South Asia

3.3 History and Culture of the Region

Human Settlement Patterns

South Asia’s rich cultural landscape is a product of its varied physical environment and a long history of human settlement. Modern humans first settled in this area 75,000 years ago, and early human ancestors likely settled in the region hundreds of thousands of years before that. The first major civilization in South Asia was in the Indus River valley, beginning around 3300 BCE. This civilization, located in present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, and northwestern India, relied on the monsoon rains to provide water to the Indus River. Here, early settlers developed systems of urban planning, baked brick houses, and the civilization at its peak numbered over five million people.

By 1800 BCE, however, the Indus Valley civilization began to decline. Weakened monsoon rains likely led to drought conditions, and even small changes in precipitation and climate can have a devastating effect on a population of five million. Although residents developed some water supply systems, they depended mostly on the monsoon rains for agriculture, and many began moving to other areas of the region as arid conditions increased.

Around 1500 BCE, the Aryans, an Indo-Iranian group from modern-day Iran, invaded northern India. The Aryans were speakers of Indo-Iranian languages and brought their language, known as Sanskrit, their culture, and their ideas of social order to the South Asian realm. Hinduism and the caste system would both emerge from the Aryan culture. (Finlayson, 2019)

South Asia was conquered by several different empires, each leaving an impact on the cultural landscape. The Maurya Empire, followed by several different dynasties, stretched across the Himalaya and Karakoram mountain ranges, extending into most of South Asia by 250 BCE. In the middle ages, the Islamic Empire extended into Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the 18th century, however, the ruling Islamic Mughal Empire was in decline, leaving a power vacuum that would be exploited by the British. As the Industrial Revolution swept through the United Kingdom, the British were interested in expanding their supply of natural resources. Throughout the mid-18th century and the early 19th century, the British Empire, which had established the British East India Company, took over vast stretches of land in India. The British established tea and cotton plantations and took control of South Asia’s resources. Although this region had previously established successful trading systems, the British saw local industries as competition and shifted their development to export raw materials. British rule also increased Westernization in South Asia and created an extensive rail transportation system.

As time went on, there were rising demands for independence. Mohandas K. Gandhi, known in India by the title “Mahatma,” was a London-educated lawyer and a leader in India’s struggle for independence. He organized local communities to participate in nonviolent protests, and his commitment to nonviolent resistance would inspire later civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. (Finlayson, 2019)

Throughout this time, the isolated Himalayan countries of Nepal and Bhutan primarily existed as buffer states, caught between the powerful British Empire and China. Their relative isolation allowed them to develop unique cultural features with little influence from outside groups, but as with most buffer states, leaving them with less economic and industrial development than their more powerful neighbors.

The British eventually agreed to withdraw from India, but political and religious differences resulted in a partition of the former British territory in 1947. Areas that were majority Hindu would become the secular state of India. Areas that were majority Muslim would become the new Islamic state of Pakistan. Since Muslims were clustered both in modern-day Pakistan and along the mouth of the Ganges on the coastal Bay of Bengal, the Muslim state of Pakistan would be divided into a Western and an Eastern territory. This prompted large-scale migrations of Hindus and Muslims who were on the “wrong” side at the time of the partition.

Not everyone in South Asia supported the partition plan. Gandhi, who had long called for religious unity in the region, was opposed to the concept and hundreds of thousands of people were killed in violent riots. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist who opposed the partition plan and Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence. (Finlayson, 2019)

Although there were areas that were majority Hindu or Muslim, religious minorities existed throughout India, and not all regions had a smooth transition. At the time of the partition, states were free to decide whether they wanted to join Hindu India or Muslim Pakistan. In the territory of Jammu and Kashmir in Northern India, Muslims comprised around 75 percent of the population, but the maharaja, the Sanskrit term for “great ruler,” was Hindu. The maharaja struggled with the decision, and in the meantime, backed by Pakistan, Muslim rebels invaded. He then gave the territory to India in exchange for military aid.

Today, Jammu and Kashmir remain a hostile territory, and there have been violent clashes in the past few decades over political control. In the 1950s, China, without the knowledge of India, built a road through the northern portion of the state and was given territory by Pakistan. Although India claims the entire state controls the southern half of the state and about four-fifths of its population. Pakistan controlled the territory’s northern portion and moved its capital from Karachi to Islamabad to better control its frontiers. East Pakistan, long marginalized and culturally discriminated against by West Pakistan, gained independence as the state of Bangladesh in 1971.

As a region, South Asia is now the most populous area in the world and is home to over 1.9 billion people. Some of the world’s largest megacities are located here as well, including Delhi, India (population of 26 million in the entire metropolitan area), Karachi, Pakistan (population of 14 million, with some estimating that it is much higher) and Mumbai, India (population of over 21 million). Despite the sizeable population, however, the region remains mostly rural. Only around 36 percent of people in Pakistan, 31 percent of people in India, and 28 percent of people in Bangladesh live in cities. These relatively low levels of urbanization indicate that most people in the region still practice agriculture. (Finlayson, 2019)

Urbanization is increasing, however, as industrialization and development have brought new jobs to the cities. British colonization left the region with the English language, which has proven an economic asset, though it has also led to the marginalization of indigenous languages. Foreign companies have increasingly outsourced to India, taking advantage of a large, low-wage, and English-speaking labor pool. Outsourcing refers to contracting out a portion of a business to another party, which might be located in a different country. Business processing, particularly call centers and information technology has been outsourced and employs significant numbers of people in India. India is also one of the global leaders in fiber production, and textile production remains an integral part of Pakistan’s and Bangladesh’s economies.

Nepal and Bhutan remain isolated both in terms of physical geography and global economic integration. Political uncertainty has generally hampered Nepal’s economic growth, but the country has been able to reduce its poverty rate considerably in recent decades. Due to climbers’ flocking to Mount Everest, tourism to Nepal has also increased, though local leaders have expressed concern over mounting trash and pollution issues. In the early 21st century, Bhutan transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy and held its first general election. Its government has promoted the measure of gross national happiness (GNH), as opposed to relying strictly on measures of economic or industrial development and has sought sustainable ways to develop and urbanize. (Finlayson, 2019)

Cultural Groups

South Asia is a diverse region in terms of its ethnic landscape, culture, and religious beliefs. In the northern portion of the region, the Indo-European languages, like Hindi, dominate the Aryan invasion. Along the Himalayas, languages in the Sino-Tibetan family dominate. In southern India, however, most groups speak a language in the Dravidian family, comprised of the indigenous languages of South Asia that were present before the arrival of the Aryans. These language families reflect broader differences in culture and ethnicity, including particular religious practices and food customs. Thus the label “Indian cuisine” actually encompasses a diverse array of regional and traditional specialties.

South Asia is a hearth area for several of the world’s great religions. Out of the Aryan invasion of northern India came a religious belief system known as Vedism. The religious texts of Vedism, known as the Vedas, combined with local religious beliefs, developed into the modern-day religion of Hinduism by around 500 BCE. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion with a wide variety of individual beliefs and practices. Hinduism is a highly regional and individual religion, and its polytheistic nature reflects this extensive understanding of belief. Of Hinduism’s over 1 billion followers, 95 percent live in India.

At its heart, there are four key features of Hinduism: dharma, karma, reincarnation, and worship. Dharma refers to the laws and duties of being and is different for every person. You might be a student and an employee and a child and a sibling. All of those roles have prescribed responsibilities. To be a good student, for example, means to attend class, read the textbook, and study. In Hindu culture, there are also restraints and observances for how you interact with other people depending on their status. (Finlayson, 2019)

Hindu views on the afterlife are quite different from the Judeo-Christian conception of heaven. Hindus believe in karma, which means that your deeds, good or bad, will return to you. They also believe in reincarnation, which is the idea that once you die, your spirit is reborn. Thus, you are the sum of many past existences. Karma, dharma, and reincarnation go hand in hand. If someone had done good deeds, had good intentions, and lived virtuously, when they die and are reincarnated, they might come back as something great – a prince, perhaps. Conversely, if someone was a terrible person, accumulating an excess of negative karma when they are reincarnated, they might come back as someone of deficient status – or maybe not even a person at all.

Hindu scripture discusses four distinct castes or groups, of people in society, an example of social stratification. This social hierarchy is known as the caste system. The Brahmins, the highest caste, consist of priests and teachers and represent around 3 percent of India’s total population. There is a warrior caste, a merchant caste, and finally the lowest, the laborer caste of landless serfs. Excluded from this caste system and viewed as so below it that they are not even a part of it, are the “untouchables,” also known as “Dalit,” meaning “oppressed.” The untouchables are so-named because they perform work that makes them spiritually unclean, such as handling corpses, tanning hides, or cleaning bathrooms. Traditionally, higher castes would get ritually purified if they touch a Dalit. Many untouchables are indigenous, non-Aryan Indians.

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So how might the belief in karma and reincarnation affect social justice in South Asia? Although the Indian constitution outlawed the caste system, widespread discrimination and persecution persist. Many Hindus believe that those in lower castes were reborn into that social status because they had committed misdeeds in their past life. However, other Hindus fought against the caste system and have worked to integrate the Dalits into Indian society more. (Finlayson, 2019)

Buddhism emerged out of Hinduism in northern India following the life and teachings of Hindu prince Siddhartha Gautama. According to Buddhist belief, Siddhartha lived a life of luxury but became disenchanted with his life of privilege when faced with society’s injustices, such as illness and extreme poverty. Since Hinduism offered no evident cessation of what Siddhartha viewed as an endless cycle of suffering through samsara, the soul’s continual death, and rebirth, he sought out new ways of ending suffering. For a time, Siddhartha practiced meditation and extreme asceticism, eating only dirt and bits of rice. However, neither the path of luxury nor the complete absence of worldly pleasures gave him the insight he sought. Eventually, in meditation under a Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India, Siddhartha discovered what Buddhists refer to as the Middle Way, a path of moderation. He is said to have achieved enlightenment and is known as the first Buddha, meaning “awakened one.”

Although Buddhism, like Hinduism, is a highly regional religion with many different forms of individual expression, Buddhists generally share a belief in the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Suffering is universal and inevitable.
  2. The immediate cause of suffering is desire and ignorance.
  3. There is a way to dispel ignorance and relieve suffering.
  4. The eightfold path is the means to achieve liberation from suffering.

In order to obtain enlightenment, the Buddha recommended the Eightfold Path. In Buddhism, “right” does not refer to the western-logic of right and wrong. Rather, “right” is more in line with terms such as wise or ideal.

  • Right view of understanding: insight into the true nature of reality
  • Right intention: unselfish desire to realize enlightenment
  • Right speech: using speech compassionately and without lies
  • Right action: using ethical conduct to manifest compassion
  • Right livelihood: making a living through ethical and nonharmful means
  • Right effort: cultivate wholesome qualities and releasing unwholesome qualities
  • Right mindfulness: whole body-mind awareness
  • Right concentration: meditation or dedicated, concentrated practice

Buddhists also share with Hindus a common belief in karma, dharma, and reincarnation. Buddhism diffused across Asia, though never taking a stronghold in India. The Maurya Emperor Ashoka, in particular, was responsible for the widespread diffusion of Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE. The religion has three primary branches, each with a distinct regional concentration. The oldest branch, Theravada, is primarily practiced in Southeast Asia, in places like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand and is also the majority religion on the South Asian island of Sri Lanka. Mahayana is practiced by most Buddhists worldwide, particularly in places like China and Japan. Vajrayana Buddhism, which is sometimes considered a subset of Mahayana Buddhism, is practiced in the Himalayas and Tibetan Buddhism is a notable example. Buddhism has around 500 million followers worldwide. (Finlayson, 2019)

Although Buddhism and Hinduism are the most widely practiced, South Asia was also a hearth area for the Jain and Sikh religions. Jainism emerged in India in the first century BCE and emphasized ahimsa, nonviolence toward all living beings. Even insects found in the home are gently ushered out rather than killed. Jains also seek to break free from attachments and inner passions and aim to keep an open mind toward different perspectives. The teachings of Jainism were influential for Gandhi and his emphasis on nonviolent resistance.

Sikhism emerged in the Punjab region of northwestern India and northern Pakistan in the 15th century. It is a monotheistic religion founded on the teachings of Guru Nanak that combine elements of both Hinduism and Islam. Like Hindus, Sikhs believe in reincarnation and karma. However, unlike Hinduism, Sikhism prohibits the worship of idols, images, or icons. Sikhs believe God has 99 names, an adaptation of Hindu polytheistic belief. Sri Harmandir Sahib, commonly called the “Golden Temple,” in Amritsar, India, is the holiest Sikh temple, which is called a gurdwara. However, the building is open to everyone, and every visitor is offered a free meal. Over 100,000 people visit the site every day.

These religions, along with other minority religions like Christianity and indigenous belief systems, have not always coexisted peacefully in South Asia. Although India is officially secular, having no official religion, regional religious conflicts have often occurred throughout history. The difficulty is that in this region, very few people are secular, with no attachment to religion. Governments have thus struggled to find ways of accommodating minority religious groups while not offending the majority. (Finlayson, 2019)

Population Dynamics

South Asia is the most populous region on Earth, but why is it the most populous, and how do geographers study population? The simplest way to measure population is to count the number of people in an area. India, for example, has a population of over 1.3 billion, making it the second-most populous country after China. But do raw numbers of people tell the whole story of the human population in an area? If two countries have the same population, but one is far smaller than the other, how could we examine the population to explore this difference?

Geographers often use the concept of density to investigate the population. Arithmetic density is relatively easy to calculate. It is determined by only taking the number of people in an area divided by the size of the area. If a territory were one-kilometer square, for example, and were home to 100 people, the arithmetic density would be 100 people per square kilometer. Although arithmetic density is easy to calculate, it gives us a relatively limited view of population density. What if there are two tracts of land that are the same size and have the same number of people, but one is lush and fertile and has people spread out evenly, and the other has a tiny river that everyone lives near? If you were using arithmetic density, the measurements for these two areas would be the same even though the actual settlement patterns are quite different. Physiologic density takes into account this difference by examining the number of people per unit of arable or farmable land.

Arithmetic and physiologic density can give us insight into the country’s concentration and allow us to make comparisons between countries. The United States, a relatively large country, for example, has an arithmetic density of 32 people per square kilometer. However, a relatively small percentage of US land is arable, so the physiologic density is 179 people per square kilometer. Bhutan, by comparison, has a low population density of only 14 people per square kilometer. However, its rugged mountain environment means that only around 2 percent of the land is farmable, so its physiologic density is 606 people per square kilometer. By most measures, the most densely populated area in the world is Singapore, with an arithmetic density of 6,483 people per square kilometer and a physiologic density of 441,000 per square kilometer. (Finlayson, 2019)

Another way to measure population is agricultural density, which is the ratio of the number of farmers to the land. In developing countries where many people work as farmers, agricultural density is very high. South Asia has a high agricultural density. In developed countries, commercial agriculture and technological innovations have allowed relatively few people to be farmers, and agricultural densities are generally low.

Geographers can also examine how a population is growing and changing over time. One way to explore this is with a population pyramid, a graphical representation of a population’s age groups and composition of males and females. Ages of people are grouped in cohorts with younger people on the bottom and older on the top. Thus, a very triangular population pyramid has a lot of young people growing rapidly.

Typically, the ratio of males to females, known as the sex ratio, is 1 to 1, and population pyramids will have even sides. However, in populations where males are favored, the ratio may be skewed. Similarly, in countries where men have died in war, such as in World War II Germany, there might be more females. When geographers and population demographers refer to sex, it means something different from gender; sex is a person’s biological identity as male or female, while gender refers to a person’s role as a “man” or “woman” within society.

India’s 2017 population pyramid reveals rapid population growth over the past few decades. However, the leveling off at the base of the pyramid indicates that population growth may be slowing. Also, India’s cultural preference for male children is apparent. Among children aged zero to four, India has 62 million males and only 55 million females. Nationwide, there are over 47 million more males in India than females. Both abortion and infanticide have contributed to this imbalance.

All of the population pyramids for the countries in this region reveal preferences for male children, though none are as severe an imbalance as India. Although Pakistan’s population growth has slowed in the past decades, its fertility rate remains the highest in the region at around 3.5, meaning a woman in Pakistan, on average, will have 3.5 children. (Finlayson, 2019)

Challenges and Opportunities

India’s male-skewed population pyramid is indicative of a more significant issue of gender inequality in its society. Sexual violence, in particular, continues to be a significant issue. Although the percentage of women who have been raped in India is lower than in other countries, most rape cases are never reported. Even an incidence rate of 8 or 9 percent in a population of over 1 billion people means that tens of millions of women have been victimized. The government of India has taken steps to reform its criminal code so that more criminals are prosecuted, but after a 2013 reform, marital rape continues not to be a crime. In a country with few female police officers, high rates of domestic violence, and a relatively low status of women, sexual violence will likely remain a problem until these broader, systemic issues are addressed.

Overall, South Asia’s growing population will have a significant impact on its geography. Much of the historical growth in this region was supported by the Green Revolution, which refers to changes in agricultural technology and productivity beginning in India in the 1960s. In 1961, India was at risk of widespread famine when a developed hybrid rice seed yielded ten times more rice than traditional seeds. It was called “Miracle Rice,” and its use spread throughout Asia. Despite these agricultural advances, South Asia has the highest rates of child malnutrition in any world region. The low status of women contributes to a lack of knowledge about the nutrients needed for children. Around one in three children in India are underweight.

Economically, South Asia has experienced rising prosperity, yet systemic issues of governance and poverty remain. India, in particular, has one of the world’s largest economies and the fastest growing economy in the region. This economic growth has mainly focused on urban centers, drawing large numbers of people from the rural countryside to the cities to find work. Many cities have been unable to accommodate the rapid migration, however, and the sprawling slums in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are indicative of inadequate infrastructure and economic inequality. Several factories in this region have collapsed in recent years, killing thousands of workers and highlighting the poor working condition of many South Asians. (Finlayson, 2019)

What does the future hold for South Asia? Although economic growth has reduced poverty in India, down from 60 percent in 1981 to 25 percent in 2011, corruption has increased. Inequality between genders, religious groups, castes, and ethnic groups remains a problem in much of the region. In some cases, this has led to communal conflict, which refers to violence between members of different communities. In Sri Lanka, a majority Buddhist country, ethnicity and religion are closely linked. Buddhists here have shaken the traditional peaceful image of their religion and have engaged in violent conflict with the minority Tamils and Muslims.

Still, local government and community leaders have sought to escape the shadow of the 20th century’s turmoil by embracing new models of development and cooperation. For example, in Bhutan, the government initiative to measure gross national happiness resulted in shifting urban amenities, such as schools and healthcare clinics, to rural areas. This slowed the rural to urban migration that was rapidly occurring in other parts of the realm. Despite political and military turmoil, Pakistan has been able to decrease its poverty rate substantially. South Asia remains a complex realm at the crossroads of modernization and traditional cultural and religious values. (Finlayson, 2019)


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Introduction to World Regional Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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