South Asia


NOTE: This is not a normal opinion piece, since I’m not actually advocating for one point of view over another. Rather, this is just speculation, and musing like this seems more like providing a perspective than just impartially imparting information.

South Asia, or the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and sometimes Afghanistan), is usually included with East Asia in academic discussion, business strategies, bureaucratic organization, racial categorization, and journalistic parlance. Bowing to common practice, I’ve categorized it as such on this site. But is this fair?

South Asia has as much in common with West Asia as it does East Asia. Geographically, the region is defined by its mountainous borders, but in the west, the mountains are lower and taper off before meeting the sea. Also, there is a famous, much-used pass over the Hindu Kush (the mountains). On the other hand, East Asia is separated by the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range. Contact over these peaks is much harder, and there isn’t much of a gap between the Himalayas and the sea.

This has meant that historically, people came to South Asia from the west more than the east. The Aryans — the main racial group in the area — originally invaded from the west. Alexandros the Great invaded from the west. The Kushans invaded from the west. The Ghaznavids invaded from the west. The Mongols, despite being situated to the north and east of South Asia, invaded from the west too. The Mughals invaded from the west. And so on. The only invasion South Asia suffered from the east was the Ahoms in the 1200s — and they only conquered Assam, a small corner of the region.

West Asia’s great philosophical tradition is Islam, which came to South Asia thanks to all those invasions and is now the second-largest religion there. East Asia’s great philosophical traditions are Buddhism and Confucianism. The former originated in South Asia but is now very minor there, while the latter has negligible influence.

South Asia’s main languages are Hindi and Urdu (which are sometimes lumped together as “Hindustani”). They (especially Urdu) share much of their vocabulary with Persian and Arabic — West Asian languages.

Artistically, there is much in common between West and South Asia. Persian styles of painting and calligraphy influenced South Asian art beginning in the Middle Ages. South Asian sculpture is thought to be influenced by Greek artistic standards practiced in Afghanistan long ago. Much of South Asian architecture — domes, minarets, imposing gateways and courtyards — is imported from Persia as well. The Taj Mahal, India’s most recognizable landmark, has more in common with Persian buildings than many others in India. South Asian musical instruments descend from West Asian cousins.

In the culinary sphere, South Asian food shares features with stuff cooked up in West Asian kitchens. Bread is the staple food, and it’s usually flat, like breads in West Asia. Dairy is ubiquitous (which is why cows are so revered in India) — butter, milk, yoghurt, ghi (clarified butter), panir (a type of cottage cheese) — while traditionally, at least, it’s absent in East Asia. South Asian sweets like halva, kulfi and faluda have roots or counterparts in West Asia.

Racially, South Asia’s people much more closely resemble Persians and Turks than Asians further east. There are broad variations across the region, of course, but Aryans (especially Pashtuns, an ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan) are related to Iranians. The Mongoloid facial features of East Asia are rare in South Asia apart from the Himalayas. South Asians also dress much more like West Asians than East Asians: men sometimes wear turbans, women sometimes wear veils. The salvar kamiz, a commonly worn tunic-and-trouser combo, originates from West Asia. Anecdotally, I have noticed foreigners tend to confuse South Asians and West Asians, but rarely with East Asians.

Given the range of similarities between South and West Asia, why is South Asia even lumped in with East Asia at all? There are similarities in this respect too. As mentioned above, Buddhism was an Indian import, and Hinduism was once widely followed in Southeast Asia too. In ancient times, East Asians would journey west to study religion in South Asian universities — this is the basis of one of China’s most famous stories, Journey to the West. There is a theory that Indian theater influenced China’s. The Chola Empire in south India once conquered Sumatra. The historical experience of colonialism unites South and Southeast Asia more than West Asia (although Northeast Asia had a substantially different experience). Although they vary dramatically from country to country, pagodas, that classic feature of East Asian architecture, evolved from South Asian stupas. Curry, the hallmark of South Asian cuisine, is also eaten in Southeast Asia and Japan. Rice is popular pretty much everywhere (although again, South Asian varieties are quite different from East Asia’s). Myanmar, thanks mostly to Britain uniting it with India in colonial times, has a lot of South Asian influences (food, clothing, Muslim minority communities).

It’s fair to say that South and East Asia have a lot in common, but notice how many qualifications I included, and it’s hard to deny that West Asia had at least as much influence. Another important factor to consider is that basically all of the influences flowed from South Asia east, and not the other way around. Chinese culture has had little impact on India, as I noted in an earlier post.

While I am unsure why South Asia is often lumped in with East Asia instead of West Asia, I have a theory. The term “East Asia” (or often just “Asia”) is really just a replacement for an earlier Western term: “the Far East.” From a West European perspective, South Asia was already pretty far east, so everything from that point onward was labeled the Far East. Combine that with the imperial linkages Britain established between South Asia (then just “India”) and its colonies in Southeast Asia, like the annexation of Burma and the settlement of big Indian communities in Malaya, and you can see why in the British mind, South Asia’s connection with East Asia was emphasized over its connection with West Asia.

In addition, I get the feeling that South Asians and those that study South Asia aren’t too eager to see the region merged with West Asia. Like it or not, West Asia has a bad reputation now, thanks to its unending violence, religious fanaticism, and rigid dictatorships. Politically, it’s hard to draw a connection between West and South Asia (except maybe Pakistan, thanks to the heavy military and Saudi influence on its government and society). India has been one of Asia’s most stable and successful democracies, and political scientists are puzzled trying to draw comparisons between it and anywhere else sometimes.

Most likely, South Asians would say that their region isn’t part of any other and that they are unique. There is some truth to this, and I would argue that anyone who tries to lump it in with another area is being a little lazy or reductionist. South Asia — India especially — is strongly defined by Hinduism, a native philosophical tradition. Linkages with West Asia are less strong in South India and Sri Lanka, which have tended to move to their own rhythms. South Asian economies resemble neither the development models of East Asia nor those of West Asia. South Asians are much more likely to look towards neighbors in the region or the West than to either West or East Asia. But consideration of the evidence suggests that South Asian connections with West Asia should be given some more thought at least.


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