South Asia comprises the sub-Himalayan countries and some adjoining countries. Topographically, it is dominated by the Indian Plate, which rises above sea level as the Indian subcontinent south of the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. South Asia is surrounded (clockwise, from west) by Western Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Asia, Southeastern Asia and the Indian Ocean.
South Asia is home to about one fourth of the world’s population, making it both the most populous and most densely populated geographical region in the world. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is an economic cooperation organization in the region.
While the South Asia had never been a coherent geopolitical region, it has a distinct geographical identity. The boundaries of South Asia vary based on how South Asia is defined. South Asia’s north, east, and west boundaries vary based on definitions used. South Asia’s southern border is the Indian Ocean. The UN subregion of Southern Asia’s northern boundary would be the Himalayas, its western boundary would be made up of the Iraq-Iran border, Turkey-Iran border, Armenia-Iran border, and the Azerbaijan-Iran border. Its eastern boundary would be the India-Burma border and the Bangladesh-Burma border.
Most of this region is a subcontinent resting on the Indian Plate (the northerly portion of the Indo-Australian Plate) separated from the rest of Eurasia. It was once a small continent before colliding with the Eurasian Plate about 50-55 million years ago and giving birth to the Himalayan range and the Tibetan plateau. It is the peninsular region south of the Himalayas and Kuen Lun mountain ranges and east of the Indus River and the Iranian Plateau, extending southward into the Indian Ocean between the Arabian Sea (to the southwest) and the Bay of Bengal (to the southeast).
The region is home to an astounding variety of geographical features, such as glaciers, rainforests, valleys, deserts, and grasslands that are typical of much larger continents. It is surrounded by three water bodies — the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The climate of this vast region varies considerably from area to area from tropical monsoon in the south to temperate in the north. The variety is influenced by not only the altitude, but also by factors such as proximity to the sea coast and the seasonal impact of the monsoons.
Southern parts are mostly hot in summers and receive rain during monsoon period(s). The northern belt of Indo-Gangetic plains also is hot in summer, but cooler in winter. The mountainous north is colder and receives snowfall at higher altitudes of Himalyan ranges. As the Himalayas block the north-Asian bitter cold winds, the temperatures are considerably moderate in the plains down below. For most part, the climate of the region is called the Monsoon climate, which keeps the region humid during summer and dry during winter, and favors the cultivation of jute, tea, rice, and various vegetables in this region.
South Asian subcontinent
The “South Asian subcontinent” or the “Indian subcontinent” is a geographical term referring to the large, self-contained landmass which covers most of South Asia. The term “Indian subcontinent” refers to a large, self-contained landmass which is geographically separated from the rest of the Asian continent.
Due to similar scope, the terms “South Asia” and “Indian subcontinent” are used by some academics interchangeably. Due to political sensitivities, some prefer to use the terms “South Asian Subcontinent”, the “Indo-Pak Subcontinent”, or simply “South Asia” or “the Subcontinent” over the term “Indian subcontinent”. According to some academics, the term “South Asia” is in more common use in Europe and North America, rather than the terms “Subcontinent” or the “Indian Subcontinent”. Indologist Ronald B. Inden argues that the usage of the term “South Asia” is getting more widespread since it clearly distinguishes the region from East Asia.
The remote pre-history of South Asia culminates in the Indus Valley Civilization, which is followed by the legends of ancient Vedic period and the sketchy references to the rise and fall of Mahajanapadas – the precursors of regional kingdoms and later ancient empires – ending in the historical accounts of medieval empires and the arrival of European traders who later became the rulers.
Almost all South Asian countries were under direct or indirect European Colonial subjugation at some point. Much of modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar were gradually occupied by Great Britain – starting from 1757, reaching their zenith in 1857 and ruling till 1947. Nepal and Bhutan were to some extent protectorates of Great Britain until after World War II. In the millennia long history of South Asia, this European occupation period is rather short, but its proximity to the present and its lasting impact on the region make it prominent.
The network of means of transportation and communication as well as banking and training of requisite workforce, and also the existing rail, post, telegraph, and education facilities have evolved out of the base established in the colonial era, often called the British Raj. As an aftermath of World War II, most of the region gained independence from Europe by the late 1940s.
Since 1947, most South Asian countries have achieved progress in all spheres. Most notable achievements are in the fields of education; industry; health care; information technology and other services based on its applications; research in the fields of cutting edge sciences and technologies; defence related self-reliance projects; international/global trade and business enterprises and outsourcing of human resources. Areas of difficulty remain, however, including religious extremism, high levels of corruption, disagreements on political boundaries, and inequitable distribution of wealth.
South Asia, which consists of the nations of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, is ethnically diverse, with more than 2,000 ethnic entities with populations ranging from hundreds of millions to small tribal groups. South Asia has been invaded and settled by many ethnic groups over the centuries – including various Dravidian, Indo-Aryan and Iranian groups – and amalgamation of Dravidian, Indo-Aryan and native societies has produced composite cultures with many common traditions and beliefs. But, the traditions of different ethnic groups in South Asia have diverged throughout earlier times, sometimes giving rise to strong local traditions such as the distinct South Indian culture.
Other ethnic groups, successively streaming in later mainly from Central Asia and Iran, e.g. Sakas, Kushans, Huns etc. influenced pre-existing South Asian cultures. Among the last of these new arrivals were the Arabs followed by the Turks, the Pashtuns and the Moghuls. However, Arab influence remained relatively limited in comparison to that of the Turks, Pashtuns and Moghuls, who brought in much cultural influence and contributed to the birth of Urdu, a syncretic language of combined Indo-Persian heritage, which is widely spoken today. Ethnic Englishmen and other Britons are now practically absent after their two centuries long colonial presence, although they have left an imprint of western culture in the elite society.
The largest spoken language in this region is now Hindi, its speakers numbering almost 422 million; the second largest spoken language is Bengali, with about 210 million speakers. Urdu is also a major language spoken in the subcontinent, especially in Pakistan and India, and is similar linguistically to Hindi; Hindi and Urdu together make up Hindustānī. Hindi is spoken is some states of India, and is similar linguistically to Urdu. Many people are not aware of the fact that most of the Indians speak local languages and are not familiar with Hindi. Other languages of this region fall into a few major linguistic groups: the Dravidian languages and the Indo-Aryan languages, a sub-branch of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages.
The other great sub-branch of Indo-Iranian, the Iranian languages, also have significant minority representation in South Asia, with Pashtu and Baluchi being widely spoken along the northwestern fringes of the region, in modern-day Pakistan. Many Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups, who are speakers of their language-group, are found in northeast India, Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. Other small groups, speaking Austro-Asiatic languages, are also present in South Asia. English is another language which dominates South Asia, especially as a medium of advanced education and government administration.
Most of South Asia writes using various abugidas of Brāhmī origin while languages such as Urdu, Pashto, and Sindhi use derivatives of the Perso-Arabic script. Not all languages in South Asia follow this strict dichotomy though. For example, Kashmiri is written in both the Perso-Arabic script and in the Devanagari script. The same can be said for Punjabi, which is written in both Shahmukhi and Gurmukhī. Dhivehi is written in a script called Tāna that shows characteristics of both the Arabic alphabet and of an abugida.
In South Asia Hinduism and Islam and in some of its countries Buddhism are the dominant religions. Other Indian religions and Christianity are practiced by significant number of people.
Historically, fusion of Indo-Aryan Vedic religion with native South Asian non-Vedic Shramana traditions and other Dravidian and local tribal beliefs gave rise to the ancient religions of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism and much later to Sikhism, when Sufi tradition of Islam also significantly influenced the nascent Sikhism and its holiest scripture. As a consequence, these four religions share many similar cultural practices, festivals and traditions.
Arabs brought the Abrahamic religion of Islam to South Asia, first in the present day Kerala and the Maldive Islands and later in Sindh, Balochistan and much of Punjab. Subsequently, Muslim Turks/Pashtuns/Moghuls furthered it not only among the Punjabi and Kashmiri people but also throughout the Indo-Gangetic plains and farther east, and deep south up to the Deccan.
Afghanistan Sunni Muslim (80%), Shi’a Muslim (19%), other (1%)
Bangladesh Muslim (90%), Hindu (9%), Christian (.5%), Buddhist (.5%), Believers in tribal faiths (0.1%)
Bhutan Buddhist (75%), Hindu (25%)
Burma Theravada Buddhism (89%), Muslim (4%), Christian (4%) (Baptist 3%, Roman Catholic 1%), Animist (1%), others (including Hinduism) (2%)
India Hindu (80.5%), Muslim (13.4%), Christian (2.3%), Sikh (1.9%), Buddhist (0.8%), Jain (0.4%), Others (0.6%)
Maldives Sunni Muslim (100%) (One must be a Sunni Muslim to be a citizen on the Maldives)
Nepal Hindu (80.6%), Buddhist (10.7%), Muslim (4.2%), Kirat (3.6%)
Pakistan Muslim (96.28%, Sunni Muslims 75-80%, Shia Muslims 15-20%), Hindu (1.85%), Christian (1.59%), Ahmadi (0.22%)
Sri Lanka Theravada Buddhist (70.42%), Hindu (10.89%), Muslim (8.78%), Catholic (7.77%), Other Christian (1.96%), Other (0.13%)
South Asia is the poorest region on the earth as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, and it has the lowest GDP per capita. Poverty is commonly spread within this region. According to the poverty data of world bank, there was more than 40% of the population in this region lived on less than $1.25 per day in 2005, compared to 50% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Bhutan has the highest GDP per capita in the region, while Nepal has the lowest. India is the largest economy in the region; it is the world’s 11th largest or 4th largest by purchasing power adjusted exchange rates. Pakistan has the next largest economy and the 5th highest GDP per capita in the region, followed by Bangladesh. If Iran is counted, it is the richest economy and the second largest in region. According to a World Bank report in 2007, South Asia is the least integrated region in the world; trade between South Asian states is only 2% of the region’s combined GDP, compared to 20% in East Asia.
India is the dominant political power in the region. It is contributed by the fact that it is by far the largest country in the covering around three-fourths the land area of the subcontinent. It also has the largest population of around three times the combined population of the 6 other countries in the subcontinent. India is also the most populous democracy in the world and is a nuclear power.
The second largest country in the subcontinent area-wise and population-wise is Pakistan and has traditionally maintained the balance of power in the region due to its strategic relationships with Arab states and neighbouring China. Pakistan is the 6th most populous country in the world and is also a nuclear power.
Health and nutrition
According to the World Bank, 70% of the South Asian population and about 75% of South Asia’s poor live in rural areas and most rely on agriculture for their livelihood. According to the Global Hunger Index, South Asia has one of the highest child malnutrition rates in the world. In a latest report published by UNICEF in 2008 on global hunger shows that the actual number of child deaths was around 2.1 million. As of 2008 India is ranked 66th on the global hunger index. The 2006 report stated that “the low status of women in South Asian countries and their lack of nutritional knowledge are important determinants of high prevalence of underweight children in the region”. Corruption and the lack of initiative on the part of the government has been one of the major problems associated with nutrition in India. Illiteracy in villages has been found to be one of the major issues that need more government attention. The report mentioned that, although there has been a reduction in malnutrition due to the Green Revolution in South Asia, there is concern that South Asia has “inadequate feeding and caring practices for young children”.