Indian subcontinent
Topographic map of the subcontinent and surrounding regions
Geopolitical coverage of the subcontinent
Area4,440,000 km2 (1,710,000 sq mi)
Populationc. 1.9 billion
DemonymSouth Asian
Desi (colloquial)
Time zones
Largest cities

The Indian subcontinent[note 7] is a physiographical region in Southern Asia, mostly situated on the Indian Plate, projecting southwards into the Indian Ocean from the Himalayas. Geopolitically, it spans major landmasses from the countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India,[note 1] the Maldives,[note 2] Nepal,[note 3] Pakistan,[note 4] and Sri Lanka.[note 2][1][2][3][4] The neighboring geographical regions around the subcontinent include the Tibetan Plateau to the north, the Indochinese Peninsula to the east, the Iranian Plateau to the west, and the Indian Ocean to the south. Although the terms "Indian subcontinent" and "South Asia" are often used interchangeably to denote the region,[5] the geopolitical term of South Asia frequently includes Afghanistan, which is not part of the subcontinent.[6]

Geologically, the subcontinent originates from Insular India, an isolated landmass that rifted from the supercontinent of Gondwana during the Cretaceous and merged with the Iranian Plateau and Eurasian Plate nearly 55 million years ago, forming the Himalayas.[7] Historically, as well as to the present day, it is and has been the most populated region in the world, holding roughly 20–25 percent of the global population at all times in history. Geographically, it is the peninsular region in Southern Asia located below the Third Pole, delineated by the Himalayas in the north, the Hindu Kush in the west, and the Indo-Burman Ranges in the east.[8]


In many historical sources, the region surrounding and southeast of the Indus River was referred to simply as "India".[9] Historians continue to use this term to refer to the whole of the Indian subcontinent in discussions of history up until the era of the British Raj.[9] During this period, "India" came to refer to a distinct political entity that later became a nation-state.[9]

According to the 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".[10][11] Its use to signify the Indian subcontinent is evidenced from the early twentieth century when most of the territory was either part of the British Empire or allied with them.[12][13] It was a convenient term to refer to the region comprising both British India and the princely states.[14][15]

The term has been particularly common in the British Empire and its successors,[16] while the term South Asia is the more common usage in Europe and North America.[17][18] According to historians Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal, the Indian subcontinent has come to be known as South Asia "in more recent and neutral parlance".[19] Indologist Ronald B. Inden argues that the usage of the term South Asia is becoming more widespread since it clearly distinguishes the region from East Asia.[20] While South Asia, a more accurate term that reflects the region's contemporary political demarcations, is replacing the Indian subcontinent, a term closely linked to the region's colonial heritage, as a cover term, the latter is still widely used in typological studies.[21][22]

Since the Partition of India, citizens of Pakistan (which became independent of British India in 1947) and Bangladesh (which became independent of Pakistan in 1971) often perceive the use of the Indian subcontinent as offensive and suspicious because of the dominant placement of India in the term. As such it is being increasingly less used in those countries.[note 8] Meanwhile, many Indian analysts prefer to use the term because of the socio-cultural commonalities of the region.[24] The region has also been called the "Asian subcontinent",[25][26] the "South Asian subcontinent",[27][28][29] as well as "India" or "Greater India" in the classical and pre-modern sense.[5][6][30][31]


From left to right, rifting of the Indian subcontinent away from Gondwana at 150 million years ago (Ma), 120 Ma, 80 Ma and during the Paleocene.
Due to plate tectonics, the Indian Plate split from Madagascar and collided (c. 55 Mya) with the Eurasian Plate, resulting in the formation of the Himalayas.

The Indian subcontinent was formerly part of Gondwana, a supercontinent formed during the late Neoproterozoic and early Paleozoic.[7] Gondwana began to break up during the Mesozoic, with Insular India separating from Antarctica 130-120 million years ago[32] and Madagascar around 90 million years ago,[33] during the Cretaceous. Insular India subsequently drifted northeastwards, colliding with the Eurasian Plate nearly 55 million years ago, during the Eocene, forming the Indian subcontinent.[7] The zone where the Eurasian and Indian subcontinent plates meet remains geologically active, prone to major earthquakes.[34][35]

Physiographically, it is a peninsular region in South Asia delineated by the Himalayas in the north, the Hindu Kush in the west, and the Arakanese in the east.[8][36] It extends southward into the Indian Ocean with the Arabian Sea to the southwest and the Bay of Bengal to the southeast.[1][37] Most of this region rests on the Indian Plate and is isolated from the rest of Asia by large mountain barriers.[38] Laccadive Islands, Maldives and the Chagos Archipelago are three series of coral atolls, cays and Faroes on the Indian plate along with the Chagos–Laccadive Ridge, a submarine ridge that was generated by the northern drift of the Indian Plate over the Réunion hotspot during the Cretaceous and early Cenozoic times.[39][40][41] The Maldives archipelago rises from a basement of volcanic basalt outpourings from a depth of about 2000 m forming the central part of the ridge between Laccadives and the Great Chagos Bank.[41]


The Indus is a major river of the north-west of the Indian subcontinent

According to anthropologist Patrap C. Dutta, "the Indian subcontinent occupies the major landmass of South Asia."[42] According to historian B. N. Mukherjee, "The subcontinent is an indivisible geographical entity."[43] According to geographer Dudley Stamp, "there is perhaps no mainland part of the world better marked off by nature as a region or a 'realm' by itself than the Indian subcontinent."[44]

This natural physical landmass in South Asia is the dry-land portion of the Indian Plate, which has been relatively isolated from the rest of Eurasia.[45] The Himalayas (from Brahmaputra River in the east to Indus River in the west), Karakoram (from Indus River in the east to Yarkand River in the west) and the Hindu Kush mountains (from Yarkand River westwards) form its northern boundary.[43][46] In the west it is bounded by parts of the mountain ranges of Hindu Kush, Spīn Ghar (Safed Koh), Sulaiman Mountains, Kirthar Mountains, Brahui range, and Pab range among others,[43] with the Western Fold Belt along the border (between the Sulaiman Range and the Chaman Fault) is the western boundary of the Indian Plate,[47] where, along the Eastern Hindu Kush, lies the Afghanistan–Pakistan border.[48] In the east, it is bounded by Patkai, Naga, Lushai and Chin hills.[43] The Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea form the boundary of the Indian subcontinent in the south, south-east and south-west.[43]

The rocky interiors of the Himalayas

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,[citation needed] the valleys of Manipur in its east, and by maritime routes.[45] More difficult but historically important interaction has also occurred through passages pioneered by the Tibetans. These routes and interactions have led to the spread of Buddhism out of the subcontinent into other parts of Asia. The Islamic expansion arrived into the subcontinent in two ways: through Afghanistan on land, and to the Indian coast through the maritime routes on the Arabian Sea.[45]


In terms of modern geopolitical boundaries, the subcontinent constitutes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, besides, by convention, the island country of Sri Lanka and other nearby island nations of the Indian Ocean, such as Maldives and the British Indian Ocean Territory.[citation needed][original research?][2][3][49][50][51] Unlike "South Asia" sometimes the expression "Indian subcontinent" may exclude the islands of Maldives and Sri Lanka.[5] According to Chris Brewster and Wolfgang Mayrhofer, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan constitute the Indian subcontinent. Brewster and Mayrhofer also maintain that with Afghanistan and Maldives included the region is referred to as South Asia.[52] The periphery of the subcontinent, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and the island chains of the Maldives, features large Muslim populations, while the heartland, including most of India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, are overwhelmingly Hindu or Buddhist.[53] Since most of these countries are located on the Indian Plate, a continuous landmass, the borders between countries are often either a river or a no man's land.[54]

The precise definition of an "Indian subcontinent" in a geopolitical context is somewhat contested as there is no globally accepted definition on which countries are a part of South Asia or the Indian subcontinent.[55][56][57][4] Whether called the Indian subcontinent or South Asia, the definition of the geographical extent of this region varies.[30][31] Afghanistan, despite often considered as a part of South Asia, is usually not included in the Indian subcontinent.[55][58][59][60][61] Maldives, an island country consisting of a small archipelago southwest of the peninsula, while largely considered a part of the Indian subcontinent,[3] sometimes is mentioned by sources, including the International Monetary Fund, as a group of islands away from the Indian subcontinent in a south-western direction.[62][63]

See also


  1. ^ a b Excluding:
  2. ^ a b c d As island countries, the Maldives and Sri Lanka are sometimes not considered part of the subcontinent, as they lack geographic contiguity with the mainland. They are considered parts of the region in geology instead.
  3. ^ a b Excluding Upper Mustang and other areas which lie to the north of the Greater Himalayan Mountain Range.
  4. ^ a b Excluding:
  5. ^ Administered by the United Kingdom, claimed by Mauritius as the Chagos Archipelago.
  6. ^ Disputed territory with undetermined political status. Administration is split between China (Aksai Chin and the Trans-Karakoram Tract), India (Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh), and Pakistan (Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan). China claims a small portion of the territory, Pakistan claims the majority of the territory, and India claims the entire territory (see: UN mediation of the Kashmir dispute).
  7. ^ It is sometimes simply just referred as the subcontinent in South Asian contexts.
  8. ^ For example, a history book intended for Pakistani B.A. students by K. Ali uses the term "Indo-Pakistan" instead.[23]


  1. ^ a b "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."
  2. ^ a b Dhavendra Kumar (2012). Genomics and Health in the Developing World. Oxford University Press. p. 889. ISBN 978-0-19-537475-9.
  3. ^ a b c 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.
  4. ^ a b Michael Mann (2014). South Asia's Modern History: Thematic Perspectives. Taylor & Francis. pp. 13–15. ISBN 978-1-317-62445-5.
  5. ^ a b c McLeod, John (2002). The history of India. Greenwood Press. p. 1. ISBN 0-313-31459-4. Note: McLeod does not include Afghanistan in the Indian subcontinent or South Asia.
  6. ^ a b Jim Norwine & Alfonso González, The Third World: states of mind and being, pages 209, Taylor & Francis, 1988, ISBN 0-04-910121-8 Quote: ""The term "South Asia" also signifies the Indian Subcontinent""
    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 Quote: "The complex culture of the Indian subcontinent, or South Asia, presents a tradition comparable to Confucianism."
    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, page 3, Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-415-30787-2
  7. ^ a b c Robert Wynn Jones (2011). Applications of Palaeontology: Techniques and Case Studies. Cambridge University Press. pp. 267–271. ISBN 978-1-139-49920-0.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ a b c "Indian subcontinent Map, Countries, Population, & History". Encyclopædia Britannica. 20 September 2022. Retrieved 23 August 2023.
  10. ^ 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 ! e Indian subcontinent | "
  11. ^ Subcontinent, Oxford English Dictionaries (2012). Retrieved 6 December 2016; Quote: "A large distinguishable part of a continent..."
  12. ^ Milton Walter Meyer, South Asia: A Short History of the Subcontinent, pages 1, Adams Littlefield, 1976, ISBN 0-8226-0034-X
  13. ^ "Indian subcontinent" is used by Henry D. Baker, British India With Notes On Ceylon Afghanistan And Tibet (1915), p. 401.
  14. ^ "subcontinent". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  15. ^ "Indian subcontinent". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  16. ^ Milton Walter Meyer, South Asia: A Short History of the Subcontinent, pages 1, Adams Littlefield, 1976, ISBN 0-8226-0034-X
    Jim Norwine & Alfonso González, The Third World: states of mind and being, pages 209, Taylor & Francis, 1988, ISBN 0-04-910121-8
    Boniface, Brian G.; Christopher P. Cooper (2005). Worldwide destinations: the geography of travel and tourism. Butterworth-Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-7506-5997-0.
    Judith Schott & Alix Henley, Culture, Religion, and Childbearing in a Multiracial Society, pages 274, Elsevier Health Sciences, 1996, ISBN 0-7506-2050-1
    Raj S. Bhopal, Ethnicity, race, and health in multicultural societies, pages 33, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 0-19-856817-7
    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
  17. ^ Judith Schott & Alix Henley, Culture, Religion, and Childbearing in a Multiracial Society, pages 274, Elsevier Health Sciences, 1996, ISBN 0750620501
  18. ^ Raj S. Bhopal, Ethnicity, race, and health in multicultural societies, pages 33, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 0198568177
  19. ^ Bose, Sugata; Jalal, Ayeha (2004) [First published 1998]. Modern South Asia. Routledge. p. 3. ISBN 0415307872.
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  24. ^ B.H. Farmer, An Introduction to South Asia, page 1, Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1983, ISBN 9780416726008, "The 'Indian sub continent' is a term that certainly recognises the dominant position of India in both area and population. Since the partition of Indian Empire, use of this term becomes offensive to the Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis."
    Jona Razzaque, Public Interest Environmental Litigation in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, page 3, Kluwer Law International, 2004, ISBN 9789041122148 "Yet, because citizens of Pakistan (which was carved out of India in 1947 and has had recurring conflicts with India since then) and of Bangladesh (which became separated from Pakistan by civil war in 1971) might find offensive the dominant placement of India in the term "Indian subcontinent", many scholars today prefer the more recently adopted designation 'South Asia.'"
    Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, Religions of South Asia: An Introduction, page 3, Routledge, 2006, ISBN 9781134593224
    S K Shah, India and Its Neighbours: Renewed Threats and New Directions, page 26, Vij Books India Pvt Ltd, 2017, ISBN 9789386367501 "Indian analysts, who talk of the Indian sub-continent, wish to keep in mind, in their analyses, the common historical, political, religious and cultural heritage of these three countries. The term sub-continent is used less and less in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The political leadership and the policy-makers in these two countries do not wish to be reminded of this common heritage. Any highlighting of this common heritage by Indian analysts is viewed by them with suspicion—— as indicating a hidden desire to reverse history and undo the 1947 partition."
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