Indian subcontinent

The Indian subcontinent is a southern region of Asia, mostly situated on the Indian Plate and projecting southwards into the Indian Ocean from the Himalayas. Geologically, the Indian subcontinent is related to the land mass that rifted from Gondwana and merged with the Eurasian plate nearly 55 million years ago.[2] Geographically, it is the peninsular region in south-central Asia delineated by the Himalayas in the north, the Hindu Kush in the west, and the Arakanese in the east.[3] Politically, the Indian subcontinent usually includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.[4][5][6]

Sometimes, the term South Asia is used interchangeably with 'Indian subcontinent'.[7] There is no consensus about which countries should be included in either of these.[8][9][10]

Indian subcontinent
Indian subcontinent
Area 4.4 million km2 (1.7 million sq mi)
Population 1.710 billion (2015)[1]
Population density 389/km2
Demonym Subcontinental
Countries Bangladesh
Sri Lanka


According to Oxford English Dictionary, the term "subcontinent" signifies a "subdivision of a continent which has a distinct geographical, political, or cultural identity" and also a "large land mass somewhat smaller than a continent". It is first attested in 1845 to refer to the North and South Americas, before they were regarded as separate continents. Its use to refer to the Indian subcontinent is seen from the early twentieth century. It was especially convenient for referring to the region comprising both British India and the princely states under British Paramountcy.[11][12]

The term Indian subcontinent also has a geological significance. Like the various continents, it was a part of the supercontinent of Gondwana. A series of tectonic splits caused formation of various basins, each drifting in various directions. The geological region called "Greater India" once included Madagascar, Seychelles, Antarctica and Austrolasia along with the Indian subcontinent basin. As a geological term, Indian subcontinent has meant that region formed from the collision of the Indian basin with Eurasia nearly 55 million years ago, towards the end of Paleocene.[2][13]


The Indian subcontinent has been a term particularly common in the British Empire and its successors.[7] The region, state Mittal and Thursby, has also been labelled as India (in its classical and pre-modern sense), Greater India, or as South Asia.[14][15] The BBC and some academic sources refer to the region as the "Asian Subcontinent".[16][17] Some academics refer to it as "South Asian Subcontinent".[18][19]

The terms "Indian subcontinent" and "South Asia" are sometimes used interchangeably.[7] There is no globally accepted definition on which countries are a part of South Asia or the Indian subcontinent.[8][10][9]


Indian subcontinent (orthographic projection)
Orthographic projection of the Indian subcontinent

In dictionary entries, the term subcontinent signifies a large, distinguishable subdivision of a continent.[20][21]


Geologically, the Indian subcontinent was first a part of so-called "Greater India",[13] a region of Gondwana that drifted away from East Africa about 160 million years ago, around the Middle Jurassic period.[2] The region experienced high volcanic activity and plate subdivisions, creating Madagascar, Seychelles, Antarctica, Austrolasia and the Indian subcontinent basin. The Indian subcontinent drifted northeastwards, colliding with the Eurasian plate nearly 55 million years ago, towards the end of Paleocene. This geological region largely includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.[2] The zone where the Eurasian and Indian subcontinent plates meet remains one of the geologically active areas, prone to major earthquakes.[22][23]

The English term "subcontinent" mainly continues to refer to the Indian subcontinent.[24][25] Physiographically, it is a peninsular region in south-central Asia delineated by the Himalayas in the north, the Hindu Kush in the west, and the Arakanese in the east.[3][26] It extends southward into the Indian Ocean with the Arabian Sea to the southwest and the Bay of Bengal to the southeast.[4][27] Most of this region rests on the Indian Plate and is isolated from the rest of Asia by large mountain barriers.[28]

Using the more expansive definition – counting India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives as the constituent countries – the Indian subcontinent covers about 4.4 million km2 (1.7 million sq mi), which is 10% of the Asian continent or 3.3% of the world's land surface area.[29][30] Overall, it accounts for about 45% of Asia's population (or over 25% of the world's population) and is home to a vast array of peoples.[29][31][32]


NASA images of the Indian subcontinent during day and night.

India 78.40398E 20.74980N
India at night from space during Diwali 2012

Whether called the Indian subcontinent or South Asia, the definition of the geographical extent of this region varies. Geopolitically, it had formed the whole territory of Greater India,[14][15] and it generally comprises the countries of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.[4] Prior to 1947, most of the Indian subcontinent was part of British India. It generally includes Nepal, Bhutan, and the island country of Sri Lanka and may also include the island country of Maldives.[33] According to anthropologist John R. Lukacs, "the Indian Subcontinent occupies the major landmass of South Asia",[34] while the political science professor Tatu Vanhanen states, "the seven countries of South Asia constitute geographically a compact region around the Indian Subcontinent".[35] The geopolitical boundaries of the Indian subcontinent, according to Dhavendra Kumar, include "India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and other small islands of the Indian Ocean".[5] Maldives, the small archipelago southwest of the peninsula, is considered part of the Indian subcontinent.[6]

Parts of Afghanistan are sometimes included in Indian subcontinent as, states Ira M. Lapidus – a professor of History, it is a boundary territory with parts in Central Asia and in Indian subcontinent. The socio-religious history of Afghanistan are related to the Turkish-influenced Central Asia and northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent, now known as Pakistan.[36][37] Others state Afghanistan being a part of Central Asia is not an accepted practice, and it is "clearly not part of the Indian subcontinent".[8]

Historians Catherine Asher and Cynthia Talbot state that the term "Indian subcontinent" describes a natural physical landmass in South Asia that has been relatively isolated from the rest of Eurasia.[38] Given the difficulty of passage through the Himalayas, the sociocultural, religious and political interaction of the Indian subcontinent has largely been through the valleys of Afghanistan in its northwest,[39] the valleys of Manipur in its east, and by maritime routes.[38] More difficult but historically important interaction has also occurred through passages pioneered by the Tibetans. These routes and interactions have led to the diffusion of Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, out of the Indian subcontinent into other parts of Asia, while Islam arrived into the Indian subcontinent through Afghanistan and to its coasts through the maritime routes.[38]


The geopolitical definition and the use of terms such as Indian subcontinent, South Asian subcontinent and South Asia is a contested topic.[8][10][40]

Past and future population

Rank Country Area (km2) 1950 2000 2050 2100
1  India 3,287,263 369,881,000 1,006,301,000 1,656,554,000 1,659,786,000
2  Pakistan 881,913 40,383,000 152,430,000 300,848,000 364,283,000
3  Bangladesh 147,570 45,646,000 132,151,000 201,249,000 169,541,000
4    Nepal 147,181 8,990,000 24,819,000 45,985,000 29,677,000
5  Sri Lanka 65,610 7,534,000 19,042,000 25,167,000 14,857,000
6  Bhutan 38,394 164,000 606,000 952,000 793,000
7  Maldives 298 80,000 300,000 445,000 438,000
Total 4,568,229 480,829,000 1,358,111,000 2,294,996,000 2,297,013,000

Land and water area

This list includes dependent territories within their sovereign states (including uninhabited territories), but does not include claims on Antarctica. EEZ+TIA is exclusive economic zone (EEZ) plus total internal area (TIA) which includes land and internal waters.

Rank Country Area (km2) EEZ Shelf EEZ+TIA
1  India 3,287,263 2,305,143 402,996 5,592,406
2  Pakistan 881,913 290,000 51,383 1,117,911
3  Bangladesh 147,570 86,392 66,438 230,390
4    Nepal 147,181 0 0 147,181
5  Sri Lanka 65,610 532,619 32,453 598,229
6  Bhutan 38,394 0 0 38,394
7  Maldives 298 923,322 34,538 923,622
Total 4,568,229 4,137,476 587,808 9,300,997

See also

  • Geography of South Asia


  1. ^ "World Population Prospects". United Nations: Population Division. 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d Robert Wynn Jones (2011). Applications of Palaeontology: Techniques and Case Studies. Cambridge University Press. pp. 267–271. ISBN 978-1-139-49920-0.
  3. ^ a b Baker, Kathleen M.; Chapman, Graham P. (11 March 2002), The Changing Geography of Asia, Routledge, pp. 10–, ISBN 978-1-134-93384-6, This greater India is well defined in terms of topography; it is the Indian sub-continent, hemmed in by the Himalayas on the north, the Hindu Khush in the west and the Arakanese in the east.
  4. ^ a b c "Indian subcontinent". New Oxford Dictionary of English (ISBN 0-19-860441-6) New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; p. 929: "the part of Asia south of the Himalayas which forms a peninsula extending into the Indian Ocean, between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Historically forming the whole territory of Greater India, the region is now divided into three countries named Bangladesh, India and Pakistan."
  5. ^ a b Dhavendra Kumar (2012). Genomics and Health in the Developing World. Oxford University Press. p. 889. ISBN 978-0-19-537475-9.
  6. ^ a b Mariam Pirbhai (2009). Mythologies of Migration, Vocabularies of Indenture: Novels of the South Asian Diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific. University of Toronto Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-8020-9964-8.
  7. ^ a b c John McLeod, The history of India, page 1, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002, ISBN 0-313-31459-4; note: McLeod does not include Afghanistan in Indian subcontinent or South Asia;
    Jim Norwine & Alfonso González, The Third World: states of mind and being, pages 209, Taylor & Francis, 1988, ISBN 0-04-910121-8
    Raj S. Bhopal, Ethnicity, race, and health in multicultural societies, pages 33, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 0-19-856817-7; Quote: "The term South Asian refers to populations originating from the Indian subcontinent, effectively India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka;
    Lucian W. Pye & Mary W. Pye, Asian Power and Politics, pages 133, Harvard University Press, 1985, ISBN 0-674-04979-9
    Mark Juergensmeyer, The Oxford handbook of global religions, pages 465, Oxford University Press US, 2006, ISBN 0-19-513798-1
    Sugata Bose & Ayesha Jalal, Modern South Asia, pages 3, Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-415-30787-2
  8. ^ a b c d Ewan W. Anderson; Liam D. Anderson (2013). An Atlas of Middle Eastern Affairs. Routledge. p. 5. ISBN 978-1-136-64862-5., Quote: "To the east, Iran, as a Gulf state, offers a generally accepted limit to the Middle East. However, Afghanistan, also a Muslim state, is then left in isolation. It is not accepted as a part of Central Asia and it is clearly not part of the Indian subcontinent".
  9. ^ a b Michael Mann (2014). South Asia’s Modern History: Thematic Perspectives. Taylor & Francis. pp. 13–15. ISBN 978-1-317-62445-5.
  10. ^ a b c Jona Razzaque (2004). Public Interest Environmental Litigation in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Kluwer Law International. pp. 3 with footnotes 1 and 2. ISBN 978-90-411-2214-8.
  11. ^ "subcontinent". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  12. ^ "Indian subcontinent". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  13. ^ a b Hinsbergen, D. J. J. van; Lippert, P. C.; Dupont-Nivet, G.; McQuarrie, N.; Doubrovine; et al. (2012). "Greater India Basin hypothesis and a two-stage Cenozoic collision between India and Asia". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109 (20): 7659–7664, for geologic Indian subcontinent see Figure 1. doi:10.1073/pnas.1117262109. PMC 3356651Freely accessible.
  14. ^ a b Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, Religions of South Asia: An Introduction, page 3, Routledge, 2006, ISBN 9781134593224
  15. ^ a b Kathleen M. Baker and Graham P. Chapman, The Changing Geography of Asia, page 10, Routledge, 2002, ISBN 9781134933846
  16. ^ Lizzie Crouch and Paula McGrath, "Humanity's global battle with mosquitoes", Health check, BBC World Service
  17. ^ K. Alan Kronstadt, Terrorist Attacks in Mumbai, India, and Implications for U. S. Interests, page 7, Diane Publishing, 2011, ISBN 9781437929539
  18. ^ Aijazuddin Ahmad, Geography of the South Asian Subcontinent: A Critical Approach, page 17, Concept Publishing Company, 2009, ISBN 9788180695681
  19. ^ Ayesha Jalal, Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, page xiii, Harvard University Press, 2009, ISBN 9780674039070
  20. ^ Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, Merriam-Webster, 2002. Retrieved 6 December 2016; Quote: "a large landmass smaller than a continent; especially: a major subdivision of a continent <the Indian subcontinent>"
  21. ^ Subcontinent, Oxford English Dictionaries (2012), Retrieved 6 December 2016; Quote: "A large distinguishable part of a continent..."
  22. ^ Bethany D. Rinard Hinga (2015). Ring of Fire: An Encyclopedia of the Pacific Rim's Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes. ABC-CLIO. pp. 89–90. ISBN 978-1-61069-297-7.
  23. ^ Alexander E. Gates; David Ritchie (2006). Encyclopedia of Earthquakes and Volcanoes. Infobase. pp. 116–118. ISBN 978-0-8160-7270-5.
  24. ^ McLeod, John (1 January 2002). "The History of India". Greenwood Publishing Group – via Google Books.
  25. ^ Milton Walter Meyer, South Asia: A Short History of the Subcontinent, pages 1, Adams Littlefield, 1976, ISBN 0-8226-0034-X
  26. ^ Dhavendra Kumar (2012). Genomics and Health in the Developing World. Oxford University Press. pp. 889–890. ISBN 978-0-19-537475-9.
  27. ^ John McLeod, The history of India, page 1, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002, ISBN 0-313-31459-4
  28. ^ "Asia" > Geologic history – Tectonic framework. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2009: "The paleotectonic evolution of Asia terminated some 50 million years ago as a result of the collision of the Indian subcontinent with Eurasia. Asia’s subsequent neotectonic development has largely disrupted the continents pre-existing fabric. The neotectonic units of Asia are Stable Asia, the Arabian and Indian cratons, the Alpide plate boundary zone (along which the Arabian and Indian platforms have collided with the Eurasian continental plate), and the island arcs and marginal basins."
  29. ^ a b Desai, Praful B. 2002. Cancer control efforts in the Indian subcontinent. Japanese Journal of Clinical Oncology. 32 (Supplement 1): S13-S16. "The Indian subcontinent in South Asia occupies 2.4% of the world land mass and is home to 16.5% of the world population...."
  30. ^ "Indian Subcontinent" in Encyclopedia of Modern Asia. Macmillan Reference USA (Gale Group), 2006: "The area is divided between five major nation-states, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and includes as well the two small nations of Bhutan and the Maldives Republic... The total area can be estimated at 4.4 million square kilometres, or exactly 10 percent of the land surface of Asia... In 2000, the total population was about 22 percent of the world's population and 34 percent of the population of Asia."
  31. ^ "Asia" > Overview. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2009: "The Indian subcontinent is home to a vast diversity of peoples, most of whom speak languages from the Indo-Aryan subgroup of the Indo-European family."
  32. ^ "Indian Subcontinent", in Encyclopedia of Modern Asia. Macmillan Reference USA (Gale Group), 2006: "The total area can be estimated at 4.4 million square kilometres, or exactly 10 percent of the land surface of Asia... In 2000, the total population was about 22 percent of the world's population and 34 percent of the population of Asia."
  33. ^ John McLeod, The history of India, page 1, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002, ISBN 0-313-31459-4
    Stephen Adolphe Wurm, Peter Mühlhäusler & Darrell T. Tryon, Atlas of languages of intercultural communication in the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas, pages 787, International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies, Published by Walter de Gruyter, 1996, ISBN 3-11-013417-9
    Haggett, Peter (2001). Encyclopedia of World Geography (Vol. 1). Marshall Cavendish. p. 2710. ISBN 0-7614-7289-4.
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  35. ^ Tatu Vanhanen, Prospects of Democracy: A Study of 172 Countries, page 144, Routledge, 1997, ISBN 9780415144063
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  37. ^ Louis D Hayes (2014). The Islamic State in the Post-Modern World: The Political Experience of Pakistan. Ashgate. pp. 55–56. ISBN 978-1-4724-1262-1.;
    Robert Wuthnow (2013). The Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion. Routledge. pp. 11–. ISBN 978-1-136-28493-9.
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  39. ^ John L. Esposito; Emad El-Din Shahin (2016). The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics. Oxford University Press. pp. 453–456. ISBN 978-0-19-063193-2.
  40. ^ Akhilesh Pillalamarri, South Asia or India: An Old Debate Resurfaces in California, The Diplomat, 24 May 2016;
    Ahmed, Mukhtar (2014), Ancient Pakistan – An Archaeological History: Volume II: A Prelude to Civilization, Foursome, p. 14, ISBN 978-1-4959-4130-6

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