India’s Tumultuous Divisions

Dravidian Languages

From my Ramayana Series!

India is a hugely divided country. The most obvious division to outsiders is the religious division between Muslims and Hindus. But a drastically important division, even between Hindus is one of race, geography and language. This is the Aryan-Dravidian divide of North vs South.

  • The South:  The Southerners are typically known as smaller, darker-skinned people who speak dialects of a completely different language family: Dravidian language group
  • The North : The Northerners are typically known as taller, lighter-skinned people who speak dialects from the Indo-Aryan language group whose mother is Sanskrit.

Indo-Aryan Languages

The bitterness between these groups is huge. India’s capital is in the North — Delhi.  And the official national government language is a Northern language: Hindi (and also English) but no Southern languages can are official.  So to get central government jobs, a person must know both Hindi and English (the language of the previous ruling class).

This division is present in India’s Hinduism too. Even in my US town there are two Hindu temples: a Northern temple and a Southern temple. The Northerners have different local gods and holidays. Holi, for instance, is not celebrated by many Southern Indians.

To uninformed Westerners, India appears a monolithic land. But like many countries and religions, with a little inspection, the tumultuous divisions become clear.  My experiences in India were largely from the North.  I have only studied northern languages (Hindi & Urdu) but not  any southern Dravidian languages.  But I recently made some Tamil friends from whom I am learning to look behind my Northern prejudices — both historical and religious.  In the next post I will illustrate how this divide is reflected in the Ramayana – one of Hinduism’s most sacred texts.

PS:  There is a much smaller third group called “The Tribals” or “The Adivasi” in India.  This group had a very large influence on me and I will write about very close Tribal friend later.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

8 responses to “India’s Tumultuous Divisions

  1. I learned some Tamil before traveling to South India. It is a beautiful language. If you want to dabble, the Routledge Colloquial Tamil course is what I used. The recordings can be a bit overwhelming initially, seeming to go so fast with a language that is so unfamiliar (although since you’ve done Hindi you’ll have been introduced to some of the retroflex consonants). But it is a great course, and when you get to chapter 5 (if I remember correctly), you will get some very useful phrases for bargaining with an autorickshaw driver!

  2. Thanx, James! Why did you travel to South India?
    I may look into the course after returning from Germany this summer. I worked with some Tibetan earlier this year — too many languages, not enough time ! I am sure you understand. 🙂

  3. I went once with students and once with other faculty, all of us were teaching a core curriculum course “South Asian Civilizations” at the time.

  4. lalitha

    i still don’t understand why there is this divide between tamil and hindi speaking people…. i am part of an organization that is trying to unite these two – but, hindi people don’t come because the priest and tamil people don’t come because the priest entertains hindi speaking people. this is insane! can anybody please help?

  5. Sorry, lalitha. Can’t help – not my people. Give us a link if you can.

  6. Arjun

    Hi, it is a nicely done article. Just a few corrections of my own, though:
    • India does not have an official language; Hindi and English are the official languages of the Indian parliament.
    • Hindi is not a mandate for Central government officials of higher ranks (eg: Administration and police services), a proficiency in English is.
    • There never existed a unified India before independence: and hence, the rulers of the north never ruled over the south of the country. Thus, the concept of Indian rulers were from the north can be refuted. South India has had its own rulers and empires.
    • Kannada, a South Indian language has more Sanskrit words in its pure form than North Indian languages, although it is spoken in the Dravidian agglutinative base.
    • The people of sections of the South west Costal plains, and the western ghats have a typical colour fairer than a majority of the north. Although this maybe due to climatic conditions.
    • Being in different parts of India myself,I have personally never seen a mass sense of bitterness in the two groups. It has been projected so by various political parties for their benefit.

    And yeah, peace! I haven’t put anything forward as a debate.

  7. @ Arjun,
    Thanx for the “national” language thoughts. I guess it is how you view it. I imagine some Indians may view it differently. But I don’t know. Even the Wiki article (edited by many) seems to debate the issue:

    The Republic of India does not have a National language.[4] However, the official languages of the Union Government of Republic of India is Hindi in the Devanagari script and English.[5] The constitution of India states that “The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script.”[6] a position supported by a High Court ruling.[7]

    I know there is language resentment in India. I don’t know the details. But you are right, Hindi is certainly not the “National” language in the way that word is often used.

    So thanks I improved that sentence.

    Concerning North-South Divide

    I have a friend who is from South India (Chennai) — a Tamil speaker. He tells me that my views of India are Northern biased and based on Western histories of India including the Aryan Invasion theory. He is right. I have since read more on this issue and am surprised at the bias of my university training.

    As I wrote in the post, here is my USA city, there are two main Indian temples — a North and a South temple. The division is clear to me, and I saw anti-Hindi feelings as I travelled in South India. Things may have changed since back then, but I doubt it from my readings of Indian newspapers.

    I think that one of the many problems in India is the North-South divide. Do you disagree?

    Peace, Arjun.
    (BTW, is that a Sanskrit name you were given by your parents? Per chance a middle name?)

  8. RanaPratap

    Arjun is right. Hindi is not our official Language. In-fact the political identity of a lot of southern people is deeply rooted in rejecting this notion. In the 1930s there were large scale riots in the southern state of Tamil Nadu when it was hinted that Hindi might become a compulsory language in education. This was ample fuel for politicians to light communal fires and divide us further. Recently, the publication of a cartoon that poked fun at some these stereotypes (of people rejecting Hindi) was a political hot topic. I have traveled to multiple states in the south and they would sooner learn English than Hindi. (and they do!)

    To answer your other question, yes Arjun (अर्जुन) is indeed a Sanskrit name derived from Arjuna. I believe it comes from some herb/tree mentioned in a text on Ayurveda, but I’m not very sure.

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