contrasted the close-knit kinship system of South India with the ramifying system of the North.

Within the scope of a brief article it is possible to indicate differences between North and South India in only a broad and limited way. No doubt there are innumerable details not touched upon here which express the diversity of Indian culture. Variations in detail can be pointed out between adjacent districts, not to speak of such large geographical divisions as North and South India. But it must be repeated that these differences in culture and social organization do not by any means completely mask the many elements of continuity between the different regions of India.

Village life shows broadly similar features everywhere in India. The distinctiveness of the Indian village community has become almost proverbial. Without emphasizing too much this distinctiveness, one can say that it does provide a common way of living and a common outlook on life to the rural people of India as a whole. The vertical unity of the village cuts across the horizontal unity of caste in broadly similar ways in every part of the country. The joint family and wider kinship groups affect similarly the lives of people in every region.

The broad framework of caste is the same throughout India. Caste-wise division of labour was a characteristic of Indian society as a whole and still forms an important feature of India’s rural economy. The varna scheme provide everywhere an ideal model for the ranking of castes. There are similarities not only in the hierarchy of caste, but also in patterns of caste mobility. Sanskritisation and Westernisation are means for enhancing the status of a caste in the North as much as in the South.



The Brahmins, as agents of Sanskritic learning, have provided a common framework of values throughout India. The same ideas of dharma, karma and samsara operate in North as well as South India. The epics and the Puranic legends, the many temples and centres of pilgrimage have all contributed to build up a Great Tradition that has a truly all-India character.

British rule created new conditions for the unity of India. It brought together effectively, under a single administration, the entire population of the country. With its railways and postal and telegraphic system, new conditions of mobility were created; this led to an interchange of people and ideas on a scale that was perhaps unprecedented. The rise of nationalism was partly based upon these conditions, and already in the nineteenth century people had become conscious of the unity of India as a political necessity.


* Reproduced from ‘North and South’, Seminar 23, July 1961.