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7: South Asia

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    Re-framing South Asia

    South Asia is a world region well recognized by its distinctive physical geography. The world’s tallest mountains physically separate a large sub-Himalayan landmass from the rest of Asia. Often called “the Indian Subcontinent,” the region is characterized by monsoon climate systems, a diverse biogeography, and major river systems that have shaped human settlement and development for thousands of years. The significance of these rivers is encrypted in ancient texts that call this land Sapta Sindhava – “the land of the Seven Rivers” in Sanskrit (a 3,500-year-old language used in the earliest Hindu scriptures, the Vedas). Sapta Sindhava is an ancient Indigenous conceptualization of land and sense of place based on its rivers and the great civilizations that have emerged along their floodplains. 

    South Asia is one of the most complex regions in the world to contemplate about the geographical significance of place names, called toponyms. This complexity arises from the region’s ancient cultural landscapes that are recollected and reconstructed by immensely diverse ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups. With over 1600 spoken in the region, South Asia is considered one of the most culturally diverse regions on Earth. The vocabulary used to refer to place names reflects this immense cultural diversity – and the transformations imposed by foreign influences.

    Take for example the name India, the toponym the British ascribed to their colonial holding in the subcontinent. The term refers to the land beyond the Indus River, a toponym that originated from Persian and Greek interpretations of Sindhu, the Sanskrit name for the same river.[1] Thus, India is an exonym, a place name given by foreigners based on translations and pronunciations of the Sindhu River in their respective languages. But well before India there was Hindustan, meaning “the land of the Hindus,” an inscription found in various historical maps to label a geographical entity that extended from the Himalaya Mountains in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south.[2] But well before Hindustan, geographical conceptions of a broad civilizational space were encrypted in the Vedas, in Indigenous place names called endonyms. Bharatavarṣa (or Bharat, the official Hindi endonym for India) is a Sanskrit term referring to king Bharata, a legendary figure in Hindu mythology. The roots “bhr” of the word Bharata is associated with “to bear or carry” and “support and nourish.” “Varsa” means a division of the earth, a land or continent. Jambudvipa, the "the land of Jambu trees," is another Sanskrit term used to describe one of the world’s seven varsas, a continent of the cosmos in ancient Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist scriptures.[3]

    Considering toponyms aids in reframing our perspective on the contemporary map of South Asia, which portrays relatively young independent states with defined political boundaries stemming from the region’s colonial history. Precolonial endonyms transcend this political map communicating geographical memory of one of the oldest regions to be continuously inhabited by humans. Including these precolonial conceptions in our geographical framing of the region helps enhance our understanding of the ways that territory has been conceived in the region for millennia – and how colonization has reshaped the region and contemporary territorial conflicts. Toponyms are more than evidence of history. They also serve to erase Indigenous history and legitimize how powerful entities define space. It takes many names to understand complex historical and cultural legacies in South Asia, and the ongoing struggle to reclaim them.


    The World Geographies Atlas: Navigate each world region through maps

    For each of the world regions, our original atlas provides detailed maps to help you navigate the places discussed in this book. These maps are meant to be explored before and during the reading of this chapter. These maps are best enjoyed enlarged. Click on each map for an enlarged view, and zoom in to see the prominent biomes, physical features, and population centers of South Asia. We recommend that you download these for reference as you read this chapter's content and hope that you enjoy this original compilation.

    Biome and physical features map of South Asia
    Population distribution and major cities of South Asia
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): [left] This physical map shows the geographic distribution of biomes in South Asia and prominent physical features, like peaks, rivers, lakes, oceans, plateaus, mountains, and tectonic boundaries (CC BY-NC-SA; Wallace via Flickr). [right] This map depicts internationally recognized countries, capitals, major cities, and population distributions of South Asia (CC BY-NC-SA; Sellers via Flickr).




    [1] Kapur, A. (2019). Chapter 2: Nation’s Names. In: Mapping place names of India. Taylor & Francis.

    [2] Asif, M. A. (2020). The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India. Harvard University Press.

    [3] Kapur, A. (2019). Chapter 2: Nation’s Names. In: Mapping place names of India. Taylor & Francis.


    7: South Asia is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Aline Gregorio.