What are the Noticeable Differences Between North India and South India?
My parents immigrated to Australia in the late ’80s, and Sydney was where I called home all these years. My family wanted us, kids, to know where we came from, so I got to grow up in a multicultural environment which exposed me to the differences between North India and South India.
My Indian friends hail from different states, and the differences became more apparent when we spent sleepovers in each other’s homes. The languages spoken were different, as was the food put on the table.
But my first close-up glimpse of South India was when I lived in Bengaluru for a year back in 2016. I was the North Indian guy with an Aussie accent finding my way around a place that predominantly spoke South Indian languages.
I learned a lot just by observing people and places. It made me realize that the cultural divide between North and South India is evident in how we interact, what we eat, and how we dress.
What are the cultural differences of Southern India and Northern India?
1. Social stereotypes
You’d hate admitting this, but we all tend to box people into categories when we see them. For example, North Indians are guilty of presuming that everyone from Southern India is dark-complexioned, eat Idli and dosa, and hail from Madras. If you want to anger a South Indian, try calling them ‘Madras! This was the term used to refer to South Indians in the past, and I’m relieved it’s been dropped. There’s also the assumption that anyone from South India cannot understand or speak Hindi.
Similarly, South Indians tend to stereotype North Indians too. It’s commonly believed that all North Indians speak Hindi. In reality, we’ve got Punjabis, Haryanvi, Gujaratis, and Rajasthanis- just to name a few. And while most people up north understand and speak Hindi, it’s not the only thing you’ll hear when you’re out on the road.
The stereotypes have risen from ignorance or wrongful portrayal of characters in movies. The Hindi movie Padosan, for example, featured a south Indian musician as a Tamilian who could barely speak Hindi and did so with an exaggerated accent. It’s also falsely assumed that North Indians cannot distinguish between south Indian languages, much less learn to speak them. But, I personally know many people whose families settled in places like Coimbatore, Bengaluru, and parts of Kerala and quickly assimilated into the local culture there.
Thanks to job opportunities, the floating population in cities have grown, enabling people from different states to socialize and break down the stereotypes mentioned above. Both North and South Indians think twice now before assuming!
2. Norms and courtesies
The differences in social norms and courtesies observed by both North and South Indians include
- Greeting someone with Namaste
The common greeting when you’re meeting someone for the first time is to fold your hands and say “Namaste” or “namaskar” which translates to “ I bow to the divinity in you”. It is exchanged during weddings, inaugural ceremonies, and even when visiting homes.
- Seeking the blessings of elders
When you’re meeting an elderly relative(such as one’s maternal or paternal grandparents) or guest, it’s customary to bend down to touch their feet and raise your fingers to your chest afterward. This is particular to Hindu households and is a mark of respect to the elder person. They in turn will lightly touch the top of your head or shoulders with either one or both hands. Other customs to show respect to an older person is to lightly and briefly hug them and exchange kisses three times on the cheek. T
In this regard, the difference between North India and South India is that the practice of touching feet even in casual home visits is more prevalent in North Indian households. In the south, you’re expected to touch the feet of your elders only on special functions such as weddings.
If you accidentally shove past someone or step on their foot by mistake, one way of saying sorry is to press your hand to your chest and then forehead. It’s a modified version of touching feet and is usually acknowledged in kind. It is encouraged to do this gesture if you step on objects such as books because texts are considered sacred, and stamping on them equals desecrating them.
In the North, people wear white to weddings as a mark of respect to the departed. In Islam and Hinduism, women mourn privately at home while the men oversee cremation and burial rites. It’s also common for younger children and adults to pay their respects at funerals by touching the feet of the body placed for viewing. In the south, there’s no fixed dress code so long as the attire is respectful of the occasion.
Indian food is well known for its sheer diversity, richness in flavors, and colorful display. Despite the differences between North India and South India, I’m glad both sides have one thing in common,i.e. never letting anyone leave until they’ve had seconds and thirds!
Growing up, mum and dad made it a habit to make Indian dishes often so that we’d get used to the heat and spices early on. Here’s a list of South and North Indian dishes that are finger-licking good!
- Idlis: Idlis are made from a batter comprising parboiled rice, urad dal, rock salt and fenugreek seeds. The batter is poured into a 4-stack round mold that is lightly greased. The mold is then dipped into a larger vessel filled with water and steamed for 15 to 25 minutes. Idlis are usually served for breakfast and are paired with a spicy coconut chutney or veggie-laden sambar. Some restaurants serve idlis with ghee and Podi (dry spiced powders).
- Dosa: Dosas are made from fermented rice batter and are cooked on a heated and oiled Tava. There are plain and ghee dosas as well as ones with a mildly spiced potato filling inside, known as Masala dosa. Like Idlis, they can be eaten with ghee, chutney and sambar.
- Sambar: Sambar is a vegetable-laden gravy mixed with lentils, tamarind water and a special sambar powder. It’s commonly served as a breakfast or lunch dish.
- Chutneys: chutneys (also called Chammanthi in Kerala) are accompaniments where the ingredients are mixed with water and grounded to a paste-like consistency. It is usually tempered with Bird’s eye chilli, mustard and fennel seeds and curry leaves. Chutneys are named after their key ingredient and flavor, such as Thengai (coconut), Vengaya (onion), tomato or garlic.
- Kesari Bath: Kesari bath is a sweet dish usually served as breakfast food or dessert in Karnataka. It is made with semolina, ghee and sugared water flavored with cashews, raisins, saffron coloring and cardamom pods.
- Thalassery Biriyani: no nonvegetarian’s visit to North Kerala is complete without trying out the Thalassery biriyani. What makes this rice dish different is that it uses Khaima rice instead of long grained basmati rice. The exotic spices are rubbed into the chicken pieces, topped off with ghee-fried onions, cashew nuts and even raisins!
- Avalakki /Poha: Avalakki or aval is a breakfast or humble snack made with flattened rice flakes, lemon juice, peanuts and boiled potatoes. It’s full of protein and is easy to make in under ten minutes. There’s also a sweet version which is made with jaggery, ghee, nuts and raisins.
- Flavored rice dishes: Depending on where you’re eating, you’ll get Puliogare (Tamil Nadu), Pulihora (Karnataka/Telangana), Pongal (Tamil Nadu), Chitraana and Bisi Bele Bath (native to Karnataka).
- Appam and Stew: Appams are flattened pancakes made with fermented rice and coconut milk. It’s usually paired with a vegetable or meat-based curry flavored with coconut milk. This is usually served for breakfast or dinner.
- Pathiri and erachi curry: Pathiri is a dish made from rice flour and is typically served in muslim households with a chicken or mutton curry.
- Ragi Mudde: Ragi Mudde is native to Karnataka and is consumed as a breakfast item by laborers and farmers, due to its ability to keep one full for a longer while. A ball of ragi is dunked in a spicy vegetarian saar (or curry) for the flavors to soak through.
- Puttu and Kadala: Puttu is a rice based dish that is steamed traditionally inside coconut shells or in cylindrical vessels. It is served alongside a curry of black chickpeas or with ghee and banana (for those whose spice tolerance is 0!).
- Gutti Vankaya Koora: Gutti Vankaya is a stuffed eggplant curry made in Telangana. The masala paste contains peanuts and coconut milk.
- Payasam: Payasam or Payasa is a popular dessert served in all South Indian states. There are dry and liquid versions which are also made in temples as an offering. The ingredients include milk, sugar, ghee, nuts and raisins and the base of your choice
- Samosas: Samosas are triangular savory snacks with a filling of mixed vegetables, paneer (cottage cheese) or meat. The most recognizable samosas are the larger Punjabi samosas which contain a potato and peas filling. Samosas are either eaten as is, or dipped with a cilantro or tamarind chutney. Samosas are popular party snacks or street food.
- Dal Makhani: Dal Makhani is a rich gravy made from black lentils and red kidney beans. These are mixed with pureed tomatoes, herbs and butter. The garnish is a topping of makhan (solidified butter) and fresh cilantro.
- Kulchas, naans and Rotis: Since wheat and besan are the staple in North Indian cuisine,many Indian flatbreads are made with varying proportions of wheat, such as Chapatis, flavored and plain naans and kulchas. While Rotis are heated on a Tawa, naans are slow cooked on the sides of a tandoor.
- Dal Batti with Churma: Dal Batti is a Rajasthani special which is served along with a sweet mixture called Churma. The Batti is a deep fried bread dipped into ghee and a piping hot dal curry that contains green gram, black lentils and toovar dal.
- Rajma Chawal: Rajma are the red kidney beans which are soaked overnight before being pressure cooked. The dish is served with rice and is a winter specialty served in Punjab and Delhi.
- Palak paneer: Palak, or spinach is the base for this gravy. Spinach leaves are soft boiled, ground and spiced while chunks of paneer are added to simmer on a slow to medium heat. The flavors are absorbed by the paneer and optionally topped with cream to make it more flavorful.
- Aloo Gobi: Aloo Gobi is a dry dish made with boiled potato and cauliflower. It is seasoned with dry mango powder (amchur), coriander powder, sesame, salt and garam masala. Some people garnish this dish with a sprig of coriander.
- Paranthe: If you want to cross eating hot paratha off your list, you need to head to Delhi’s Paranthe Wali Gali. These flatbreads are stuffed with the filling of your choice- peas, potatoes, cauliflower, paneer or grated carrots and are served with pickles, curd and butter.
- Chole Bhature: Chole is a mildly spiced chickpea curry in a tomato base, while Bhature are the large deep-fried puris. This dish is calorie heavy and is usually consumed for breakfast or lunch.
- Khichdi: Khichdi is a rice and lentils based dish which is usually served when someone is unwell and needs something that’s’ light on the stomach. Khichdi is usually flavored with ghee and lemon juice.
- Bhindi ki sabzi : Ladies finger (Bhindi in Hindi), is usually dry cooked with onions and garlic. It is usually eaten for lunch along with Dal and Roti.
- Butter chicken: Butter Chicken is another Punjabi special that is served with flatbreads or rice. It is a dish where the chicken is marinated in curd, herbs and spices for hours before being cooked in a tomato and cream base.
- Carrot halwa: Gajar, or carrot halwa, is a sweet dish made of carrot, heavy cream, sugar and ghee. It is usually garnished with a serving of mixed nuts.
- Pyaz Kachori: Pyaz or onion Kachori, is a Jodhpuri specialty. It is a deep fried gram flour snack with a spicy onion filling.
North Indian cuisine draws influences from Arabs and Persians, particularly the non-vegetarian main courses and appetizers (referring to the succulent Biryanis and Kebabs). The curries are noticeably creamier, heavier, and less spicy. South Indian dishes, on the other hand, have more of a coastal influence, making use of ingredients that grow in tropical climates, such as coconuts and rice. During my time in Bengaluru and Ooty, my favorite breakfast was filter coffee with a plate of steaming hot idlis and coconut chutney.
Even the variety of sweets you get in either North or South India is mind-boggling. In the north, you’ll get milk-based sweets made from buffalo or cow milk, giving it a creamier texture. While the south has sweets made from jaggery, coconut, sesame, groundnuts, and ghee.
Need I say more?
4. Culture and perspective
India is culturally diverse, and celebrates different festivals and occasions. Some festivals that are celebrated with more fanfare up north than down south include
- Holi (the festival of colors) and
- Diwali (the festival of lights).
- Dussehra(the 9 day festival)
- Ganesh Chaturthi
Some states have harvest festivals in common, but go by different names. It’s called
- Baisakhi In Punjab
- Vishu in Kerala
- Pongal in Tamil Nadu
- Gudi Padwa in Goa and Maharashtra and
- Ugadi in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
Some festivals are unique to a specific state, such as
- Onam to Malayalee
- Phulaich to Himachalis and
- Garba in Gujarat
Each generation teaches the next about the significance and history of the festival in order to keep the tradition and customs followed alive. Everything- from what is worn on the day, to the food being prepared depends on whether you’re celebrating a north or south indian festival.
During my time in India, I found that Bengalureans were more willing to break into Hindi and English. There are plenty of signs in Kannada, English and Hindi to help you get directions if you’re stuck, so not knowing Kannada wasn’t an impediment for me. That being said, it’s only fair to give the local language a try. You can learn a few key phrases to get by with language apps, audio tapes or even asking someone you know to teach you.
Up north, you’ll find yourself at a distinct disadvantage if you cannot converse in Hindi, particularly in non-metro towns. Many of my south indian friends tell me that they had to pick up Hindi when they were posted up north because English didn’t often work. Or rather, you stood a high chance of being scammed or conned if people realized you’re new and naive. It’s also useful to have someone with you who can read signboards, especially when visiting localities in and around places like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Ditto when traveling south!
The one thing I did find North Indians to be more accepting of in general, are inter-state marriages. Once the initial resistance wears off, you’ll find extended families more willing to make their acquaintance with you or your spouse at family events.
If you’re visiting southern states, be prepared not to hear Hindi being spoken that often! This is more evident in villages. I experienced this language barrier when I traveled to Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Luckily, English did work in some places and where it didn’t, there was someone to translate conversations for us.
Even in the south, there are differences in how people accept you. For example, Kannadigas and Tamilians are more tolerant and encouraging when they see outsiders trying to learn Kannada or Tamil. This explains why Bengaluru has such a large floating population of migrant workers. In Kerala, people will tease you if you try to speak Malayalam but will also admire you later for at least trying.
One of the noticeable differences between north India and south India, is the weather. In the north, the summer season is long, dry and interspersed with mild showers. There are arid deserts with an intense heat during the day and cooler temperatures at night. The hottest months are from April to August, while winter sets in from October to January. Temperatures can drop to as low as -13 degrees, especially in places like Leh Ladakh!
In the south, winter is limited to hill stations, such as Kodaikanal, Ooty or Munnar. But owing to its proximity to the coastline, most southern states are humid and tropical. Places like Kerala and Dakshin Karnataka (think Shimoga and Mangalore) also tend to flood heavily with rains come the monsoons.
7. Gender equality
Gender equality is unfortunately skewed in India, and impacts both men and women. While women can seek legal counsel for crimes of harassment or stalking, men are usually perceived to be guilty unless proven innocent. The crime rate against women is lower in south India. Research into cultural differences attribute it to the societal makeup, with a patriarchal society more predominant in northern states and a matrilineal one in select southern states.
Although north India is now adopting a more progressive mindset when it comes to women’s rights to be educated, join the workforce and compete in sports, the number of crimes committed against women questions how safe women feel. There are places where tribal and outdated practices continue to exist, coercing girls into early marriages who later endure hardships and domestic violence. According to a Times of India article, women are better off living in south India. As disheartening as it is, the only way to change this perception of the north being unsafe or biased towards a certain gender is to ensure gender-based stereotypes don’t prevail. After all, much of what we think are acceptable behaviors is based on social cues, interactions and observations.
To wrap up..
India is a perfect example of unity in diversity. Noone knows how to coexist and celebrate different occasions, customs and traditions better than an Indian! From language and dress code to heritage and cuisine, there’s a piece of India that you’ll carry with you, whether you visit the north, or south!