9.2 The Peripheral States of South Asia

Learning Objectives

  1. Outline the main physical features of the countries described in this section.
  2. Understand how cultural differences in religion and ethnicity continue to cause conflict and division in South Asian countries and regions.
  3. Outline how and why Kashmir is divided and its importance for the region.
  4. Describe how tourism has been a means of gaining wealth for the listed countries.
  5. Summarize the main environmental concerns that are apparent in each of the countries.

As detailed earlier, the Indian subcontinent is a large landmass that juts into the Indian Ocean along the southern side of Asia, between Afghanistan and Myanmar (Burma) and south of China. The Indian perimeter includes the southern countries of the Maldives and Sri Lanka, and the northern regions of the Punjab, Kashmir, Nepal, and Bhutan. This landmass has a long tectonic history and has been formed by the collision of the Indian Tectonic Plate with the Eurasian Plate. This tectonic collision has given rise to the highest mountain chains and ranges in the world along the northern and northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent—that is, the Himalayas.

The Karakoram Mountains are located in northern Pakistan and Kashmir. Together with the other Himalayan Mountain ranges, they form an arc that stretches across the entire northern border of South Asia. Nepal and Bhutan are both located in the Himalayas. The Himalayan ranges have some of the highest peaks in the region, including Mount Everest (located on the border between Nepal and China) and K2 (located in Pakistan). In western Pakistan and western Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush mountain ranges that border this area are found. The Indus River flows from the northern part of the Karakoram mountains and creates a large, fertile flood plain. Along its northern area, the Indus River System has four main tributaries. Together, these rivers constitute the five rivers of the Punjab regions of Pakistan and India; Punjab means the “land of the five rivers” in the Punjabi language.

The Punjab

The Punjab is a fertile agricultural region with a high population density located on the border between India and Pakistan. Areas of the Punjab lie in both India and Pakistan. Where there is ample fresh water and bountiful food production, there is usually high population density. The Punjab is the most densely populated region in Pakistan. India has a separate state called the Punjab. Its river valleys are excellent areas for agricultural production and contribute heavily to the provisions needed to feed the enormous populations of the two countries.

The Punjabi people are found in the Punjab State of India and the Punjab Province of Pakistan. This large cultural area was separated into two countries during Partition at the time of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Most of the people in the Punjab speak Punjabi, an Indo-European language. In a larger context, people with Punjabi background are considered one of the main ethnic groups in South Asia. Punjabis account for about 45 percent of the population of Pakistan.

In Pakistan, the Punjabis are grouped in clans and groups that correspond with traditional occupations. Traditionally, Punjabis are farmers and warriors, and in modern times are associated with agricultural professions and military life. Punjabis in Pakistan are predominantly Muslim, although a Christian minority exists. Indian Punjabis belong to traditional groups, including many of the same groups as in Pakistan, but many more. Most of the Muslim populations of the Punjab migrated to Pakistan in 1947 and, thus, most of the Indian Punjabis are Sikh with a Christian minority.

Figure 9.7


Sikhs protest against India’s opposition to their proposed homeland (nation-state) in the Punjab called Khalistan.

People gravitate toward nation-state systems, but globalization supports integration across political boundaries.

The Punjab region of Pakistan and India is the homeland of the Sikhs, people who follow a religion that is different from Islam or Hinduism. Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak Dev (1469–1538). All distinctions of caste, creed, race, or gender are rejected in this religion. In Sikhism there is no priestly class. Every person is equally and fully responsible for leading a moral life, which eventually leads to universal salvation. Heaven and hell are not physical places, and God is the cosmic universal spirit. Historically, traditional Sikh men wear turbans on their heads and never cut their hair or beard. Sikhism is a universal religion. A prominent Sikh landmark and spiritual center is their Golden Temple, located in the city of Amritsar in the Indian state of the Punjab.

Sikhism is a system of religious philosophy and expression, known as the Gurmat or the counsel of the gurus, or the Sikh Dharma (or way of life). Sikhism comes from the Hindi and Punjabi word sikhna, which means “to learn.” The principal belief in Sikhism is faith in the universal God. Sikhism promotes the pursuit of salvation through discipline and personal meditation on the name and message of God. However, it must be mentioned that Sikhs have a nonanthropomorphic concept of God; that is, Sikhs do not envision God as having any form or shape or mind similar to that of humans. Sikhism has become the fifth-most widely adhered to religion on Earth.

During British colonial occupation of South Asia, Sikhs were elevated to positions of power to help the British rule over Muslim and Hindu populations. The Sikhs are often overshadowed by the large Hindu and Muslim populations in the realm. Many of the Sikhs would like to have their own nation-state, free from Muslim or Hindu domination, and would like to see the Punjab region become the new homeland for this nation-state, called Khalistan. They have held rallies and demonstrations to promote the creation of Khalistan. The Indian government has, however, cracked down on militant movements that support the Khalistan concept. The Khalistan movement was more popular in the 1970s and 1980s and has been scaled down in recent decades. Proponents still attempt to attract young people and foreign donations to its cause. Khalistan does not have the support of the Pakistani and Indian governments and is not likely to become a reality any time soon. Khalistan is an example of the devolutionary push for a nation-state political unit for a particular group of people with similar aspirations or heritage.

The Kingdom of 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 9.8 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 the countries wants to start a nuclear war.

The conflict in Kashmir is about strategic location and control of water rather than labor and resources. It is unknown whether there are abundant minerals in the mountains in Kashmir to be mined, but regardless, there is little mining activity going on, not enough to cause conflict. One of the main physical geography features of importance is water. 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.

The Kingdom of Bhutan

Landlocked and mountainous, the small Kingdom of Bhutan is remotely located next to the high Himalayas between China and India. The mountain peaks reach more than twenty-three thousand feet. Bhutan is about half the size in physical area of the US state of Kentucky and has fewer than one million people. The southern plains are warm, with subtropical weather, but the higher altitudes of the snow-capped mountains have polar-type climates. The local people call their country the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” because of the harsh storms they experience. Bhutan has large areas of natural habitat that have not been disturbed by human activity. The natural environment and the unique heritage and culture of the people make Bhutan an attractive destination for world travelers.

Bhutan is a small country without much industry or high-tech corporate involvement. Forestry and agriculture are the main economic activities, which account for approximately 60 percent of the country’s population. Grazing livestock and subsistence agriculture are the primary types of farming. Increasing the country’s modest infrastructure is hampered by its high mountains and remote location. India is Bhutan’s main trading partner and has played an important role in the country’s development and economic situation.

Figure 9.9 Bhutan’s Famous Taktshang Buddhist Monastery, Commonly Known as the Tiger’s Nest


The unique landscapes and cultural experience that Bhutan offers to travelers have promoted tourism as an increasing economic activity.

Modern transportation and communication technologies are being introduced in Bhutan and are changing how the country is connected to the rest of the global economy. Satellite and cable television, mobile phone networks, the Internet, and major airline service are opening the doors of opportunity and interaction between the people of Bhutan and the rest of the world. Introduction of technological services has prompted Bhutan’s government to take steps to protect its environment and unique heritage. Tourism has become a major focus of the changes. The country has stepped up its efforts to develop tourism but has targeted a specific type of traveler. Bhutan is an expensive place to visit, which has been the biggest deterrent for travelers. Visitors from places other than India and Bangladesh must agree to strict requirements set by the suppliers of Bhutanese tourism, including large daily fees just to be in the country. Tourism is increasing in Bhutan but remains highly selective in its requirements and regulations. These measures are to ensure that the environmental health of the country remains intact and that there is minimal cultural impact from outsiders.

Buddhism is the state religion and is followed by about 75 percent of the population. Hinduism is the second-largest religion and is followed by the other 25 percent of the population. One of the principles of the government in regulating development projects has been the concept of gross national happiness (GNH), which is used as a guide to determine the impact of a project on the culture and people of Bhutan. The stern measures regarding development have protected the country from serious environmental degradation and have helped to sustain the lifestyles of the Bhutanese people. Some measures may appear harsh to outsiders, but the country is implementing these measures to promote the health and well-being of its people. For example, tobacco products are banned from being sold in the country. Democratic elections are becoming standard after centuries of rule by a monarchy. The intent of the transition is to provide the people with more direct control of their government and country.

Interesting points about the culture of Bhutan include the issue of marriage. Marriages based on love are becoming more common in the cities, while arranged marriages remain a tradition in many of the smaller villages. Under the current legal system, women have the right to inheritance. Homes and personal possessions are passed down through a family’s female children. Traditionally, male children do not inherit. Men are expected to earn their own livelihood and if they get married will most often live in the wife’s house.

Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. Most villages regularly hold archery competitions, which usually include festivities of serving food and conducting community events.

The Kingdom of Nepal

Figure 9.10 The Himalayan Mountains and the Tarai Lowlands of Nepal


Bordering the highest mountain range in the world, the Himalayas, the country of Nepal is isolated from any seacoast and buffered from the outside world by India and China. Nepal is about the same size in physical area as Bangladesh, and is home to almost thirty million people. More than 80 percent of its people work the land in a region that is suffering from severe deforestation and soil erosion. Trees are cut down to build houses, to cook food, and to keep warm. Without trees to hold the soil, the monsoon rains wash soil from the mountain fields into the valleys. The combination of the fast-growing population with the loss of food-growing capacity means it is only a matter of time before a major crisis occurs in Nepal. Nepal’s best farmland is in the Tarai lowlands of southern Nepal, while the north is quite mountainous. The towering elevation of the Himalayas restricts human habitation in the north. High population growth has also been outstripping the country’s economic growth rate in recent years.

Nepal has an abundance of tourist attractions, Mt. Everest being its best known. In addition, there are hundreds of ancient temples and monasteries. Swift flowing streams and high-mountain terrain support a modest trekking industry. Visitors to Nepal have an opportunity to glimpse a rich culture that few outsiders can witness. The downside is that tourism demands an investment in infrastructure and services. Such investments direct funds away from schools, medical clinics, and public services needed by the Nepalese people. Income from tourism is needed and always welcome, but the trade-off with investments is a difficult choice to make. Tourism in Nepal is not as restrictive as that of Bhutan, and the unique physical and cultural landscapes will continue to draw travelers from throughout the world.

Figure 9.11 The Deforested Landscape of Nepal


Deforestation is a serious problem. The trees are cut down for firewood and building materials. The winding road connects Kathmandu with Tibet.

Hinduism is the main religion in Nepal, but a blend of Buddhism is more prevalent in the north. The guardian deity of Nepal is Shiva. Pashupatinath Temple, the world’s most significant Shiva worship site, is located in the capital city of Kathmandu. This Shiva temple is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site but a major destination for Hindu pilgrims from around the world. Buddhist and Hindu beliefs often mix in Nepal. There are certain situations where the same deities and temples can be honored or worshipped by members of both religions.

In a different part of Nepal, Lumbini—near the city of Bhairahawa (Siddharthanagar), on the border with India—is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this one focusing on the birthplace of the Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born about 563 BCE, near Lumbini. The city has recognized the prince with a number of monasteries and temples built in his honor. An entire development zone is restricted to nothing but monasteries and temples. No other commercial or public buildings—such as hotels, shops, or businesses—can be constructed in the zone. The different branches of the Buddhist faith each have their own specific designated sections of the zone. Lumbini is a major pilgrimage site for Buddhist believers from around the world.

In the late 1700s, local states of Nepal were consolidated into the one kingdom and ruled by monarchy. The kingdom was ruled by royal families until the mid-1900s. Nepal has been free of British influence since 1947, but has had trouble establishing a stable central government. The royal family in charge of the kingdom was replaced in 1951, and further democratic reforms were made in 1990. Communist partisans from China have been active in insurgent activities. Frequent protests and civil unrest have caused political instability, which has discouraged tourism and has depressed the economy even further. The Maoist Communist movement and other opposition political parties held mass protests, culminating in a peace accord. Ensuing elections created the establishment of a federal democratic republic. The first president of Nepal was sworn into office in 2008. There is still much tension in the country between those loyal to the royal family and those wanting the royal family to be dissolved. Without a stable government, economic and political progress in Nepal will be a serious challenge.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a beautiful island about half the size of Nepal. The island has a warm, tropical type A climate, with forested hills and mountains in the center. Rivers flow from the center outward to water the farm fields of rice and other crops. The best farmland in located in the Sinhalese-controlled areas of the southwestern portions of the island. Cinnamon is native to the island and has been cultivated since colonial times as an important export. Coconuts, coffee, and tea are also important export products. The island is home to various national parks, four biosphere reserves, and several wild elephant herds. Sri Lanka has the potential to become a major tourist destination with high incomes and a hub for international trade. Factors working against Sri Lanka reaching its potential are not based on its physical geography or location, but rather they are linked back to colonialism and cultural or ethnic divisions between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority.

The people of South Asia follow various religions. Pakistan and Bangladesh are Muslim. India has a Hindu majority. About 90 percent of the people of Nepal are considered Hindu but many follow a unique blend of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. The small, mystical, mountainous kingdom of Bhutan is Buddhist. Sri Lanka has its own unique circumstances and is a mixed country with a strong Buddhist majority and an active Hindu minority. The conflict between the majority and the minority ethnic groups fueled a low-level civil war on the island for decades. Differences in religion, ethnicity, and politics have brought the country to halt on various occasions.

Figure 9.12 Picking Tea in Sri Lanka


Tea, coffee, and cinnamon are export products of Sri Lanka.

Sinhalese people from somewhere in northern India moved to the island of Sri Lanka about 2,500 years ago. The Sinhalese brought with them Buddhism and the Sinhala language, which belongs to the Indo-European language family. They established themselves on the island for centuries. Sri Lanka was first colonized by Portugal, then Holland. When the British colonized South Asia, they took control of Sri Lanka. It was called Ceylon at that time and changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972. The higher elevations of the center of the island were excellent for tea production; British colonizers established tea plantations there. To work the plantations Britain brought thousands of additional Tamil laborers from southern India across the Polk Strait to Ceylon. Most of the Tamil speak a Dravidian language and follow the Hindu religion.

Figure 9.13 Claims of Tamil in Sri Lanka


The Tamil Tigers laid claim to a large portion of the eastern part of the island but did not control it. The only Tamil-controlled areas were in the far north, including the Jaffna Peninsula and a small area around it.

When the British were forced out of South Asia and left Ceylon, the Tamils remained on the island. The Tamils now make up only 10 percent of the population and live mainly in the northeastern region of the island. They have been pressuring the Sinhalese majority to split the island politically and grant them independence. An insurgent civil war was waged for decades between the Tamil guerillas—called the Tamil Tigers—and the Sinhalese government. About sixty to eighty thousand people died in this conflict. Originally only controlling the Jaffna Peninsula, the Tamil Tigers later made claims on a large portion of the northeastern part of the island. The Tamil Tigers created a government in the north called Eelam and wanted to legitimize it. The Sri Lankan president announced an end to the civil war in 2009, and the Tigers admitted defeat at that time. This civil war devastated Sri Lanka’s tourism industry and discouraged foreign investments, further reducing economic opportunities for the island.

The Maldives

Just north of the Equator in the Indian Ocean to the southwest of India lie the Maldives, a group of low-lying islands that consists of twenty-six atolls encompassing a territory of only about 115 square miles. Within the atolls are approximately 1,200 small islands, of which about 200 are inhabited. Portugal controlled the Maldives from 1558 during their colonial expansion into Asia. Holland took over from the Portuguese in 1654. The Maldives became a British protectorate in 1887, which lasted until 1965, when independence was achieved. Three years later the country became a republic. The Maldives is a country with many extremes. It is Asia’s smallest nation in both physical area and population. The island nation has the smallest physical area of any country with a majority Muslim population. The average elevation—four feet, eleven inches above sea level—is the lowest in the world for any country.

Fishing and tourism are the chief methods for Maldivians to earn a living. Tourism has increased in recent years. The many islands and atolls are attractive destinations for world travelers. The first tourist resort opened in 1972. Since that time, dozens of world-class resort facilities have opened for business across the archipelago. Tourism is the country’s number one means of gaining wealth. The coral reefs that make up the island chain are excellent for diving and water sports. The tropical climate and miles of sandy beaches provide for an attractive tourism agenda.

The Maldives is an example of an entire country that could be in danger of flooding because of climate change if polar ice melts and sea levels rise. Concerns over the future of the islands gave reason for the president of the country to announce a plan in 2008 to purchase land in other countries in case sea levels rise to a point where the Maldives are no longer habitable. The purchase of land from tourism receipts would provide a place for the Maldivians to move in case they had to evacuate the islands. The administration of the Maldives has worked hard to lobby the international community to address the increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the possibility of an increase in sea level caused by the global warming aspect of climate change.

Key Takeaways

  • The Punjab is a highly productive agricultural region located partly in Pakistan and partly in India. The region is home to the Sikh population, which has proposed having its own nation-state.
  • Kashmir is divided between Pakistan, China, and India. The religious differences and the control of a valuable water source are at the core of this conflict.
  • Nepal borders the Himalayan Mountains and has an economy based on agriculture and tourism. High population growth has been stripping the land of trees, causing serious deforestation issues and soil erosion.
  • The Kingdom of Bhutan has placed major restrictions on tourism to protect its environment and limit outside influences on its culture.
  • The beautiful tropical island of Sri Lanka experienced a low-level civil war for decades between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Tamil Hindu minority. The island has an excellent location and potential for economic development.
  • The archipelago of the Maldives is a small country that depends on tourism for its economic survival. The low elevation of its land area makes it subject to flooding due to the effects of climate change.

Discussion and Study Questions

  1. Why is the Punjab region vital to both Pakistan and India?
  2. What has been one political goal of the Sikhs living in the Punjab?
  3. What three countries control parts of the Kingdom of Kashmir?
  4. Why is the region of Kashmir vital to South Asia’s viability?
  5. Why is Bhutan so selective about admitting tourists?
  6. Explain Bhutan’s guiding philosophy regarding development.
  7. Why is Nepal experiencing environmental degradation?
  8. What was the civil war about in Sri Lanka? What did each side want?
  9. What is it about each country listed that is attractive to the tourism industry?
  10. What plan was announced to address the Maldives’s environmental concerns?

Geography Exercise

Identify the following key places on a map:

  • Jaffna Peninsula
  • Lumbini
  • Mt. Everest
  • Polk Strait
  • Tarai lowlands


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