8.3: South Asia

The Physical Geography

The landmass of South Asia was formed by the Indian Plate colliding with the Eurasian Plate. This action gave rise to the highest mountain ranges in the world. Destructive earthquakes and tremors are frequent in this seismically active realm. The great size of the Himalayas has intensely influenced the beliefs and traditions of the people in the realm. Some of the mountains are considered sacred to certain religions that exist here.

The Himalayan Mountains dominate the physical landscape in the northern region of South Asia. Mt. Everest is the tallest peak in the world, at 29,035 feet.

Mount Everest as seen from an aircraft from airline company Drukair in Bhutan. The aircraft is south of the mountains, facing north.
Mount Everest as seen from an aircraft from airline company Drukair in Bhutan. The aircraft is south of the mountains, facing north.

Three key rivers cross South Asia, all originating from the Himalayas. The Indus River, which has been a center of human civilization for thousands of years, starts in Tibet and flows through the center of Pakistan.

A map of the Indus River (in French)
A map of the Indus River (in French)

The Ganges River flows through northern India, creating a core region of the country. The Brahmaputra River flows through Tibet and then enters India from the east, where it meets up with the Ganges in Bangladesh to flow into the Bay of Bengal.

The Ganges (in the yellow area) and Brahmaputra (in the purple area) rivers and their drainage basins.
The Ganges (in the yellow area) and Brahmaputra (in the purple area) rivers and their drainage basins.

While the northern part of this region includes some of the highest elevations in the world, the Maldives in the south has some of the lowest elevations, some barely above sea level.

Maldives map
Maldives map

The coastal regions in southern Bangladesh also have low elevations. When the seasonal reversal of winds called the monsoon arrives every year, there is heavy flooding and its effect on the infrastructure of the region is disastrous.

The extensive Thar Desert in western India and parts of Pakistan, on the other hand, does not receive monsoon rains.

Thar Desert map
Thar Desert map

In fact, much of southwest Pakistan—a region called Baluchistan—is dry, with desert conditions.

Balochistan, Pakistan can be very hot and dry.
Balochistan, Pakistan can be very hot and dry.

The mountains on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan extend through Kashmir and then meet up with the high ranges of the Himalayas. The Himalayas create a natural barrier between India and China, with the kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan acting as buffer states with Tibet. Farther south along the east and west coasts of India are shorter mountain ranges called ghats. The Western Ghats reach as high as eight thousand feet, but average around three thousand feet. These ghats are home to an extensive range of biodiversity. The Eastern Ghats are not as high as the Western Ghats, but have similar physical qualities. The ghats provide a habitat for a wide range of animals and are also home to large coffee and tea estates. The Deccan Plateau lies between the Eastern and Western Ghats. The Central Indian Plateau and the Chota-Nagpur Plateau are located in the central parts of India, north of the two Ghat ranges. The monsoon rains ensure that an average of about fifty-two inches of rain per year falls on the Chota-Nagpur Plateau, which has a tiger reserve and is also a refuge for Asian elephants.

The Monsoon

A monsoon is a seasonal reversal of winds that is associated with heavy rains. The summer monsoon rains—usually falling between June and September—feed the rivers and streams of South Asia and provide the water needed for agricultural production.


In the summer, the continent heats up, with the Thar Desert fueling the system. The rising hot air creates a vacuum that pulls in warm moist air from the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. This action shifts moisture-laden clouds over the land, where the water is precipitated out in the form of rain.

GeoDiode: The Asian Monsoon – The World’s Largest Weather System
Western Ghats and Sri Lanka
Western Ghats (in red) and the island of Sri Lanka

The monsoon rains bring moisture to South Asia right up to the Himalayas. As moisture-laden clouds rise in elevation in the mountains, the water vapor condenses in the form of rain or snow and feeds the streams and basins that flow into the major rivers, such as the Brahmaputra, Ganges, and Indus. The Western Ghats creates a similar system in the south along the west coast of India. Parts of Bangladesh and eastern India receive as much as six feet of rain during the monsoon season, and some areas experience severe flooding.

The worst-hit places are along the coast of the Bay of Bengal, such as in Bangladesh. There is less danger of flooding in western India and Pakistan, because by the time the rain clouds have moved across India they have lost their moisture. Desert conditions are evident in the west, near the Pakistan border in the great Western Ghats and Sri Lanka. On average, fewer than ten inches of rain fall per year in this massive desert. On the northern rim of the region, the height of the Himalayas restricts the warm moist monsoon air from moving across the mountain range. The Himalayas act as a precipitation barrier and create a strong rain shadow effect for Tibet and Western China. The monsoon is responsible for much of the rainfall in South Asia.

By October, the system has run its course and the monsoon season is generally over. In the winter, the cold, dry air above the Asian continent blows to the south, and the winter monsoon is characterized by cool, dry winds coming from the north. South Asia experiences a dry season during the winter months. A similar pattern of rainy summer season and dry winter season is found in other parts of the world, such as southern China and some of Southeast Asia. A final note about the monsoons: small parts of South Asia, such as Sri Lanka and southeastern India, experience a rainy winter monsoon as well as a rainy summer monsoon. In their case, the winter monsoon winds that come down from the north have a chance to pick up moisture from the Bay of Bengal before depositing it on their shores.

Colonialism in South Asia

The force of colonialism was felt around the world, including in South Asia. South Asia provides an excellent example of colonialism’s role in establishing most of the current political borders in the world. From the sixteenth century onward, ships from colonial Europe began to arrive in South Asia to conduct trade. The British East India Company was chartered in 1600 to trade in Asia and India. They traded in spices, silk, cotton, and other goods. Later, to take advantage of conflicts and bitter rivalries between kingdoms, European powers began to establish colonies. Britain controlled South Asia from 1857 to 1947.

The East India Company || 400 Years: Britain & India || Episode 1

Goa is the smallest state in modern-day India. In the sixteenth century, it was first encountered by Portuguese traders, who annexed it shortly after arriving.

Goa's largest city is Vasco da Gama (often shortened to Vasco) and named after the Portuguese explorer.
Goa’s largest city is Vasco da Gama (often shortened to Vasco) and named after the Portuguese explorer.

Goa was a colony of Portugal for the next 450 years. By the mid-1800s, most of the population of the tiny area had been forcibly converted to Christianity. Many of the Hindu traditions, however, survived in the region. Hindu holidays are celebrated among the expatriate community in India. Christian holidays are also celebrated, especially Christmas and Easter. The cathedrals and secular architecture in many of the historic buildings of Goa are European in style, reflecting its Portuguese origins. This architecture is locally termed “Indo-Portuguese.” Goa was one of the longest-held colonial possessions in the world. It was finally annexed to India in 1961.

Buildings in Goa
Buildings in Goa

The British no longer controlled South Asia after 1947. Local resistance and the devastating effects of World War II meant the British Empire could not be controlled as it once was. Great Britain pulled away from empire building to focus on its own redevelopment. Upon the British withdrawal from India, Britain realized the immense cultural differences between the Muslims and Hindus and created political boundaries based on those differences. West Pakistan was carved out of western India; East Pakistan was carved from eastern India. However, the new borders separating Hindu and Muslim majorities ran through population groups, and some of the population now found itself to be on the wrong side of the border. The West Pakistan-India partition grew into a tragic civil war, as Hindus and Muslims struggled to migrate to their country of choice. More than one million people died in the civil war, a war that is still referred to in today’s political dialogue between Pakistan and India. The Sikhs, who are indigenous to the Punjab region in the middle, also suffered greatly. Some people decided not to migrate, which explains why India has the largest Muslim population of any non-Muslim state.

NowThis World: Who Are The Sikhs?

Another civil war would erupt in 1973 between West Pakistan and East Pakistan. When the states were first created in 1947, they operated under the same government despite having no common border and being over nine hundred miles apart and populated by people with no ethnic similarities. The civil war lasted about three months and resulted in the creation of the sovereign countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). The name Bangladesh is based on the Bengali ethnicity of most of the people who live there. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh are among the top ten most populous countries in the world.

Language is probably one of the more pervasive ways that Europeans affected South Asia. In modern-day India and Pakistan, English is the language of choice in secondary education (English-medium schools). It is often the language used by the government and military. Unlike many other Asian countries, much of the signage and advertising in Pakistan and India is in English, even in rural areas. Educated people switch back and forth, using English words or entire English sentences during conversation in their native tongue. Some scholars have termed this Hinglish or Urglish as the base languages of northern India and Pakistan are Hindi and Urdu, respectively.

Optional video: Hinglish taught in UK ‘for first time’ – BBC News

The British game of cricket is an important cultural and national sport within this Asian subcontinent. The constant conflict between the nations of India and Pakistan are reflected in the intense rivalry between their national cricket teams.

South Asia’s Population

South Asia has three of the ten most populous countries in the world. India is the second largest in the world, and Pakistan and Bangladesh are numbers five and six, respectively. Large populations are a product of large family sizes and a high fertility rate. The rural population of South Asia has traditionally had large families. On the other hand, the least densely populated country in South Asia is the Kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutan has a population density of only fifty people per square mile. Bhutan is mountainous with little arable land. 

Bhutan has many mountains
Bhutan has many mountains.

South Asia’s growing population has placed exceedingly high demands on agricultural production. The amount of area available for food production divided by the population may be a more helpful indicator of population distribution than total population density. For example, large portions of Pakistan are deserts and mountains that do not provide arable land for food production. India has the Thar Desert and the northern mountains. Nepal has the Himalayas. The small country of the Maldives, with its many islands, has almost no arable land. The number of people per square mile of arable land, which is called the physiologic density, can be an important indicator of a country’s status. Total population densities are high in South Asia, but the physiologic densities are even more astounding. In Bangladesh, for example, more than five thousand people depend on every square mile of arable land. In Sri Lanka, the physiologic density reaches to more than 6,000 people per square mile, and in Pakistan, it is more than 2,400. South Asia will likely face serious resource shortages in the future.

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Next: Pakistan and Bangladesh

Additional information and image credits:

Wikimedia Commons = public domain.
Western Ghats
By Gossipguy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16107359
Thar Desert location map
By w:user:Planemad – Own workInternational Borders: University of Texas map library – India Political map 2001Disputed Borders: University of Texas map library – China-India Borders – Eastern Sector 1988 & Western Sector 1988 – Kashmir Region 2004 – Kashmir Maps.State and District boundaries: Census of India – 2001 Census State Maps – Survey of India Maps.Other sources: US Army Map Service, Survey of India Map Explorer, Columbia University, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1138507
India relief map
By India_relief_location_map.jpg: Uwe Dederingderivative work: 배우는사람 (talk) – India_relief_location_map.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12078674
Mt. Everest
By Mount_Everest_as_seen_from_Drukair2.jpg: shrimpo1967derivative work: Papa Lima Whiskey 2 (talk) – This file was derived from:  Mount Everest as seen from Drukair2.jpg:, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18262217
Indus River map
CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82986567
Ganges map
By Pfly – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15068725
Maldives map
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32649297
By Furqanlw – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59334545
By फ़िलप्रो (Filpro) – File:India dark grey.svg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50825308
Goa buildings
By Portugal Editor Exploration – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37093789
CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1572172

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