11 South Asia


Of the world’s seven continents, Asia is the largest. Its physical landscapes, political units, and ethnic groups are both wide-ranging and many. Besides Russia, Southwest Asia, and Central Asia, which are addressed in other chapters, Asian regions include South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia.

The principal boundaries of South Asia are the Indian Ocean, the Himalayas, and Afghanistan. The Arabian Sea borders Pakistan and India to the west, and the Bay of Bengal borders India and Bangladesh to the east. The western boundary is the desert region where Pakistan shares a border with Iran.

The realm was the birthplace of two of the world’s great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, but there are also immense Muslim populations and large groups of followers of various other religions as well. Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism are the top three religions of South Asia. While Pakistan and Iran are both Islamic republics, each represents a significant branch of that faith; Iran is predominantly Shia, and Pakistan is mostly Sunni. Religious differences are also evident on the eastern border of the realm, where Bangladesh and India share a border with Myanmar. Bangladesh is mainly a Muslim country, while most in India align themselves with Hinduism. In Myanmar, most follow Buddhist traditions. In addition, Sikhism is a major religion in the Punjab region, which is located on India’s northern border with Pakistan.

The countries of South Asia include Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, and the Maldives. The Himalayas, separating South Asia from East Asia along the border of China’s autonomous region of Tibet, are the highest mountains in the world and the dominant physical feature of the northern rim of South Asia. Other countries that share the Himalayas include Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Pakistan. Farther north along the Himalayan range, the traditional region of Kashmir is divided between India, Pakistan, and China. On the opposite side of the Himalayas are two island countries off the coast of southern India. The first is Sri Lanka, a large tropical island off India’s southeast coast, and the other is the Republic of Maldives, an archipelago (group of islands) off the southwest coast of India. The Maldives comprise almost 1,200 islands that barely rise above sea level; the highest elevation is merely seven feet, seven inches. Only about two hundred islands in the Maldives are inhabited.

The balancing of natural capital and population growth is and will remain a primary issue in the realm’s future. South Asia is highly populated, with about one-and-a-half billion people representing a wide range of ethnic and cultural groups. The diverse population has been brought together into political units that have roots in the realm’s colonial past, primarily under Great Britain. British colonialism had a significant impact on the realm; its long-term effects include political divisions and conflicts in places such as Kashmir and Sri Lanka.

Current globalizing forces are compelling South Asian countries to establish a trade network and institute economic policies among themselves. South Asia is not one of the three main economic core areas of the world; however, it is emerging to compete in the world marketplace. Economic advancements and global trade have catapulted the countries of South Asia onto the world stage.

Some would call India a part of the semi-periphery, which means it is not actually in the core or in the periphery but displays qualities of both. All the same, India remains the dominant country of South Asia and shares either a physical boundary or a marine boundary with all the other countries in the realm.


Figure 1. Political map of South Asia.

11.1 Introducing the Realm

Learning Objectives

  1. Summarize the realm’s physical geography. Identify each country’s main features and physical attributes and locate the realm’s main river systems.
  2. Understand the dynamics of the monsoon and how it affects human activities.
  3. Outline the early civilizations of South Asia and learn how they gave rise to the early human development patterns that have shaped the realm.
  4. Describe how European colonialism impacted the realm.
  5. Learn about the basic demographic trends the realm is experiencing. Understand how rapid population growth is a primary concern for the countries of South Asia.

A. The Physical Geography

The landmass of South Asia was formed by the Indian Plate colliding with the Eurasian Plate, giving rise to the highest mountain ranges in the world. Most of the South Asian landmass is formed from the land in the original Indian Plate. Pressure from tectonic action against the plates causes the Himalayas to rise in elevation by as much as one to five millimeters per year. 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 highest peak in the world, at 29,035 feet. 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. 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.

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. The coastal regions in southern Bangladesh also have low elevations. When the summer wet 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. In fact, much of southwest Pakistan—a region called Baluchistan—is dry, with desert conditions.

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.


Figure 2. Trekking trail on the way to Mt. Everest in the Himalayas of Northern Nepal. Mt. Everest is the world’s highest peak at 29,035 feet. The Himalayas are the highest mountain chain in the world and create a natural border between South Asia and China.

B. The Monsoon

A monsoon is a wind that blows steadily from one direction for part of the year, and then reverses direction for the other part of the year. This seasonal reversal of winds causes South Asia to have a dry period in the winter (the dry monsoon), when winds blow from land to sea, and a wet period in the summer (the wet monsoon), when the winds blow from water to land. The summer monsoon rains—usually falling heavily 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.

The summer 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. Some parts of Bangladesh and eastern India receive over 30 feet of rain during the wet 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 Thar Desert. On average, less than ten inches of rain falls 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 summer monsoon is responsible for much of the rainfall in South Asia.

By October, the system has run its course and the wet monsoon season is generally over. In the winter, the cold, dry air above the Asian continent blows from northeast toward the southwest, 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.


Figure 3. The wet monsoon system in South Asia.

C. 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 British withdrew from South Asia in 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 a predominantly Muslim area carved out of western India, which was mostly Hindu; East Pakistan was a predominantly Muslim area 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 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, and over 15 million refugees fled, with Muslims leaving India for Pakistan (either West or East), and Hindus leaving Pakistan for 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.

Another civil war would erupt in 1971 between West Pakistan and East Pakistan. When the partitioning of South Asia occurred in 1947, they operated under the same government, despite having no common border and being over one thousand miles apart and populated by people with no ethnic or linguistic similarities. The civil war lasted about three months and resulted in the creation of the sovereign countries of Pakistan (formerly West Pakistan) and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan).

Language is probably one of the more pervasive ways 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.


Figure 4. British colonialism in South Asia. British colonialism in South Asia began in 1857 and lasted until 1947.

D. Population in South Asia

South Asia has three of the ten most populous countries in the world. India is the second largest in the world and will likely surpass China within the next decade to become the world’s largest. Pakistan and Bangladesh are numbers six and eight, respectively. Large populations are a product of a high fertility rate. The rural population of South Asia has traditionally had large families. Religious traditions do not necessarily support anything other than a high fertility rate. 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. More than a third of the people in Bhutan live in an urban setting. Population growth for the realm is a serious concern. An increase in population requires additional natural resources, energy, and food production, all of which are in short supply in many areas.

South Asia’s growing population has placed exceedingly high demands on agricultural production. The amount of area available for food production (known as arable land) compared to the total population may be a more helpful indicator of whether or not a country is overpopulated than simply using the average 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 a better indicator of whether or not a country is overpopulated. 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. The data are averages, which indicate that the population density in the fertile river valleys and the agricultural lowlands might be even higher.

Rank Country name Population
in millions
Total population density Physiologic
Fertility rate Population
growth rate (%)
Doubling time
in years**
Gross domestic product per
capita ($)






















United States


































































































Sri Lanka*




























* Countries noted with an asterisk are part of South Asia
** Empty cell indicates a negative population doubling tim

Table 1. Demographics of South Asia and the World’s Most Populous Countries.


Figure 5. Crowded street in New Delhi, India. Urban areas of South Asia are expanding rapidly.

The population of South Asia is relatively young. In Pakistan about 35 percent of the population is under the age of fifteen, while about 30 percent of India’s almost 1.2 billion people are under the age of fifteen. Many of these young people live in rural areas, as most of the people of South Asia work in agriculture and live a subsistence lifestyle. As the population increases, the cities are swelling due to the large influx of migrants arriving from rural areas. Rural-to-urban migration is extremely high in South Asia and will continue to fuel the expansion of the urban centers into some of the largest cities on the planet. The rural-to-urban shift that is occurring in South Asia also coincides with an increase in the region’s interaction with the global economy.


Figure 6. Population growth in India.

The South Asian countries are transitioning through the five stages of the demographic transition. The more rural agricultural regions are mostly still in stage 2. The realm experienced rapid population growth during the latter half of the twentieth century. As death rates declined and birth rates and family size remained high, the population swiftly increased. India, for example, grew from fewer than four hundred million in 1950 to more than one billion at the turn of the century. The more urbanized areas are transitioning into stage 3 and experiencing significant rural-to-urban shift. Large cities such as Mumbai (Bombay) have sectors that are in the latter stages of the demographic transition because of their urbanized work force and higher incomes. Family size is decreasing in the more urbanized areas and in the realm as a whole, and demographers predict that eventually the population will stabilize.

At the current rates of population growth, the population of South Asia will double in about fifty years. Doubling the population of Bangladesh would be the equivalent of having the entire 2011 population of the United States (more than 313 million people) all living within the borders of the US state of Wisconsin. The general rule of calculating doubling time for a population is to take the number seventy and divide it by the population growth rate. For Bangladesh, with a growth rate of 1.57%, the doubling time would be 70 ÷ 1.57 = 45 years. The doubling time for a population can help determine the economic prospects of a country or region. South Asia is coming under an increased burden of population growth. If India continues at its current rate of population increase, it will double its population in fifty-two years, to approximately 2.4 billion. Because the region’s rate of growth has been gradually in decline, this doubling time is unlikely. However, without continued attention to how the societies address family planning and birth control, South Asia will likely face serious resource shortages in the future.

Key Takeaways

  1. All the South Asian countries border India by either a physical or a marine boundary. The Himalayas form a natural boundary between South Asia and East Asia (China). The realm is surrounded by deserts, the Indian Ocean, and the high Himalayan ranges.
  2. The summer monsoon arrives in South Asia in late May or early June and subsides by early October. The rains that accompany the wet monsoon account for most of the rainfall for South Asia. Water is a primary resource, and the larger river systems are home to large populations.
  3. The Indus River Valley was a location of early human civilization. The large empires of the realm gave way to European colonialism. The British dominated the realm for ninety years from 1857 to 1947 and established the main boundaries of the realm.
  4. Population growth is a major concern for South Asia. The already enormous populations of South Asia continue to increase, challenging the economic systems and depleting natural resources at an unsustainable rate.

11.2 Pakistan and Bangladesh

Learning Objectives

  1. Outline how Pakistan and Bangladesh are similar in their populations and economic dynamics but different in their physical environments.
  2. Understand why the two countries were once under the same government and separated in 1971, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh.
  3. Describe the various regions of Pakistan and their physical and cultural landscapes.
  4. Comprehend the impact that large populations have on the natural environment and outline the main environmental issues that confront these two countries.

Since 1971, Pakistan and Bangladesh have existed as two separate countries physically divided by India. The two countries share a number of attributes. They both have Muslim majorities and high population densities. Their populations are youthful and mainly rural; agriculture is the main economic activity in each country. Rural-to-urban shift is a major trend affecting urban development. Infrastructure is lacking in many areas of each country. These similar factors indicate that both Pakistan and Bangladesh will face comparable challenges in providing for their large populations and protecting their natural environments.

The Muslim League was responsible for the formation of a united Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim state for South Asian Muslims. Pakistan was created from the former Indian territories of Sindh (Sind), North West Frontier Provinces, West Punjab, Baluchistan, and East Bengal. East Bengal, on the eastern side of India, was known as East Pakistan, while the remainder, separated by more than one thousand miles, was known as West Pakistan.


Figure 7. Provinces and Territories of Pakistan. The two core areas of Pakistan are the Punjab and the Indus River Valley.

East and West Pakistan, administered by one government, became independent of their colonial master in 1947, when Britain was forced out. Pakistan (East and West) adopted its constitution in 1956 and became an Islamic republic. In 1970, a massive cyclone hit the coast of East Pakistan and the central government in West Pakistan responded weakly to the devastation. The Bengali populations were angered over the government’s lack of consideration for them in response to the cyclone and in other matters. The Indo-Pakistan War changed the situation. In this war, East Pakistan, with the aid of the Indian military, challenged West Pakistan and declared independence to become Bangladesh in 1971. West Pakistan became the current country of Pakistan.


Figure 8. Pakistan.

A. Pakistan

Much of Pakistan’s land area consists of either deserts or mountains. The high Himalayan ranges border Pakistan to the north. The lack of rainfall in the western part of the country restricts agricultural production in the mountain valleys and near the river basins. The Indus River flows from the northern part of the Karakoram mountains and creates a large, fertile flood plain that comprises much of eastern Pakistan. Pakistan has traditionally been a land of farming. The Indus River Valley and the Punjab are the dominant core areas where most of the people live and where population densities are remarkably high.

Approximately 60 percent of the population lives in rural areas and makes a living in agriculture. Most of the people are economically quite poor by world standards. In spite of the rural nature of the population, the fertility rate has decreased from seven to four in recent decades. Nevertheless, the population has exploded from about 34 million in 1951 to just over 200 million as of 2016. About half of the population is under the age of twenty; 35 percent is under the age of fifteen. A lack of adequate medical care, an absence of family planning, and the low status of women have created an ever-increasing population, which will have dire consequences for the future of Pakistan. Service and infrastructure to address the needs of this youthful population are not available to the necessary degree. Schools and educational opportunities for children are rarely funded at the needed levels. As of 2010, only about 50 percent of Pakistan’s population was literate.

The capital of Pakistan when it was under British colonialism was Karachi, a port city located on the Arabian Sea. To establish a presence in the north, near Kashmir, the capital was moved to Islamabad in 1960. This example of a forward capital was an expression of geopolitical assertiveness by Pakistan against India. It also indicates the importance of Islam in the country. Islamabad means, “City of Islam,” and the city is the cultural focus of Islam in South Asia. The lingua franca of the country for the business sector and the social elite continues to be English, even though Urdu is considered the national language of Pakistan and is used as a lingua franca in many areas. More than sixty languages are spoken in the country. There are as many ethnic groups in Pakistan as there are languages. The three most prominent ethnic groups are Punjabis, Pashtuns, and Sindhis.

Regions of Pakistan

The three main physical geographic regions of Pakistan are the Indus River Basin, the Baluchistan Plateau, and the northern highlands. These physical regions are generally associated with the country’s main political provinces. The four main provinces include the Punjab, Baluchistan, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (North West Frontier). To the north is the disputed region of Kashmir known as the Northern Areas. Each of these regions represents a different aspect of the country. The North West Frontier has a series of Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan that have been traditionally under their own local control. Agents under Tribal Agencies have attempted to administer some type of structure and responsibility for the areas, with little success.

The Punjab

As explained previously, the Punjab is a core area of Pakistan, and has about 60 percent of Pakistan’s population. The five rivers of the Punjab border India and provide the fresh water necessary to grow food to support a large population. Irrigation canals create a water management network that provides water throughout the region. The southern portion of the Punjab includes the arid conditions of the Thar Desert. The northern sector includes the foothills of the mountains and has cooler temperatures in the higher elevations. The Punjab is anchored by the cities of Lahore, Faisalabad, and Multan. Lahore is the cultural center of Pakistan and is home to the University of the Punjab and many magnificent mosques and palaces built during its early history. The Punjab is the most industrialized of all the provinces. Manufacturing has increased with industries producing everything from vehicles to electrical appliances to textiles. The industrialization of the Punjab is an indication of its skilled work force and the highest literacy rate in Pakistan, at about 80 percent.


Figure 9. Donkey cart on busy street in Lahore, Pakistan, in the Punjab. This is an example of traditional transportation mixing with modern technology Lahore is a large city with a wide range of methods of conducting business.


Baluchistan encompasses a large portion of southwest Pakistan to the west of the Indus River. The region connects the Middle East and Iran with the rest of Asia. The landscape consists of barren terrain, sandy deserts, and rocky surfaces. Baluchistan covers about 44 percent of the entire country and is the largest political unit. The sparse population ekes a living out of the few mountain valleys where water can be found. Much of the coastal region is arid desert with sand dunes and large volcanic mountainous features.


Figure 10. Man with his camel in the desert region of Baluchistan in Western Pakistan.

The Sindh

The Sindh (Sind) region of the southeast is anchored by Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and major port. The Indus River is the border on the west and the Punjab region lies to the north. To the east of the Sindh is the border with India and the great Thar Desert. The Indus River Valley is a key food-growing area. Food crops consist of wheat and other small grains, with cotton as a major cash crop that helps support the textile industry of the region.

Rural-to-urban shift has pushed large numbers of Sindh residents into the city of Karachi to look for opportunities and employment. The central business district has a thriving business sector that anchors the southern part of the country. The city has a large port facility on the Arabian Sea. As an urban agglomeration of perhaps 20 million people or more, there are always problems with a lack of public services, law enforcement, or adequate infrastructure. The Sindh is the second-most populous region of Pakistan, after the Punjab.


Figure 11. Female doctor examining patient from a mobile medical clinic in the Sindh Region of Pakistan.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (The North West Frontier)

The North West Frontier is a broad expanse of territory that extends from the northern edge of Baluchistan to the Northern Areas of the former Kingdom of Kashmir. Sandwiched between the tribal areas along the Afghanistan border and the well-watered lands of the Punjab, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province is dominated by remote mountain ranges with fertile valleys. The famous Khyber Pass, a major chokepoint into Afghanistan, is located here. The frontier is a breeding ground for anti-Western culture and anti-American sentiments, mainly fueled by the US military activity in Afghanistan. A push for more fundamentalist Islamic law has been a major initiative of the local leaders. Support for education and modernization is minimal. The government of Pakistan has also stepped up its military actions in the region to counter the activities of the militant Islamic extremists.


Figure 12. Man firing AK-47 in the north west Frontier of Pakistan.

The Tribal Areas

The North West Frontier borders the Tribal Areas, where clans and local leaders are standard parts of the sociopolitical structure. These remote areas have seldom been fully controlled by either the colonial governments (the British) or the current government of Pakistan. There are about seven main areas that fall under this description. Accountability for the areas has been difficult and even when the national government stepped in to exercise authority, there was serious resistance that halted any real established interaction. These remote areas are where groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban often find safe haven.

Northern Areas with Disputed Kashmir

Located in the high mountains of the north is the former Kingdom of Kashmir, a separate kingdom before the British divided South Asia. In 1947, when the British drew the boundary between India and Pakistan, the leader of Kashmir, the maharajah, chose not to be a part of either country but to remain independent. About 75 percent of the population in Kashmir was Muslim; the rest, including the maharajah, were mainly Hindu. This arrangement worked for a time, until the Muslim majority was encouraged by their fellow Muslims in Pakistan to join Pakistan. After a Muslim uprising, the maharajah asked the Indian military for assistance. India was more than pleased to oblige and saw it as an opportunity to oppose Pakistan one more time. Today Kashmir is divided, with Pakistan controlling the northern region, India controlling the southern region, and China controlling a portion of the eastern region. A cease-fire has been implemented, but outbreaks of fighting have occurred. The future of Kashmir is unclear. None of the countries involved wants to start a large-scale war, because they all have nuclear weapons.


Figure 13. The Highlands of the northern areas in Pakistan.

The conflict in Kashmir is about strategic location and control of water rather than labor and resources. The Indus River flows through Kashmir from Tibet and into Pakistan. The control of this river system is critical to the survival of people living in northern Pakistan. If India were to place a dam on the river and divert the water to their side of the border, to the dry regions of the south, Pakistan could suffer a water shortage in the northern part of the country. Another aspect of the Kashmir conflict goes back to the division of Pakistan and India, which pitted Muslims against Hindus along the border region. The religious differences have come to the surface again in the conflict over the control of Kashmir. Extremist movements within Kashmir by the Muslim population have fueled the division between those who support Pakistan and those who support Hindu-dominated India.


Figure 14. The issues with Kashmir. Pakistan controls the northern areas, India controls Jammu and Kashmir, and China controls the eastern portion, labeled Aksai Chin on this map. All three countries have nuclear weapons, and it seems apparent that none of them want to start a nuclear war.

Religion and Politics in Pakistan

Today most of the people living in Pakistan are Muslim. About 85 percent of the Muslim population in Pakistan is Sunni and about 15 percent is Shia, which is consistent with the percentages of the two Islamic divisions worldwide. Islam is considered the state religion of Pakistan. The state is a federal republic with a parliamentarian style of government. As an Islamic state following the Sharia laws of the Koran, it has been a challenge for Pakistan to try to balance instituting democratic reforms while staying true to fundamental Islamic teachings. Pakistan has held elections for government leaders, and the status of women has improved. Women have held many governmental and political positions, including prime minister. The military has been a foundation of power for those in charge. As a result of weak economic conditions throughout the country, it has been the military that has received primary attention and is the strongest institution within the government. Pakistan has demonstrated its nuclear weapons capability in recent years, which established it as a major player in regional affairs.

B. Bangladesh

Bangladesh is a low-lying country that is associated with the types of marshy environments found in tropical areas and river deltas. The region is extremely prone to flooding, particularly during the summer monsoon season because of the high amount of rainfall. One of the most important rivers of Bangladesh flows southward from the Himalayas through India and into Bangladesh. While in India, this river is known as the Brahmaputra River, but when it enters Bangladesh, it is known as the Jamuna River. It provides a major waterway for this region and empties into the Bay of Bengal.

Contributing to the immense flow of water through the country are the Ganges and the Meghna rivers, which join up with the Brahmaputra River near the sea. The Ganges flows through northern India and is a major source of fresh water for a large population before it reaches Bangladesh. The Meghna is a collection of tributaries within the boundaries of Bangladesh that flows out of the eastern part of the country. The Meghna is a deep river that can reach depths of over 1,600 feet with an average depth of more than one thousand feet. The hundreds of water channels throughout the relatively flat country provide for transportation routes for boats and ships that move goods and people from place to place. There are few bridges, so land travel is restricted when rainfall is heavy.


Figure 15. Bangladesh. Bangladesh has about the same area as the US state of Wisconsin. Bangladesh’s population estimate in 2016 was 163 million; Wisconsin’s was about 5.7 million.

Population and Globalization

Imagine a country the size of the US state of Wisconsin. Now imagine half of the entire population of the United States living within its borders. Welcome to Bangladesh. With an estimated population of about 163 million in 2016 and a land area of only about 57,000 square miles, it is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet. Most of the population in Bangladesh is rural, agriculturally grounded, and poor. The larger cities, such as the capital of Dhaka, have modern conveniences, complete with Internet cafes, shopping districts, and contemporary goods. The rural areas often suffer from a lack of adequate transportation, infrastructure, and public services. Poverty is common; income levels average the equivalent of a few US dollars per day. Remarkably, the culture remains vibrant and active, pursuing livelihoods that seek out every opportunity or advantage available to them.

There are many ethnic groups in Bangladesh, and many languages are spoken. The official and most widely used language in Bangladesh is Bengali,. Bengali is also the main language for the Indian state of West Bengal, which neighbors Bangladesh. English is used as the lingua franca among the middle and upper classes and in higher education. Many minor languages are spoken in Bangladesh and in the region as a whole. Most of the population, about 90 percent, is Muslim, with all but about 3 percent Sunni. There is a sizable minority, about 9 percent, which adheres to Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, or animism. The US State Department considers Bangladesh to be a moderate Islamic democratic country.


Figure 16. Street scene in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

Environmental Issues

The summer monsoons are both a blessing and a curse in Bangladesh. The blessing of the monsoon rains is that they bring fresh water to grow food. The northeast part of Bangladesh receives the highest amount of rainfall, averaging about eighteen feet per year, while the western part of the country averages only about four feet per year. Most of the rain falls during the summer monsoon season. Bangladesh can grow abundant food crops of rice and grain in the fertile deltas of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers, rivers that ultimately empty into the Bay of Bengal. About 55 percent of the land area is arable and can be used for farming, but flooding causes serious damage to cropland by eroding soil and washing away seeds or crops. Every year, countless people die because of the flooding, which can cover as much as a third of the country. One of the worst flooding events in Bangladesh’s history was experienced in 1998, when river flooding destroyed more than three hundred thousand homes and caused more than one thousand deaths, rendering more than thirty million people homeless.

Most parts of Bangladesh are less than forty feet above sea level. Storm surges from cyclones killed as many as one hundred fifty thousand people in 1991. In comparison, about two thousand people died when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2006. The high death toll from flooding does not receive its due attention from Western news media.

Another environmental problem for Bangladesh is deforestation. Wood is traditionally used for cooking and construction. The needs of a larger population have caused widespread deforestation. Brick and cement have become alternative building materials, and cow dung has become a widely used cooking fuel even though it reduces the fertilizer base for agriculture. Even so, these adaptations have not halted the deforestation problem. The main remaining forests are located along the southern borders with India and Burma (Myanmar) and in the northeast sector.

Women and Banking in Bangladesh

Despite an overall languishing economy, economic success stories in this poor country do exist. The Grameen Bank has been working to empower women in Bangladesh for many years. The bank issues microcredit to people in the form of small loans. These loans do not require collateral. Loans are often issued to impoverished people based on the concept that many of them have abilities that are underutilized and can be transformed into income-earning activities. About 96 percent of these loans are to women, and the average loan is equivalent to about one hundred dollars. Women have proven to be more responsible than men in repaying loans and utilizing the money to earn wealth. The loan recovery rate in Bangladesh is higher than 98 percent. Microcredit has energized poor women to use their skills to make and market their products to earn a living. Millions of women have taken out such loans, totaling billions of dollars. This program has energized local women to succeed. It has been a model for programs in other developing countries.


Figure 17. Man working in a rice field in Bangladesh.

Key Takeaways

  • When Britain’s colonialism ended in South Asia in 1947, the Muslim League was instrumental in creating the united Muslim state with East Pakistan and West Pakistan under one government. East Pakistan broke away and became the independent country of Bangladesh in 1971.
  • Both Pakistan and Bangladesh have large populations that are increasing rapidly. Both countries have agriculturally based economies. Rural-to-urban shift is occurring at an ever-increasing rate in both countries. Population growth places a heavy tax on natural resources and social services.
  • The political units within Pakistan include four main provinces. Tribal Areas border Afghanistan and are controlled by local leaders. The Northern Areas are disputed with India. Each of the provinces has its own unique physical and human landscapes.
  • Bangladesh is a low-lying country with the Brahmaputra River, Ganges River, and the Meghna River flowing into the Bay of Bengal. Flooding is a major environmental concern that has devastated the country on a regular basis.

11.3 India

Learning Objectives

  1. Outline the basic activities of British colonialism that affected the realm.
  2. Understand the basic qualities of the rural and urban characteristics of India.
  3. Summarize the main economic activities and economic conditions in India.
  4. Describe the differences between various geographic regions of India.

A. India and Colonialism

India is considered the world’s largest democracy. As the historic geography and the development patterns of India are examined, the complexities of this Hindu state surface. European colonizers of South Asia included the Dutch, Portuguese, French, and, finally, the British. In search of raw materials, cheap labor, and expanding markets, Europeans used their advancements in technology to take over and dominate the regional industrial base. The East India Company was a base of British operations in South Asia and evolved to become the administrative government of the region by 1857. The British government created an administrative structure to govern South Asia. Their centralized government in India employed many Sikhs in positions of the administration to help rule over the largely Muslim and Hindu population. The English language was introduced as a lingua franca for the colonies.

In truth, colonialism did more than establish the current boundaries of South Asia. Besides bringing the region under one central government and providing a lingua franca, India’s colonizers developed the main port cities of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras (now called Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai, respectively. The names of the port cities have been reverted to their original Hindi forms). The port cities were access points for connecting goods with markets between India and Europe. Mumbai became the largest city and the economic center of India. In 1912, to exploit the interior of India, the British moved their colonial capital from Kolkata, which was the port for the densely populated Ganges River basin, to New Delhi. Chennai was a port access to southern India and the core of the Dravidian ethnic south.

Britain exploited India by extending railroad lines from the three main port cities into the hinterlands, to transport materials from the interior back to the port for export. The Indian Railroad is one of the largest rail networks on Earth. The problem with colonial railroads was that they did not necessarily connect cities with other cities. The British colonizers connected rail lines between the hinterland and the ports for resource exploitation and export of commercial goods. Today, the same port cities act as focal points for the import/export activity of globalization and remain core industrial centers for South Asia. They are now well connected with the other cities of India.

B. The People of India

Contrasts in India are explicitly evident in the regional differences of its human geography. The north-south contrasts are apparent through the lingua franca and ethnic divisions. The main lingua franca in the north is Hindi. In the Dravidian-dominated south, the main lingua franca is English. The densely populated core region along the Ganges River, anchored on each end by Delhi/New Delhi and Kolkata, has traditionally been called the heartland of India. The south is anchored by the port city of Chennai and the large city of Bangalore. Chennai has been a traditional industrial center. The industrial infrastructure has shifted to more modern facilities in other cities, giving over to a “rustbelt” syndrome for portions of the Chennai region. India is a dynamic country, with shifts and changes constantly occurring. Any attempt to stereotype India into cultural regions would be problematic.


Figure 18. The three main language families in India. Hindi is the official language of the government, and both Hindi and English are the lingua franca.

In 2016, India had more than 1.32 billion people, which is about one-sixth of the human population of the earth, and not far behind China’s 1.38 billion. If current trends continue, India will overtake China as the most populous country in the world in less than ten years. An 80 percent majority follow Hindu beliefs. About 13 percent of the population is Muslim. That may not seem like a high percentage, but in this case it equates to over 170 million people. This is equivalent to all the Muslims who reside in the countries of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt combined. India is the third-largest Muslim country in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan, because of its large Muslim minority. India essentially has two lingua francas: English and Hindi, of which Hindi is the official language of the Indian government. India has twenty-eight states and fourteen recognized major languages. The languages of northern India are mainly based on the Indo-European language family. Languages used in the south are mainly from the Dravidian language family.

Urban versus Rural

Rural and urban life within the Indian Subcontinent varies according to wealth and opportunity. While concentrated in specific areas across the landscape, in general the population in rural areas is discontinuous and spread thinly. In urban areas, the populations are very concentrated with many times the population density found in rural areas. India has six world-class cities: Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad. There are many other large cities in India; in 2010, India had forty-three cities with more than a million people each.

India’s interior is mainly composed of villages. In rural villages, much of the economy is based on subsistence strategies, primarily agriculture and small cottage industries. The lifestyle is focused on the agricultural cycles of soil preparation, sowing, and harvesting as well as tending animals, particularly water buffalo, cattle, goats, and sheep. About 67 percent of the population lives in rural areas and makes a living in agriculture. About 33 percent of the population—which is equal to 100 million more than the entire US population—is urbanized. India is rapidly urbanizing and industrializing. Changes in technology, however, tend to be slow in dispersing to the rural villages. More than half the villages in India do not have road access for motor vehicles. For residents of those villages, walking, animal carts, and trains are the main methods of transportation. Agricultural technology is primitive. Diffusion of new ideas, products, or methods can be slow. Modern communication technology is, however, helping connect these remote regions.


Figure 19. Farmer tilling a field with oxen in rural India.

India’s cities are dynamic places, with millions of people, cars, buses, and trucks all found in the streets. In many areas of urban centers, traffic may be stopped to await the movement of a sacred cow or a donkey or bullock cart loaded with merchandise. Indian cities are growing at an unsustainable rate. Overcrowded and congested, the main cities are modernizing and trying to keep up with global trends. Traditionally, family size was large. Large family size results in a swell of young people migrating to urban areas to seek greater opportunities and advantages. In modern times, family size has been reduced to about three children, an accomplishment that did not come easily because of the religious beliefs of most of India’s people.

India is a country with considerable contrast between the wealthy urban elites and the poor rural villagers, many of whom move to the cities and live in slums and work for little pay. Low labor costs have enabled Indian cities to industrialize in many ways similar to Western cities, complete with computers, Internet services, and other modern communications services. India’s growing middle class is a product of educational opportunities and technological advancements. This available skilled labor base has allowed India’s industrial and information sectors to take advantage of economic opportunities in the global marketplace to grow and expand their activities. Development within India is augmented by outsourcing activities by American and European corporations to India. Service center jobs created by business process outsourcing (BPO) are in high demand by skilled Indian workers.

C. India’s Economic Situation

In the past decade, India has possessed the second fastest growing economy in the world; China is first. India’s economy continues to rapidly expand and have a tremendous impact on the world economy. In spite of the size of the economy, India’s population has a low average per capita income. Approximately one-fourth of the people living in India live in poverty; the World Bank classifies India as a low-income economy. India has followed a central economic model for most of its development since it declared independence. The central government has exerted strict control over private sector economic development, foreign trade, and foreign investment. Through various economic reforms since the 1990s, India is beginning to open up these markets by reducing government control on foreign investment and trade. Many publicly owned businesses are being privatized. Globalization efforts have been vigorous in India. There has been substantial growth in information services, health care, and the industrial sector.

The economy is extremely diverse and has focused on agriculture, handicrafts, textiles, manufacturing, some industry, and a vast number of services. A 60 percent majority of the population still earns its income directly from agriculture and agriculture-related services. Land holdings by individual farmers are small, often less than five acres. When combined with the inadequate use of modern farming technologies, small land holdings become inadequately productive and impractical. The wet monsoon is critical for the success of India’s agricultural crops during any given season. Because the rainfall of many agricultural areas is tied to the monsoon rains of only a few months, a weak or delayed rainfall can have disastrous effects on the agricultural economy. Agricultural products include commercial crops such as coffee and spices (cardamom, pepper, chili peppers, turmeric, vanilla, cinnamon, and so on). Bamboo is an important part of the agricultural harvest as well. Rice and lentils provide an important basis for the local economy.

Over the last few decades, information technology and related services have transformed India’s economy and society. In turn, India is transforming the world’s information technologies in terms of production and service as well as the export of skilled workers in financial, computer hardware, software engineering, and software services. Manufacturing and industry are becoming a more important part of India’s economy as it begins to expand. Manufacturing and industry account for almost one-third of the gross domestic product (GDP) and contribute jobs to almost one-fifth of the total workforce. Major economic sectors such as manufacturing, industry, biotechnology, telecommunications, aviation, shipbuilding, and retail are exhibiting strong growth rates.

A large number of educated young people who are fluent in English are changing India into a “back office” target for global outsourcing for customer services. These customer services focus on computer-related products but also include service-related industries and online sales companies. The level of outsourcing of information activity to India has been substantial. Any work that can be conducted over the Internet or telephone can be outsourced to anywhere in the world that has high-speed communication links. Countries that are attractive to BPO are countries where the English language is prominent, where employment costs are low, and where there is an adequate labor base of skilled or educated workers that can be trained in the services required. India has been the main destination for BPO activity from the United States. Firms with service work or computer programming are drawn to India because English is a lingua franca and India has an adequate skilled labor base to draw from.


Figure 20. Mumbai (Bombay), the economic capital and largest city in India.

Vehicle Manufacturing

Two examples of India’s growing economic milieu are motor vehicle manufacturing and the movie industry. India’s vehicle manufacturing base is expanding rapidly. Vehicle manufacturing companies from North America, Europe, and East Asia are all active in India, and India also has its own share of vehicle manufacturing companies. For example, Mumbai-based Tata Motors Ltd. is the country’s foremost vehicle production corporation and it claims to be the second-largest commercial vehicle manufacturer in the world. Tata Motors is India’s largest designer and manufacturer of commercial buses and trucks, and it also produces the most inexpensive car in the world, the Tata Nano. Tata Motors manufactures midsized and larger automobiles, too. The company has expanded operations to Spain, Thailand, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. The company is an example of an Indian-based international corporation that is a force in the global marketplace. In 2010, India was recognized as a major competitor with Thailand, South Korea, and Japan as the fourth main exporter of autos in Asia.


Figure 21. The Nano, made in India. The Nano is considered the world’s most inexpensive car.

Indian Cinema

Cinema makes up a large portion of the entertainment sector in India. India’s cinema industry is often referred to as “Bollywood,” a combination of Bombay and Hollywood. Technically, Bollywood only refers to the Hindi language segment of the Indian cinema industry that is based out of Bombay (Mumbai), but the title is sometimes misleadingly used to refer to the entire movie industry in India. Bollywood is the leading movie maker in India and has a world-class film production center. In the past few years, India has been producing as many as one thousand films annually. The highest annual output for the US film industry is only about two-thirds that of India. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, India’s city of Hyderabad has the most extensive film production center in the world.


Figure 22. Bollywood filming in India. The film industry in India produces almost twice as many movies as the United States. Indian production scenes can be dramatic and expressive.

D. India: East and West

South Asia’s physical geography—an overview of its physical features—was described at the beginning of the section. India makes up the largest physical area of the South Asia realm. Another way of looking at the physical and human landscapes of India is to study spatial characteristics. Additionally, the economic side of the equation can be illustrated by dividing India between east and west according to economic development patterns. To do this, on a map of India draw an imaginary line from the border with Nepal in the north, near Kanpur, to the Polk Strait border with Sri Lanka in the south. This division of India illustrates two sides of India’s economic pattern: an economically progressive West India and an economically stagnant East India.


Figure 23. Dividing India. India can be divided either along north/south dimensions or along east/west dimensions.

The progressive western side of India is anchored by Mumbai and its surrounding industrial community. Mumbai is the economic giant of India with the country’s main financial markets, and has been a magnet for high-tech firms and manufacturing. Mumbai’s port provides access to global markets and is solidly connected to international trade networks. Auto manufacturing, the film industry, and computer firms all have major centers in the large urban metropolitan areas of the west. Large industrial cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad have established themselves as high-tech production centers, attracting international business in the computer industry and the information sector. Chemical processing has been ongoing in Bhopal, which is noted for an environmental disaster, a gas leak in 1984 that resulted in the deaths of as many as ten thousand people. The nation’s capital is located in New Delhi, which borders the massive city of (Old) Delhi. The western half of India has been progressing along a pattern with a positive economic outlook that views the global community outside of India as a partner in its success.

The eastern half of India has not been as prosperous as the west in its economic growth. The renowned city of Kolkata has traditionally anchored the eastern sector, but its factories have deteriorated into rustbelt status with aging and outdated heavy industries. The high-intensity labor activities of textile and domestic goods manufacturing are not as economically viable as they were in the past. The stagnant economic scene in the east is signified by the low average income levels of many of the states in the eastern region. Neighboring Bangladesh offers little in support of economic growth, and Myanmar, another neighbor to the east, has its own set of problems and lacks support for East India. The eastern half of India does not have the strong partnerships with the global economy found in the west and thus relies more on internal resources for survival.

India: North and South

There are differences in the geographic patterns between the northern and southern halves of India as well as between the eastern and western halves—depending on the criteria used to compare them. Climate patterns, for example, are more diverse in the north, with a wide range of temperatures throughout the seasons. Winter temperatures in the mountainous north are cold and summer temperatures in the Thar Desert can be extremely high. Southern India has a more moderate range of temperatures throughout the year. The far north has high mountains. The south has only the low-lying Eastern and Western Ghats. The north has the extensive Ganges River basin. The south has different drainage networks based on the plateaus of the region.

Besides physical aspects, there are cultural differences between the north and south as well. India is a complex societal mix of many ethnic groups, languages, and traditions. The north is portrayed as a faster-paced society, with more edge and competitiveness. The south has been portrayed as more relaxed and less insistent. Indo-European languages are mainly spoken in the north and Dravidian languages are predominantly spoken in the south. Hindi is more commonly the lingua franca of the north, while English is more frequently the lingua franca of the south. People in the north are of Indo-Aryan descent, while the people in the south have a Dravidian heritage. Hinduism dominates all of India, but the north has a wider diversity of religions, such as Sikhism, Buddhism, and Islam, practiced by a large number of people. The south has a substantial Christian population along its west coast.

Key Takeaways

  • Colonialism had a tremendous impact on South Asia and its people. Colonial development patterns were implemented to control the people and to extract resources, not necessarily to benefit the realm.
  • India has a wide disparity between its poor rural areas with agricultural economies and its wealthier bustling cities with expanding business sectors.
  • Various urban centers of India have positioned themselves well to take advantage of the global economy and expand their manufacturing and industrial base. India is becoming a major manufacturing country for vehicles and high-tech industries.
  • There are noticeable economic differences between the more progressive Western India and the stagnant economic conditions of Eastern India. There is also a noticeable cultural difference between the North and the South in India in the categories of language, ethnicity, food, and society.

11.4 Major Religions of India and South Asia

Learning Objectives

  1. Outline the basic religions of the realm. Name the largest minority religion.
  2. Understand the basic structure and concepts of Hinduism, including the caste system.
  3. Describe how Buddhism differs from Hinduism.
Figure 24. Islamic Architecture in Hindu India. The Taj Mahal was constructed as a mausoleum for the wife of the ruler Shah Jahan in 1653 when the Muslim Mogul Empire controlled northern India. The Taj Mahal is located at Agra, India, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The realm of India and its surrounding countries is the native land for several ancient religions. The oldest world religions of India are Hinduism and Buddhism. Other important religions in the realm include Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and the Baha’i faith. India is at times labeled a Hindu state, but the accuracy of the label is dubious. A more suitable way to describe India is to say that it is a secular country where approximately 80 percent of the population follows Hindu traditions. Islam is the second-most popular religion, practiced by about 13 percent of the population. Christianity is India’s third-largest religion, practiced by about 3 percent of the population. Sikhism accounts for about 2 percent of the population of India. Buddhism and Jainism are two other minority religions that have their origins in South Asia. And finally, there are still Indians who practice animist religions, especially in remote areas.

A. Hinduism

Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest major religions still practiced. Its origins can be traced to ancient Vedic civilizations in India approximately three thousand years ago. The religion is found mainly in India, and it has the third-highest number of believers of religions in the world. Hinduism does not originate from a single teacher but from many traditions. The Hindu belief system consists of a number of schools of thought, with a wide variety of rituals and practices.

Predominantly, Hinduism follows the teachings of many gods or goddesses, frequently including a Supreme Being. While there are hundreds, if not thousands, of gods and goddesses, many are thought to represent different aspects of the same individual or Supreme Being. These individuals can be recognized by items that they are holding as well as by the vehicle or avatar that carries them. The three main deities and most widely venerated of the Hindu faith are Shiva the Destroyer, Vishnu the Preserver, and Brahma the Creator. There is a continuous cycle in which the original creation was accomplished by Brahma, Shiva destroys the universe, and Vishnu will recreate or preserve that universe from destruction. Different Hindu traditions have venerated each of the three main deities as the all-encompassing Supreme Being.

The polytheistic traditions of Hinduism consider a large number of deities or spiritual entities. Since there is no one creed or unified systems of beliefs, Hinduism has been referred to as more of a religious tradition than a religion. It has been said that Hinduism cannot be defined, but is instead experienced. This understanding allows a variety of beliefs to be included in the vast array of Hindu religious practices.

Hinduism is an extremely diverse religion, making it extremely difficult to define set doctrines that are accepted by all denominations. Within the wide spectrum of religious traditions, however,  are general concepts that are common to Hindu beliefs. Hindus believe in Dharma (code of conduct or duty), Samsara (reincarnation/rebirth), Karma (personal actions and choices), and Moksha (salvation) by belief in God and through an individual path of faith. Reincarnation is a cycle of death and rebirth for a soul to transmigrate through until it reaches Moksha. Karma governs how the soul is reincarnated. Actions in this life determine the soul’s life cycle for the next life. Positive and upright works will draw one closer to God and a rebirth through reincarnation into a life with a wider consciousness or higher caste level. Evil or bad actions take the soul farther from God and into a lower form of worldly life or caste level.

Pilgrimages are common in Hindu practice. Holy sites or temples are located throughout India and are regular destinations for the Hindu faithful. Pilgrimage is not required but is routinely conducted by many Hindus. Besides many holy temples, a variety of cities and other holy places are pilgrimage destinations for Hindus. Varanasi, one such city, is considered by many as the holiest city of Hinduism, although other cities also hold this distinction. Located on the Ganges River, Varanasi is home to a large number of temples and shrines. The most visited shrine in Varanasi is one in honor of a manifestation of Shiva. Hindu festivals are held in Varanasi throughout the year, many along the banks of the Ganges. Varanasi is also one of the holiest places in Buddhism; it is said to have been designated by Gautama Buddha as one of four prime pilgrimage sites.


Figure 25. Shiva Statue in Bangalore, India.

More than one million Hindu pilgrims visit Varanasi annually. Mother Ganga, as the river is referred to in Hinduism, is considered holy by many Hindu followers. Devotees ritually bathe in the river or take “holy” water from it home to ill family members. Some Hindus believe that the water can cure illnesses. Others believe that bathing in the Ganges will wash away your sins. The nonspiritual truth is that the Ganges is a highly polluted waterway. The water is not considered safe for human consumption by most universal health standards.


Figure 26. Ghat in Varanasi, India, where Hindu Faithful Access the Ganges River.

The Hindu Caste System

In the Hindu caste system, society is organized into separate groups or castes. Every person is born into an unchanging group or caste that remains his or her status for the rest of his or her life. All lifetime activities are conducted within one’s own caste. The caste a person is born into is based on what they have done in a past life. The caste system has evolved differently in different parts of Asia. Each Hindu branch has its own levels of castes, and thousands of sublevels have been established over time. In Hinduism, the basic system originated around five main caste levels:

  • Brahmin: priests, teachers, and judges
  • Kshatriya: warrior, ruler, or landowner
  • Vaishya: merchants, artisans, and farmers
  • Shudra: workers and laborers
  • Dalits (Untouchables or Harijan): outcasts or tribal groups

The Dalits (Untouchables or Harijan) traditionally worked in jobs relating to “polluting activities,” including anything unclean or dead. Dalits have been restricted from entering Hindu places of worship or drinking water from the same sources as members of higher castes. They often had to work at night and sleep during the day. In many areas, Dalits needed to take their shoes off while passing by upper-caste neighbors. Dalits could leave their Hindu caste by converting to Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. The Indian government has implemented a positive affirmative action plan and provided the Dalits with representation in public offices and certain employment privileges. This policy has received harsh opposition by upper-caste groups. Technically, the caste system is illegal under current Indian law. Nevertheless, the opportunities that are available to the upper castes remain out of reach to many of the lowest caste. In some areas, education and industrialization have diminished the caste system’s influence. In other areas, Hindu fundamentalists have pushed for a stronger Hindu-based social structure and opposed any reforms.

Traditional socioeconomic status tends to be more important in rural areas, where the caste system is more formally adhered to. If you live in a community of millions of people, caste affiliations tend not to be as important, but in a smaller, more rural community, these relationships and the status they hold can be very important, especially as many of the castes are associated with traditional village tasks, such as religious leaders, politicians, farmers, leather workers, or other activities.


Figure 27. Centrifugal vs Centripetal forces (India). Is the Hindu caste system a centrifugal or centripetal cultural force for India?

B. Buddhism

Around 535 BCE in northern India, a prince by the name of Siddhartha Gautama broke from the local traditions that shaped Hinduism and taught religious salvation through meditation, the rejection of earthly desires, and reverence for all life forms. Siddhartha is recognized as the first Buddha. He taught that through many cycles of rebirth a person can attain enlightenment and no longer have a need for desire or selfish interests. Enlightenment is being free from suffering and is reaching a state of liberation often referred to as Nirvana. Buddhism is considered a “dharmic” faith that concerns following a path of duty for a proper life. According to Buddhism, life is dictated by karma, which connects our actions with future experiences. Buddhism spread across the Indian Subcontinent after the sixth century BCE and became the region’s dominant religion within 1,500 years. However, since that time, the religion has diminished in the Indian Subcontinent, although it has seen some revival under the influence of Buddhist scholars. Buddhism predominates in the northernmost areas of India.


Figure 28. Statue of Buddha at Bodh Gaya, India.

Buddhism is the majority religion in Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and most of Southeast Asia. It was prominent in China, Mongolia, and North Korea before their governments adopted Communist ideology. Communist governments officially announced that their countries were nonreligious, although many people still followed religious systems. Various branches of Buddhism have developed, with many schools established within each branch. One feature common throughout all branches of the faith is that Buddhism does not have caste levels.

All branches of Buddhism teach nonviolence, honesty, selflessness, tolerance, and moral living. Buddhism holds to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path (The Middle Way) to enlightenment. Suffering is a standard component of humanity. Only through the Eightfold Path to enlightenment is freedom from suffering possible. Enlightenment comes through wisdom, ethical conduct, and meditation. Buddhism has become the world’s fourth largest religion, with most of its followers in Asia.

The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path

The Four Noble Truths

  1. Suffering exists.
  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires.
  3. Suffering ceases when desire ceases.
  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path.

The Middle Way or Eightfold Path

  1. Attainable through wisdom
  2. Right view
  3. Right intention
  4. Attainable through ethical conduct
  5. Right speech
  6. Right action
  7. Right livelihood
  8. Attainable through meditation
  9. Right effort
  10. Right mindfulness
  11. Right concentration

Key Takeaways

  1. Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest still-practiced religions. There is no one specific path in the religion. Hinduism is more of a religious tradition based on core concepts than it is a formal religion.
  2. The caste system is a Hindu practice of placing people in social layers with similar occupations, privileges, and status. The untouchables are the lowest caste.
  3. Buddhism was created around 535 BCE from the traditions that shaped Hinduism by Siddhartha Gautama, who taught religious salvation through meditation, the rejection of earthly desires, and reverence for all life forms. There is no caste system in Buddhism, which has a number of branches that vary throughout Asia.

End-of-Chapter Summary

  • The Himalayan Mountain ranges border South Asia to the north. Nepal is located along this border and is somewhat of a buffer state between India and China. Nepal has a high population growth rate. Most of its people work in agriculture. Deforestation is a major environmental concern and causes erosion of the landscape. Landlocked and poor, Nepal struggles to maintain a stable government and adequate public services.
  • South Asia was colonized by Britain for ninety years. Colonialism brought a structured administration, a railroad system of transportation, and large port cities used for the export of goods from the interior. The political borders were established for South Asia by British colonizers, based on religious affiliation and economic advantages. The British elevated Sikhs from the Punjab to help rule over the Hindu and Muslim populations. English is widely used as a lingua franca.
  • Conflicts continue in mountainous Kashmir and tropical Sri Lanka. Kashmir’s remote territory in the northern part of the realm is divided between Pakistan, China, and India. All three countries have nuclear weapons.
  • Port cities of South Asia are centers for international trade and development. There is a wide disparity between the rural poor and the affluent elites. India has been developing a strong economy based on a growing information sector, health care, and manufacturing. Motor vehicles and computer technologies are emerging in India and competing worldwide. Pakistan’s economy struggles under the high population growth and Islamic extremism in the country.
  • Pakistan and Bangladesh were once under the same government. Bangladesh was formerly East Pakistan. These Muslim countries have extremely high population densities and have agrarian economies. The Indus River flows through Pakistan and the two rivers of the Brahmaputra and the Ganges flow through Bangladesh. Monsoon flooding is a serious concern for Bangladesh; earthquakes have caused serious damage in Pakistan.
  • Hindu and Buddhist traditions first developed in South Asia. India has the most of the world’s Hindu followers. The concept of the caste system has created socioeconomic layers in the culture that are being tempered by high urbanization rates. Buddhism has a number of branches that can be geographically identified as eastern, northern, and southern. Bhutan and Sri Lanka have Buddhist majorities. South Asia is also home to Sikhism and Jainism. Islam is strong in South Asia: Pakistan is the world’s second-largest Muslim country, India has the world’s third-largest Muslim population, and Bangladesh is a Muslim country as well. South Asia is also home to a Christian minority in addition to various other minority religious groups.


A Brief Introduction to World Regional Geography Copyright © by Steve Wolfe. All Rights Reserved.

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