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South Asia

South Asia : The Indian Subcontinent



The South Asian culture is known for its rich history, diversity and vibrancy. The historical analysis of the region’sculture begins from the Harrpan period to the coming of the Indic people to the various kingdoms that added to the diversity of religion, language, archiecture, customs and traditions of  the Indian subcontinent. Religion becomes an important variable in understanding the cultural fabric of South Asia. The religions of Hindusim, Islam, Buddhism and Jainism played a pivotal role in shaping the lives of the inhabitants of the region. These religions and their underlying philosophies give us a lens to observe and appreciate the complexity and nuances of the South Asian culture. Performing arts such as music, dance along with a vividlandcape of heritage sites acquire an important role in this regard. The region’s poltiical wing- the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) currently provides a forum for dialogue among the SAARC nations. However, the organization continues to be criticized for its ineffectiveness. It is crucial to note here that SAARC has the potential to function as an important forum for strengthening South Asia’s economic, political and cultural capital but this change requires a strong political commitment by its member states.



The Indian subcontinent has one of the oldest and diverse civilizations in the world. It is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhist and Jain religions. With time, Indian iconography and art began to impact the cultures of its neighboring states. The common historical developments in the subcontinent contributes to a strong cultural coherence in the region. The region has substantially influenced the South East Asian culture that meticulously adopted the practices and traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism which helped in shaping its regional identity


Historical antecedents- from Harrapa to the Mughals

The birth of the Indus Valley civilizationcan be traced to 2500 BC. It stretched from northern Pakistan to Arabian Sea along the tributaries of River Indus. Harappa and Mohenjo Daro were the two main cities in the region. The Indus Valleycivilization is known for its highly organized town planning. The houses were well connected with drains. There have been stone seals found in Harrapa, which hint to the possibility of it being used for trade. The writing inscribed on it has not been deciphered till date. Seals from Mesopotamia and Iran have also been found in the region which suggests that both the civilizations were contemporary of each other and that there was trade practiced between them. With the withering away of the Indus Valley civilization, urban life also collapsed in South Asia. From 1500- third century BC, important religious and philosophical ideas came up that would shape the South Asian culture. The Indic people  migrated to the subcontinent in 1500 BC via the mountain ranges in North Western part of India. The rest of South Asia was protected by the Himalayas from potential invasion of the Chinese. The arrival of the Indic people marked the beginning of the Vedic age. Their language ‘Sanskrit’ became the language of all Indic religions. They introduced the Vedas and Upanishads that contained important religious teachings that ultimately became central to Hinduism. In 6th century, Buddhism and Jainism were found in  the Indian subcontinent. These religious rigorously critiqued the hegemony of the Brahmans in the region and questioned their oppression on the poor and the weak. This was followed with a period of emergence of kingdoms in the region. The Mauryan Period was marked with King Ashoka’s conquest of large territories of India. The destruction caused by the conquest left an indelible impact on his mind and he decided to adopt Buddhism. Under his rule, he introduced a system of writing, spread Buddhism through construction of stupas and he organized meetings with Buddhist scholars. Ashoka had set up a stupa in Nepal in the fourth century that led to spread of Buddhism in the region. Hinduism was also imported in Nepal during this time.In the first century AD, the


Kushan warriors from Central Asia conquered the Gandhara region (the present day Pakistan and Afghanistan). The Kushans were great patron of art and thus different styles of art emerged under the Kushans- GandharaSchool of art and the Mathuraschool of art. The Gandhara School of art was shaped by the Greek styles, it made us of grey and bluish grey sandstone and made statues of Buddha that looked more spiritual. On the other hand, the Mathura school of art was more ‘Indianized’ and it made use of red sandstone; the statues made of Buddha were more animated and less spiritual. During this time, Buddhism spread to China, Korea and Japan via the silk route. The Buddhist kingdoms were followed with the Guptas of the fourth and sixth century. The Gupta period is known as the Golden Age of history because of the developments in art, literature and theatre during this time. The Vakatakas, a neighboring kingdom, built the Buddhist caves in Ajanta. The cave contains some of the finest Indian art- paintings and rock cut sculptures that depict Buddha’s past life and rebirth.

In the Post Gupta age, there were many small kingdoms that emerged in the subcontinent. The Pala Kingdom (ninth-twelfth century) of eastern India was famous for its pilgrimage sites. Artists in Nepal, Myanmar and Indonesia were heavily inspired by the Pala styles. In Odisha, the KonarkSun temple was built in the earlier thirteenth century. The Khajurao was also built during this time. Other important dynasties include the Pallavas and the Pandyas that thrived in South India. These temples made of granite were carved out of rock. In the twelfth century, Muslim rulers began to pour into the Indian subcontinent through North West mountain passes. During this time,  Buddhism received a severe blow due to the destruction of several important monasteries at the hands of the Delhi Sultanate. This was also the time when Sikhism emerged in subcontinent. The period from 1526-1857 is marked with the Mughal rule in India. The first Mughal emperor Babur was a descendent of the Mongolian emperors Genghis Khan and Timur. There was enormous pressure on the people to convert to Islam. However, Babur’s successor Akbar famously practiced a policy of religious tolerance that set him apart from his predecessors. He abolished the jizya (the religious tax paid by non-Muslims) in 1562 and lifted the ban on the construction of Hindu temples and from participating in running the administration. In 1575, Akbar built the Ibadat Khana (House of Worship) which was open to all religions such as Hinduism, Christianity, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. This was the time when the Mughals entered into matrimonial alliance with the Rajput royalty. In 1582, Akbar started a new religion called Din Illahi (the Divine Faith) that believed in one God and aimed to bridge the gap that separated the different religions. This was  also the time when Sufism emerged in the Indian subcontinent. The Mughal dynasty continued till 1857 after which the period of British rule commenced in the subcontinent.

The British ruled over South Asia from 1800-till the end of the World War II. There were several independence movements that emerged in the subcontinent. The revolt of 1857 is considered to be the first war of Independence in the region’s history. It was the first attempt in shaking the foundations of the British rule in India through several strong uprisings in the Northern and Central part of India. Leaders such as Begum Hazrat Mahal in Awadh, Nana Sahib in Kanpur, and Rani Lakshmibai in Jhansi and Kunwar Singh in Bihar led the revolt.Mahatma Gandhi played a pivotal role in the struggle against the British Raj. His nonviolent method included the principles of ahimsa(nonviolence) and truthand he organized satyagraha, a form of civil resistancein mobilizing the indigo planters in Champaran in Bihar (1917), millworkers in Ahmedabad (1918) and the famine stricken peasants in Kheda district of Gujarat (1918).Post World War II, India and Pakistan emerged as two separate independent nations with a bloody Partition. It was the biggest exodus of its kind in the world that witnessed the displacement of fifteen million people and death of about a million people. The two communities that had historically lived peacefully together under the Mughal period were now fighting savagely in the name of their honour. Women and children suffered the most during this period. The scars of Partition still haunt those who witnessed this genocide on both the sides of the border. Pakistan included the region of present day Bangladesh that was earlier known as East Pakistan. However, the region seceded in 1971 and formed the present day Bangladesh.


Religious Diversity in South Asia

Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism are the main religions in South Asia.

Hinduism began to take roots in India in the Vedic Age. The epics Ramayana, Mahabharata along with the Puranas were composed during this period. The Puranas contain stories of Gods such as Vishnu, Shiva and the Goddess that are considered the three main deities in the Hindu pantheon. The followers of Vishnu are called Vaishnava, the followers of Shiva are known as Shava and the followers of Goddess are called Shakti. There are numerous Gods and Goddesses in the Hindu tradition, followers generally consider their own God as supreme to other Gods. During the Gupta period, temples acted as both religious and social centers. They were home to the deities and also a learning centre where the priests would impart education about the Vedas. The Varna system was central to the Hindu tradition. It is the basic ordering principle of the Hindu society that divided them into four castes based on their occupation in this order: Brahmans(priests),Kshatriyas(warriors), Vaishyas(merchants) and Shudras(unskilled workers).Those who were not considered a part of the four fold Varna system were considered outcastes or ‘the untouchables’.This ordering principle was not just oppressive but also dehumanizing for the lower caste. The Bhakti movement challenged the temple based form of worship and the Varna system that denied them a dignified life. It originated in South India. The Bhakts would sing song in praise of their Gods showing love and devotion to them in Tamil language, as opposed to Sanskrit. This tradition was considered particularly liberating for the oppressed lower caste and class. Other religions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism also emerged as critiques of the Hindu religion. Hinduism has a plethora of festivals, most of which are related to deities. Diwali is an important festivals of Hindu that marks the return of Lord Rama and his wife Sita and brother Lakshman to their kingdom in Ayodhya from the fourteen years exile. It is widely celebrated in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Vijaydashmi or Dussehra is celebrated to remember the day when Lord Rama defeated Ravana; this festival marks the victory of good over evil. People of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh celebrate this festival. Other important Hindu festivals include Holi, Rakshabandhan, Shivratri and Ganesh Chaturthi.

Buddhism originated in the teachings of Siddharata Gautama, a Kshatrya caste prince, who renounced the worldy life and spent his next few years in meditation. At the end of the mediation, he gained true knowledge or ‘enlightenment’ and he came to be known as Buddha, the Enlightened One. Buddha believed in the Hindu concepts of dharma and moksha but he worked to liberate the people from the chains of religions and legalisms and restore their faith in humanity and religion. Buddha’s teachings are summarized in the Four Noble Truths. The three main structures of Buddhist worship are viharas (monasteries), stupas (a mound like relic) and chaityas (prayer halls). Important festivals include Buddha Purnima (marking the birth attainment of Enlightenment and death of Buddha), Losar (the Tibetan New Year) and Hermis Fair (celebrating the birth of the Indian sage Padmasambhava who spread Buddhism in Tibet). Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka celebrate these festivals along with the Buddhist population living in the rest of South Asia. Jainism is one of the oldest religions of India. It is believed that Jainism is a millionyears old. Mahivira was the 24th and last Tirthankara (a teacher who guided the path to enlightenment). The two main sects of Jainism include Digambaras(the sky clad) and Swetambaras(the white clad). According to Jain philosophy, Jains must observe some vows- Ahimsa (non-violence), Suntrita (truthful speech), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahamacharya (celibacy), aparigraha (non possession).The ultimate goal of Jainism is to transcend the cycle of karma and attain liberation (mukta). This helps them to achieve an ideal state of perfection where they are not concerned with worldy affairs.

Islam entered the  Indian subcontinent  through trade.  The  Muslim rulers conquered  large parts of

the Indian subcontinent and established their rule. The radical monotheism and prohibition on using images for worship in Islam has led to several religious conflicts in the region. However, these rulers brought with them styles of art and architecture from West Asia that ultimately shaped the South  Asian  culture.  The  Taj  Mahal  is  a  classic  example  of  Indo  Islamic  architecture  in the


subcontinent. It also finds its place in the Seven Wonders of the World. The Mughal emperor  Akbar is often remembered for his syncretic beliefs and practices that earned him the title of a secular leader. Just as Bhakti movement emerged as a critique of Hinduism, Sufism also acquired popularity in the Islamic culture. The Sufis preached a direct connection with God and bypassing staunch rituals and rules in the process of spiritually uniting with God. Eid al- Fitr and Eid al-  Adha are two important festivals in Islam. Eid al Fitr is celebrated at the end of Ramdan, the holy month of fasting. In Eid al-Adha, Muslims slaughter a sheep and distribute its meat among family members, friends and the poor people. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Maldives celebrate these Muslim festivals along with Muslims in India and other South Asian countries.

India and Nepal are Hindu countries. In fact, Hinduism was born in Indian soil. India is a secular nation and Hinduism is the official religion of the State. Other religions that are practiced in India include Islam, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Majority of the population in India is composed of Hindus and there are right wing aspirations among the staunch Hindus that dream of a Hindu nation. However, this has been repeatedly critiqued by the intelligentia because the true spirit of India’s democracy lies at the heart of its motto of unity in diversity where people, in spite of their religious and cultural affiliation, are bound by the common thread of unity. Pluralism is an essential component of India’s conceptualization of secularism. This is why the Indian version of secularism professes a principled distance by the State from the religion so that the State can intervene if any group’s religious and cultural rights get violated. The Indian concept of secularism is different from its Western counterpart as there is not a complete separation between the State and religion as seen in the West. During the 1990s. Nepal was constitutionally declared a Hindu state. However, the 2007 Constitution of Nepal declared it a secular state. Hinduism and Buddhism are two main religions in the region. They coexist in harmony mainly because of the mutual respect among the people. Most Buddhists are concentrated in the eastern hills, the central Tarai and the Kathmandu valley. It is a common religion among the Newar and Tibetan Nepalese groups. However, within the second group, the Magar, Sunwar and Rai peoples practice the Hindu tradition.

Islam is the main religion in Afghanistan. Most Muslims are Sunnites and some are Shiites (the Hazaras and Tajiks). Other than Muslims Islam is also home to Parsis, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs. The Bactria city in Afghanistan is home to Zarathustra, the founder of the Zoroastrian religion. The Baha’i faith also finds its origins in Afghanistan in 1919. Pakistan is predominantly a Muslim state. Hindus, Christians and Sikhs are in minority. The country of Pakistan was in fact created along religious lines by Mohammad Ali Jinnah when he was convinced that India was a Hindu majority nation and that the Muslims would always remain in minority in the country and hence subjugated and powerless.  Islam is the state religion in Maldives and all citizens are required to follow Islam  in order to become eligible to enjoy their rights in the country.Majority of the population in Bangladesh practice Islam.

In Bhutan and Sri Lanka, Buddhism is practiced by the majority of the population, followed by Hinduism. The Hindu religion practiced in Bhutanhas been influenced from India and Nepal. In Sri Lanka, there has been an ethnic dispute along religious and linguistic lines between the Sinhalas, the natives of Sri Lanka who practice Buddhism and speak Sinhalese language and Indian Tamils who speak Tamil and practice Hinduism. There was a general feeling of resentment and anger because of the ignorance and disrespect for the Tamil culture. This eventually culminated in a civil war between the two groups and the formation of the militant organization LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam) that aspired to form a Tamil Eelam (an independent State) in the northern and eastern region of Sri Lanka.


There is enormous linguistic diversity in the region. Indo-Aryan and Dravadian are the biggest linguistic groups in the subcontinent, followed by Austro Asiatic and Tibeto Burman. Indo-Aryans are found in Northern India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Indo-Aryan languages include Sanskrit, Nepali in Nepal, Bengali in West Bengal and Bangladesh, Assamese in Assam, Marathi in Maharashtra, Gujarati in Gujarat, Punjabi in Punjab region of India and


Pakistan. Dravadian languages are indigenous to South Asia and are mainly spoken by the four states in Southern India- Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and in the northern part of Sri Lanka that is inhabited by Tamils. Tibeto Burman is widely spoken in Bhutan, Nepal  and in the Ladakh area of north east region. Persian is popular in Pakistan and Afghanistan; Tibeto Burman in the Himalayas and Bhutan. The most dominant languages in the subcontinent are Hindi and Bengali in India, Bengali in Bangladesh; Punjabi, Pashto and Sindhi in Pakistan and Dari and Pashto and Afghanistan.


The Arts Dance:

South Asian dance mainly includes dance originating from the Indian subcontinent. It can be classical or non-classical, The classical form of dance includeBharatnatyam, Kathak, Odissi, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Mohniattam and Sattriya. In many of these dance performances, the dancer acts out a story through gestures. Other forms of dance such as  Chhau and Katari are influenced  by martial arts. Folk dances in the region include Bhangra Bihu, Garba and Ghoomar. In Sri  Lanka, the Tovil and Kandyan dance are important. Tovil dance is inspired from the Buddhists of the region who believe in supernaturalism. Through the medium of dance they call upon good spirits and deities to bless them and ward off illness and evil. In Bangladesh, other than traditional dance forms such as Bharatnatyam, Kathak there are other dance forms belonging to indigenous groups such as dhali, baul, Manipuri and snake dance that are performed on different occasions. Popular dance forms in Pakistan include the bhangra, the Khatak, a martial dance of tribal Pashtuns, giddha and ludii.



Music in the subcontinent is divided into Hindustani Music for northern part of India and Carnatic Music for the southern part of India, Instrumental music is also popular here. Artists like Ravi Shankar, a world renowned sitar player and Ali Akbar Khan have gained worldwide fame for their work. Today Indian popular music is enjoyed by both Indians and rest of the world. Western music is also popular in the region. In Nepal, there is use of drums and wind instruments in religious ceremonies. Devotional songs that contain both classical and folk music are important in religious and family occasions. Music is an important part of Pakistani culture. We find the influence of Hindustani music. Ghazal, a romantic poetry recitation in the form of music and qawwali, a form of devotional music, are widely popular. Famous ghazal singers include Mohdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali. Public poetry recitations known as mushaira are also enjoyed by people. Musical instruments such as rabab, sitar and dhola are used widely. In Bangladesh, classical music such as dhrupad (Hindustani devotional music) is popular. Devotional music through kirtana and qawwali are also listened in the region. Popular variety of non-classical music include bhawajya, jari, sari, marfan and baul.


Cultural Heritage Sites:

The architecture of South Asia is known for its style and grandeur. The cave temples carved out of rock at Ajanta and Ellora, Mughal architecture such as Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb, the magnificent temples at Khajurao, Bhubaneshwar and Kanchipuram are important heritage sites in India. The group of mountains in Hampi that dates back to the Vijaynagar empire is an important world heritage site. The hill forts of Rajasthan and the Bhimbetka Shelter are also popular historical and cultural sites to visit. One can find splendid Islamic architecture in Bangladesh as seen in  mosques, forts and gateways that are from the Mughal period. The 77 dome mosque at Bagerhat is an example of Islamic architecture. One can even find Buddhist architecture in the region dating back to the eight century. The Minaret of Jam and Bamiyan Valley Archeology sites in Afghanistan are also important sites of cultural heritage. The minaret is known for its architecture and ornamentation that had geometric decoration with kufic inscription on turquois titles. It was


constructed in 1194 by the great Ghurid Sultan Ghiyas of the Ghurid dynasty. Sri Lanka has eight World Cultural Heritage sites – the sacred site of Kandy that dates back to 2500 years ago, the Sigriya Lion Rock, the sacred city of Anuradhapura, the Dambulla cave temples are important sites. Pakistan is home to the famous archeological ruins of Mohenjo Daro and Taxila. Mohenjo Daro was the largest settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization dating back to 2500 BC.



SAARC- the Political Wing of South Asia

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC is a political wing of these eight South Asian countries that was established on 8 December 1985. The organization aims to promote ‘welfare economics’,‘collective self reliance’ and acceleratE economic growth and cultural development in the region. SAARC also strives for collaboration in the field of  science, technology, economics and culture. Through the South Asian Free Trade Agreement that was brought into force on 1 January 2006, there was a free trade agreement created for 1.8 billion people. The SAARC Secretariat is located in Kathmandu, Nepal and it facilitates dialogue among SAARC nations. The bilateral talks provide an opportunity to improve regional cooperation. The organization has tried to focus on diverse dimensions of South Asian concerns such as economic, political and cultural aspects. However, the principle criticism levelled against SAARC is that it has failed to achieve anything substantial and that the issue of terrorism and regional insecurity continues to prevail. The relations among the SAARC nations have developed cracks in them. The bitterness between India and Pakistan is another reason that prevents SAARC from fully realizing its potential. Nevertheless, the population of both the countries find a lot of cultural resonance in each other’s culture and the political elite must use this to their advantage to improve the relations between the two countries.

In conclusion, South Asian culture is shaped by its rich history of various kingdoms that  emerged in the Indian subcontinent. The coexistence of Indo Aryan and Islamic architecture and values symbolize peace and brotherhood in the region. However, in spite of the cultural coherence of the region, there have been sharp political divergences between India and Pakistan, the two important members of the SAARC. The events in the modern period of the subcontinent, right from the Partition to the wars fought between the two nations, have raised questions about the viability of SAARC as a forum for discussion. However, culturally the two nations share a close bond and the masses of both the countries respect and appreciate each other’s culture. Buddhism and Jainism are also important religions in the subcontinent that appealed to other parts of the world too. These religions espouse the values of ahimsa(non violence) that became an important concept in the anti- colonial struggle of the subcontinent. The challenges of security from physical danger, hunger and poverty remain important for the region, however the cultural unity of the region provides a strong impetus for all the countries to realize their regional strength through SAARC.


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