Hands up: who can mark South Asia on a map? I certainly can’t, or at least I couldn’t before I started writing about it. At first I guessed it to be somewhere around Indonesia, but while that is just about the most southerly point in Asia, it’s very much Southeast Asian territory. Surely it’s just anything south of the enormity of China, then? Wrong again.
In truth, it’s a trick question: no one knows exactly where South Asia is, because a formal definition has never been settled upon, and classification thus varies depending on who you ask. Having said this, most commentators do agree on seven core nations: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (you don’t need to know what they do, just that they’re a big authority who really ought to know what their geographical remit is) consider Afghanistan to be South Asian too, while the United Nations, who you’d think would be a veritable source, also add Iran to the mix. Then there’s a host of other organisations who weigh in with their own various ideas of what constitutes South Asia, all of which combines to create more confusion than clarity.
The good news is that none of this matters much anyway, because the people of South Asia – wherever that may be – don’t really identify with a geopolitical label. Instead, it is geography that defines their collective identity, or, more specifically, the barrier of mountain ranges that cover Central Asia like a scab, creating a division between land masses that has had a greater influence on the evolution of culture and growth of nations than any governing body.
The amphitheatre of earth that cradles South Asia is formed primarily by the Himalayas, which stretch dominantly across the northern borders of Bhutan, Nepal and India, before crumbling southwards to divide western Pakistan from Afghanistan. They are met at the other end by the northern reaches of the Arakan Mountains, which crawl up the edge of Myanmar and tumble down upon India’s north-eastern annex. Place all of this on a map and South Asia suddenly announces itself like a stone relief.
By all accounts, India is the centrepiece of the sub-continent, both in terms of size and status, which is why it features prominently in Southbank Centre’s Alchemy programme. The world’s seventh largest and second most populous country occupies around three quarters of South Asia’s spread, and packs far more people into its borders than the region’s other nations combined. The closest comparison is made with Pakistan, a country whose GDP was barely over a tenth of India’s last year.
Facts and figures paint just part of the picture, however. South Asian countries are inescapably bound together by their geography, which means they share many cultural similarities, but they are also very much independent nations with individual identities, where Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists coexist, and where a single border might separate tens of distinct languages and divide completely separate currencies.
Equally, it is a region influenced from beyond its vague boundaries, in spite of the great walls of rock that stand in the way like crumples in the world map. I’ve always associated Afghanistan and Pakistan more closely with countries like Turkmenistan and Iran, for instance, while Myanmar, in my mind, is an extension of the familiar backpacking haunt of Southeast Asia, especially now that it’s beginning to open up to visitors.
And we haven’t even touched upon Sri Lanka and the Maldives yet, islands which are dictated more by the tide than by any neighbouring nation, and which present an entirely different cultural landscape to anything else on the sub-continent. They add even more complexity to a melting pot of traditions and life that defies any kind of succinct summarisation or classification, yet manages to captivate and inspire anyone who endeavours to discover it. Perhaps that’s the only way South Asia can really be defined.