Why are South Indians good at Math?

Ramanujam, one of the greatest mathematical brains of ancient India, hailed from Tamil Nadu. The senior research faculty in the mathematical statistics department of the Indian Statistical Institute, an institution with high international reputation, has for many decades been dominated by Raos from Andhra Pradesh.

Ramanujam, one of the greatest mathematical brains of ancient India, hailed from Tamil Nadu. The senior research faculty in the mathematical statistics department of the Indian Statistical Institute, an institution with high international reputation, has for many decades been dominated by Raos from Andhra Pradesh.


The IA&AS, which stands for the Indian Audit & Accounts Service, is so highly populated by Tamilian Brahmins that it is jocularly referred to as the Indian Ayyar & Ayyengar Service. These observations are part of the phenomena that lead one to think that South Indians are good at mathematics. But why are South Indians good at math?

In the book called Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points to two ‘cultural legacy’ factors in explaining why Asians are better than Americans and Europeans at math. These are: (i) the culture of rice cultivation; and (ii) the system of naming numbers up to 99. The arguments he makes, explained below, are applicable to South Indians as well.

Rice cultivation is a very labour intensive process. First the saplings have to be produced, then transplanted by hand in neat rows, at fixed distance between one another. Then almost on a daily basis, shoots of unwanted weeds need to be detected and removed by hand. The water level needs to be monitored and regulated for optimum yield. The argument is that a cultural legacy of intense, hard and persistent work develops the aptitude required for mastering mathematics. It builds a people who persist in their efforts to solve a problem, an essential quality for excelling in math.

The second argument is that the way single digit and double digit numbers are named in one’s language matters. In the Chinese language, for instance, the name for eleven is ten-one, twelve is ten-two, and similarly, the word for twenty nine is like two-ten-nine. In contrast, the names in the English language follow a highly irregular pattern, especially in the teens.  Eleven does not sound like ten-one at all, while sixteen sounds only a bit like ten-six, but in reverse order. After 20, the order switches from reverse to straight, so that 22 is twenty-two (20 + 2).

Why does this matter? It matters because a Chinese child who is asked to add sixteen and twenty-two, for instance, would automatically think of 10+6 plus 20+2, and be able to arrive at 30+8 in his or her mind. Hearing the English words sixteen and twenty-two does not produce the same effect; to many kids it would be confusing. It would compel learning by rote, rather than understanding.

A child who is confused by numbers, and the simplest operations involving them like addition and subtraction, develops a fear of math. He or she does not persist in trying to solve a problem, but gives up half way. A vicious cycle sets in. Such a person waits to be old enough to be ‘liberated from mathematics forever’.

The number-naming system in the Tamil language is similar to the Chinese language in its regularity. Sixteen is called pathinaaru, which is pathu (10) + aaru (6). The same regular pattern is followed for the teens, the 20s, the 30s and so on. In Hindi and Bengali, on the other hand, the naming of the teens is irregular. The word for 16 in Hindi is  sola, which has no similarity with  dus (10) or with chhe (6). There is also an irregularity for 29, 39 and so on; the word for 29 is untees or one-less-thirty, and 39 is similarly called one-less-forty. In Bengali there are additional irregularities; for instance, the word for 20 is kudi, which sounds nothing like dui, the word for 2.

While Bengalis are also rice cultivators, they are disadvantaged by their number-naming system. Tamilians, and most South Indians, on the other hand, enjoy the advantage of both the above-mentioned factors being favourable: they have the legacy of rice cultivation plus the advantage of an intuitively harmonious number-naming system. 

What is interesting about these observations and arguments is that they point to the importance of our legacy, as a people, and as a union of diverse peoples. Probing such questions serves to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of each constituent of the union. It helps to achieve a higher degree of self-realisation, as a people. It helps to understand better why we are the way we are. It shows the potential for what we could be, if only we could end the colonial legacy of manipulating weaknesses so as to divide and rule. It is not enough to repeat the words unity in diversity, like a mantra. We need a system that builds on the strengths of our diverse cultural legacy for the benefit of all.

By S. Udayan

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One thought on “Why are South Indians good at Math?

  1. Dear Editor,
    I didn’t

    Dear Editor,

    I didn’t read the whole GJH yet but I felt impelled to write right away after reading the article on why South Indians are so good at Math. Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way. I am a South Indian and a mathematician. Under the guise of some pseudo-science about the connection between linguistics and analytical thinking this article seems to be jumping to generalised conclusions too quickly.

    Ramanujam is an exception – a child prodigy who probably would have done the same thing if he were born and brought up in England. As for the Raos and the Iyengars you have to give credit to the institutions not to some numerical scheme in a language. The Indian Statistical Institute (long before IITs became fashionable) was singularly responsible for creating a culture that encouraged critical thinking and had peers you could emulate. That is where the Raos, the Varadhans and the Parthasarathys emerged from. And the man responsible for this was Mahalanobis (known famously himself for the Mahalanobis distance)–a Bengali.

    What India needs most whether in Medicine, Engineering or Mathematics are Indian institutions that encourage research and accord prestige (and pay) for those who do pioneering research in their fields. But then again, in order to do this we need to go all the way back to primary education and make sure every child in India gets a decent education and a shot at being able to make some earth-shattering discovery. Alas, despite all the new money India is awash in, that seems like a distant goal.

    C Ravi

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