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Essay

South Asian Societies are Woven not Around The State, but Around Their Plural Cultures and Plural Identities

  • 30 Jan 2024
  • 10 min read

“A nation's culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

South Asia, a region comprising eight distinct nations, is characterized by a rich tapestry woven not around the state but around its plural cultures and identities. Unlike western societies where the nation-state often serves as the primary marker of social cohesion, South Asia defies such singular narratives. The dynamic cultural landscape of South Asia emphasizes the diverse languages, religions, ethnicities, and customs that contribute to the region's vibrant tapestry.

South Asia, despite its intricate and occasionally tumultuous history, is bound by a profound historical connection. The experiences of colonial rule, the collective struggles for independence, and shared challenges such as poverty and environmental degradation have forged a sense of solidarity and regional cooperation. This common historical background forms the basis for collaborative efforts and collective action in addressing present and future challenges.

The diverse and rich expressions of plural cultures and identities in South Asia reflect the region's vast population, encompassing various ethnicities, languages, religions, and traditions. Among these groups are the Indo-Aryans, Dravidians, Tibeto-Burmans, Mongoloids, Austroasiatics, and others, each with distinct histories, cultures, and identities shaped by factors such as geography, migration, colonization, and globalization.

In South Asian nations, a diverse canvas unfolds, characterized by the prevalence of Islam's green hue, interwoven with lively strands of Sufi mysticism and a myriad of regional languages. This variety goes beyond religious and linguistic boundaries, encompassing culinary practices, artistic forms, and social traditions, illustrating the interlinked nature of the region.

Illustrations of this diversity include the Sindhis, an Indo-Aryan ethnic group predominantly residing in Pakistan's Sindh province and western India. The cultural panorama of South Asia resembles a kaleidoscope, where a multitude of languages, religions, ethnicities, and customs exist in harmony, each contributing unique threads to the collective fabric. In India, one experiences the vivid colors of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, and various regional traditions. These diverse religious and cultural practices seamlessly intertwine with languages like Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, and Telugu, forming a mosaic of identities. The Tamils, a Dravidian ethnic group concentrated in Tamil Nadu (India) and northern and eastern Sri Lanka, exhibit one of the world's oldest literary traditions, reflected in language, literature, music, dance, and cinema. Their cuisine, emphasizing rice, lentils, spices, and coconut, is equally distinctive. 

These interwoven identities are not merely passive facets of society but actively shape individual and collective experiences. Religious festivals like Diwali, Eid al-Fitr, and Songkran bring communities together in a vibrant dance of shared joy and tradition. Languages like Pashto and Bengali transcend borders, fostering a sense of regional cultural unity. Meanwhile, the Gurungs, a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group in central and western Nepal, possess their language, religion, and social organization. Renowned for their bravery in the British and Indian armies, they celebrate Tamu Lhosar, a vibrant festival marking the Gurung New Year.

Even culinary traditions, from the fiery curries of South India to the aromatic pulaos of Afghanistan, stand as testaments to the shared heritage and interconnectedness of the region. These cultural expressions serve as threads binding the diverse peoples of South Asia into a collective identity, showcasing the richness of their pluralistic heritage.

Depicting South Asia as a uniform cultural blend would oversimplify its dynamic and complex nature. Each nation holds internal diversity, often along lines of caste, ethnicity, and language, forming a diverse social landscape. The challenges faced by Dalits in India, the Bihari community in Nepal, and the Rohingya in Myanmar underscore the ongoing struggles for inclusion and the battle against marginalization within these nations.

Shared cultural heritage, internal diversity significantly influences the social structure of each nation. It's crucial to acknowledge and address the distinct challenges faced by different communities within these countries to promote a more inclusive and fair society. Cultural exchange programs, educational initiatives, and policies that address the specific needs of marginalized groups can contribute to building a more cohesive and inclusive South Asian society. The emphasis should be on recognizing and appreciating the value of each cultural thread within the larger tapestry, promoting a sense of belonging and shared identity.

The shared cultural fabric serves as a strong tool for promoting unity and dialogue. Efforts like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the South Asian Games create opportunities for cultural exchange, economic cooperation, and conflict resolution. Literature, cinema, and music go beyond national borders, providing shared experiences and promoting mutual understanding among diverse communities.

Bollywood and Cricket are two cultural giants that transcend borders, uniting South Asians across the globe. Bollywood's vibrant song and dance extravaganzas captivate audiences, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan all have cricket teams and cricket matches become national spectacles, uniting fans in passionate cheers. Both industries project South Asian culture onto the world stage, fostering a sense of shared identity and pride.

Indigenous tribal communities in South Asia are diverse and rich in their cultural heritage and traditional knowledge. They have been living in harmony with nature and preserving their distinct identities for centuries. The Santhals are one of the largest tribal groups in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. They have their own language, script, religion, and art forms. They are known for their indigenous learning system, which is based on oral transmission, intuition, and ancestral wisdom. The Vedda are the indigenous inhabitants of Sri Lanka. They are hunter-gatherers who live in the forests and caves. They have their own language, which is related to Sinhala, but has many words of unknown origin. They have a strong connection with nature and practice animism, worshiping the spirits of their ancestors and the natural elements. 

The design and construction of buildings in South Asia are influenced by various factors, such as geography, climate, materials, religion, and culture. Each country has its own architectural heritage and style, reflecting its unique history and identity. The use of local materials, such as wood, stone, brick, and mud, to create structures that are adapted to the environment and available resources. For example, in the Himalayan regions, wooden houses are common, while in the arid regions, mud-brick houses are prevalent.

There is a huge influence of religion and spirituality, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, on the design and decoration of buildings. For example, Hindu temples are characterized by elaborate carvings, sculptures, and towers, while Buddhist stupas are dome-shaped structures that contain relics of the Buddha. Islamic architecture is marked by the use of arches, domes, minarets, and geometric patterns.

Architectural design seamlessly blends with cultural values and traditions, embodying key elements such as harmony, balance, symmetry, and proportion. For example, the Taj Mahal in India is a masterpiece of Mughal architecture that symbolizes love, beauty, and perfection. The Sigiriya rock fortress in Sri Lanka is a remarkable example of ancient urban planning that integrates nature, art, and engineering. The National Assembly Building in Bangladesh is a monumental structure that combines elements of Islamic, Bengali, and Brutalist architecture.

Understanding the diverse soft power of South Asia is essential, as each country brings unique cultural strengths. While there is diversity, recognizing shared elements allows for harnessing collective soft power to promote regional cooperation, tackle global challenges, and present a positive international image. It is crucial to acknowledge internal diversity to address social inequalities and promote inclusivity within each nation. The future of the region depends on recognizing and celebrating its rich cultural tapestry. South Asia can flourish by appreciating pluralism, going beyond geopolitical divisions, and finding unity in its diversity.

Creativity in children leads to a culture of excellence.”

– APJ Abdul Kalam

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