What Is South Asia?

The Location of South Asia and Some Interesting Data

Sri Lankan stilt fishermen
••• Stilt fishing is one of Sri Lanka's most iconic traditions. Paul Kennedy/Getty Images

What is South Asia? Despite the subregion in Asia being the most populous on earth, many people aren’t sure where South Asia is located.

South Asia can loosely be described as the eight nations around the Indian subcontinent, including the island nations of Sri Lanka and the Maldives that are situated south of India.

Although South Asia only occupies 3.4 percent of the world’s land area, the region is home to approximately 24 percent of the world’s population (1.749 billion), making it the most densely populated place on earth.

Lumping the eight countries of South Asia together under a common label almost seems unfair; the cultural diversity of the region is astounding.

For instance, not only is South Asia home to the largest Hindu population (unsurprising given the size of India), it’s also home to the largest Muslim population in the world.

South Asia is sometimes mistakenly confused with Southeast Asia, however, the two are different subregions in Asia.

The Countries in South Asia

Aside from the Indian subcontinent, there aren’t any hard geological boundaries with which to define South Asia. Differences of opinion sometimes exist because cultural borders don’t always mesh with political delineations. Tibet, claimed by China as an autonomous region, would normally be considered a part of South Asia.

Per most modern definitions, eight countries officially belong to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC):

  • Afghanistan: population 32 million
  • Bangladesh: population 159.857 million
  • Bhutan: population .779 million
  • India: population 1.276 billion
  • Maldives: .38 million
  • Nepal: 26.5 million
  • Pakistan: 190.4 million
  • Sri Lanka: 21.7 million

Sometimes Myanmar (Burma) is unofficially included as part of South Asia because it shares borders with Bangladesh and India.

Although Myanmar does have some cultural ties with the region, it isn’t yet a full member of SAARC and is generally considered to be a part of Southeast Asia.

Rarely, the British Indian Ocean Territory is also considered a part of South Asia. The 1,000 or more atolls and islands of the Chagos Archipelago strung between Indonesia and Tanzania only amount to combined land area of 23 square miles!

The United Nations’ Definition of South Asia

Although most of the world simply says “South Asia,” the United Nations’ geoscheme for Asia labels the subregion as “Southern Asia.” The two terms can be used interchangeably.

The United Nations’ definition of South Asia includes the eight countries listed above but also adds Iran for “statistical convenience.” Ordinarily, Iran is considered to be in Western Asia.

South Asia, Not Southeast Asia

South Asia and Southeast Asia are often confused with each other or used interchangeably, however, doing so is not correct.

The 11 countries that make up Southeast Asia are: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapore, the Philippines, East Timor (Timor Leste), and Brunei.

Although Myanmar has “observer” status in the SAARC, it is a full member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Some Interesting Facts About South Asia

  • India has the highest nominal GDP in South Asia (US $1,688 per capita), meanwhile Afghanistan’s per capita nominal GDP is only US $600.
  • The Maldives, a popular honeymoon destination in Asia, is the smallest country in Asia — both by land size and population. All islands combined provide 115 square miles for the 393,253 inhabitants.
  • The Maldives and Sri Lanka — both island nations — have the highest literacy rates in South Asia, with 99 percent and 98.1 percent respectively.
  • All 14 of the tallest mountains on earth (known collectively as the “Eight-Thousanders”) are located in South Asia, however, Shishapangma — the shortest peak — is technically in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
  • Two nations in South Asia have nuclear weapons: India and Pakistan.
  • Although Pakistan is a nuclear power and has the second-highest nominal GDP in South Asia, the literacy rate is only 55 percent; more than 22 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
  • The Maldives can claim the highest average life expectancy in South Asia with 80.2 years for women and 76.9 years for men. Afghanistan has the lowest with an average of 60.5 years.
  • Sri Lanka is only slightly larger than the U.S. state of West Virginia, however, more than 20 million people call the island home. That’s roughly the populations of Sweden, Norway, and Finland combined.
  • In 2010, Bhutan became the first country in the world to completely ban the sales and production of tobacco products.
  • Television and internet access weren't allowed in Bhutan until 1999.
  • With a reasonable level of fitness, anyone with enough tenacity can hike to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. Trekers who visit base camp during May get treated to seeing preparations by Everest climbing teams, lots of helicopters, film crews, and maybe a chance to talk to climbers.

Traveling in South Asia

South Asia is huge, and traveling through the region can be daunting for some travelers. In many ways, South Asia certainly presents more of a challenge than the familiar Banana Pancake Trail destinations in Southeast Asia.

India is a very popular destination, particularly for backpackers who get to enjoy a lot of bang for their budget. The size and pace of the subcontinent are overwhelming. Luckily, the government is fairly generous about handing out 10-year visas. Visiting India for a shorter trip has never been easier with the Indian eVisa system.

Trips to Bhutan — what has been called "the happiest country on earth" — must be arranged via government-blessed tours that include the country's extraordinarily high visa costs. The mountainous country is about the size of Indiana and remains one of the most closed off nations on earth.

Traveling in Pakistan and Bangladesh present numerous challenges, but with time and the appropriate amount of preparation, can be very rewarding destinations.

Mountain enthusiasts won't find any better than the Himalayas in Nepal. Epic treks can be done independently or arranged with a guide. Walking to Everest Base Camp is an unforgettable adventure. Even if you don't intend to trek, Kathmandu itself is a fascinating destination.

Sri Lanka could easily become your favorite island in the world. It's just the right size, incredibly blessed with biodiversity, and the vibe there is addictive. Sri Lanka shares some of the "hectic" attributes of India but in a Buddhist, island setting. Surfing, whales, a lush interior, and snorkeling/diving are just a few of the reasons to visit Sri Lanka.

The Maldives is a beautiful, photogenic archipelago of tiny islands. Often, only a single resort occupies each island. Although the water is pristine for diving, snorkeling, and sunbathing, the Maldives may not be the best choice for intrepid island-hoppers.

At least for now, Afghanistan is inaccessible for most travelers.

Life Expectancy in South Asia

Averages for both sexes combined.

  • Afghanistan: 60.5 years
  • Bangladesh: 71.8 years
  • Bhutan: 69.8 years
  • India: 68.3 years
  • Maldives: 78.5 years
  • Nepal: 69.2 years
  • Pakistan: 66.4 years
  • Sri Lanka: 74.9 years

About the SAARC

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was formed in 1985. The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) was put into place in 2006 to facilitate trade in the region.

Although India is by far the largest member of SAARC, the organization was formed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the secretariat is based in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Large Cities in South Asia

South Asia is home to some of the world’s largest “megacities” suffering from overpopulation and pollution:

  • Delhi, India (around 25 million people)
  • Karachi, Pakistan (24.3 million people)
  • Mumbai, India (17.7 million people)
  • Dhaka, Bangladesh (15.7 million people)