From Afghanistan and Bangladesh to Pakistan and Sri Lanka, there are eight countries in South Asia; here’s everything you need to know.

South Asia is situated in the southern portion of the Asian continent. Geographically, South Asia is bordered by the Himalayas to the north, the Indian Ocean to the south, the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east.

This distinct Asian subdivision typically comprises eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. This region is defined not only by its geographical boundaries but also by significant cultural, historical and political connections among its nations, including membership of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which aims to promote economic and regional integration, cultural ties and mutual cooperation among its member states.

In this article, I’ll explore the geographic and political contours of South Asia, offering insights into how these boundaries are drawn and the implications they hold for the people and policies of the region.

How many countries are in South Asia?

South Asia is defined by its complex geopolitical landscape. The region consists of the following eight countries:

  1. Afghanistan
  2. Bangladesh
  3. Bhutan
  4. India
  5. Maldives
  6. Nepal
  7. Pakistan
  8. Sri Lanka.

Unusually for a non-continental region, there’s very little dispute as to which countries are considered to be in South Asia. Notably, membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which serves as a crucial platform for these countries to enhance regional integration and cooperation, is the best measure of how many countries are in South Asia.

The United Nations Geosceheme definition also includes those eight countries, although some broader definitions could include Iran which has cultural ties to the region and shares a border with Pakistan, or Myanmar, which also has close ties and shares borders with India and Pakistan. Narrower definitions could exclude Afghanistan, which shares borders with Central Asian countries, or include non-sovereign regions such as Tibet.

A United Nations map of South Asia and surrounding countries.

Read more: How Many Countries in Asia? Everything You Need to Know.

Where is South Asia?

South Asia is both a geographically and politically defined region. Geographically, South Asia is bounded to the north by the Himalayas, which separate it from the Tibetan Plateau and Central Asia. To the south, it is demarcated by the Indian Ocean. The region extends westward to the Iranian plateau (with some definitions including parts of eastern Iran), and eastward it encompasses the Indo-Gangetic Plain, reaching up to the borders of Myanmar.

Politically, South Asia consists of eight nations that are members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC): Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. This association fosters regional cooperation and integration, reflecting the shared political and economic interests of its member states. The inclusion of Afghanistan in SAARC, despite its sometimes ambiguous regional identity (straddling South and Central Asia), underscores the political and strategic considerations in defining South Asia.

This region is marked by a complex political landscape, with significant internal diversity and a range of governance systems, from democratic to monarchical and everything in between. It’s also a region of strategic importance, hosting major global population centres and crucial maritime routes. South Asia’s political interactions are often influenced by historical conflicts, particularly between India and Pakistan, as well as by its economic growth and challenges, environmental issues such as Himalayan droughts caused by climate change, and the overarching impacts of colonial history.

The Himalayas form the northern boundary of South Asia.

A brief history of South Asia

South Asia has a complex history spanning thousands of years. That history is characterised by diverse cultures, religions and changing empires. Here’s an overview of the region’s historical trajectory:

Ancient Civilizations

South Asia’s history begins with one of the world’s earliest urban civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization (circa 3300–1300 BCE), located in present-day Pakistan and northwest India. This civilization was notable for its advanced urban planning, architecture, and social organization. Following the decline of the Indus Valley, the region saw the rise of the Vedic period (circa 1500–500 BCE), during which the foundations of Hindu philosophy, rituals, and social structures were laid down.

Classical Age

The Maurya Empire (circa 322–185 BCE) marked the beginning of the Classical Age in South Asia. Founded by Chandragupta Maurya and later expanded by Ashoka the Great, this empire was one of the first to unify most of the Indian subcontinent and spread the influence of Buddhism. The Gupta Empire (circa 320–550 CE) succeeded centuries later, known as the Golden Age of India, due to significant advancements in science, technology, engineering, art, dialectics, literature, logic, mathematics, astronomy, religion and philosophy.

Medieval Period

The medieval period saw the rise of several powerful kingdoms and dynasties such as the Chola, Pallava, and Pala dynasties, which significantly influenced the cultural landscape of South Asia. This era also witnessed the arrival of Islam, brought by various invaders and traders, starting with the raids by the Arab Umayyads in the 8th century in Sindh, and later by Turkic tribes under Mahmud of Ghazni and the Delhi Sultanate.

Colonial Era

European colonialism began in the early 16th century with the arrival of the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, French, and most notably, the British. The British East India Company gradually expanded its control over almost the entire region, establishing the British Raj after the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The colonial period was marked by significant economic exploitation, cultural changes, and the restructuring of the social order.

Modern Era and Independence Movements

The 20th century was dominated by the struggle for independence from British rule. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi advocated for non-violent resistance, which culminated in the independence and partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. This period also saw the emergence of civil conflicts and the formulation of new states, including Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Contemporary South Asia

Today, South Asia is a region of profound growth and significant challenges. It remains vital in global geopolitics, marked by democratic movements, economic development, and struggles with poverty and regional conflicts such as those between Pakistan and India.

South Asia is home to an incredible diversity of history.

Read more: How Many Countries in Central Asia? Everything You Need to Know.

What is the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)?

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is an economic and geopolitical organisation established to promote economic and regional integration and cooperation in South Asia. It was founded on December 8, 1985, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, by the leaders of the initial seven countries—Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—with Afghanistan joining as the eighth member in 2007.

SAARC aims to enhance the welfare of the people of South Asia through economic growth, improved quality of life, and mutual cooperation. Its objectives are varied, focusing on promoting peace and stability, strengthening collective self-reliance, accelerating socio-economic development, and collaborating on cultural exchanges.

SAARC conducts activities across various areas, including agriculture and rural development, biotechnology, energy, environment, finance, human resource development, and tourism. The organisation facilitates numerous meetings, including summits at the head of state or government level, ministerial meetings, and technical consultations.

Despite its significant goals, SAARC has faced challenges in achieving its full potential. Political tensions, particularly between India and Pakistan, have often hindered the progress of regional initiatives. Additionally, economic disparities and diverse political systems within member states complicate deeper integration. Nevertheless, SAARC remains a crucial platform for discussing regional issues and fostering cooperation among its member countries.

The logo of SAARC.

What’s the population of South Asia?

South Asia is home to approximately 1.9 billion people, making it one of the most densely populated areas globally. Dominated by India, which houses over 1.4 billion individuals according to Statista, the region’s demographic landscape also includes populous nations like Pakistan and Bangladesh, contributing significantly to the total count. This massive population is a testament to the area’s historical centrality in human civilization and current economic dynamism. South Asia’s demographic trends present both challenges and opportunities, influencing global markets, migration patterns, and international policy considerations.

The author in Nepal, one of the smaller countries in South Asia.

Read more: How Many Countries in East Asia? Everything You Need to Know.

What are the largest and smallest countries in South Asia?

In South Asia, India stands out as the largest country both in terms of area and population. Spanning over 3.2 million square kilometres, India is a pivotal regional power with a population exceeding 1.4 billion.

Contrastingly, the Maldives is the smallest country in the region, both geographically and demographically. Comprising around 1,200 small coral islands and sandbanks, the Maldives has a total area of just 298 square kilometres and a population of about 540,000 according to the latest data from Statista. This stark difference in size and population highlights the diverse scale and scope of the nations within South Asia, each contributing uniquely to the region’s complex tapestry.

South Asia is home to sprawling urban areas, including Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.

Is Myanmar in South Asia?

Myanmar is generally considered part of Southeast Asia, not South Asia. It is grouped in Southeast Asia due to its geographical location, cultural characteristics, and historical ties.

Myanmar shares borders with several Southeast Asian nations, including Thailand, Laos, and Malaysia, and it is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which strengthens its ties with the Southeast Asian region.

Although Myanmar does share a long border with India and has historical connections with the Indian subcontinent, its regional affiliations and geopolitical interactions align more closely with Southeast Asia.

Read more: How Many Countries in Southeast Asia? Everything You Need to Know.

Is Iran in South Asia?

Iran is not typically considered part of South Asia. It is generally classified as part of the Middle East or Western Asia, due to its geographic location, cultural characteristics and historical context. Iran shares cultural and historical ties with South Asia, particularly through trade, religion, and the spread of Indo-Persian culture, but geopolitically and culturally, it aligns more with the Middle Eastern region.

It has significant linguistic, religious, and historical connections with nations in Central Asia and the Arab world. So, while Iran has influenced and been influenced by South Asian countries, it is not classified as a South Asian nation.

Iran is not considered part of South Asia. Photo by Sajad Nori on Unsplash.

So, how many countries are in South Asia?

In conclusion, South Asia is composed of eight distinct nations: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. These countries, unified under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), share deep historical, cultural and economic ties.

The region’s definition, while occasionally debated, primarily includes these nations due to their geographical proximity and shared historical narratives.

Read more: How Many Countries Are in the Middle East? Everything You Need to Know.

FAQ: How many countries are in South Asia?

Here’s an FAQ on the topic, ‘How many countries are in South Asia?’:

Q1: How many countries are traditionally included in South Asia?

A1: South Asia traditionally includes eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Q2: What is the basis for including these countries in South Asia?

A2: These countries are included based on geographical proximity, historical ties, cultural similarities, and socio-economic interactions. They are also members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which fosters regional unity.

Q3: Does the definition of South Asia vary?

A3: Yes, the definition can vary slightly depending on the context. For example, some United Nations schemes include Iran as part of South Asia due to cultural and historical connections, although this is less common.

Q4: Are there any geopolitical considerations in defining South Asia?

A4: Yes, geopolitical relationships, particularly regional cooperation and conflicts, play a significant role in defining the region. Historical conflicts and contemporary political dynamics, such as those between India and Pakistan, influence how the region is perceived and interacted with on the global stage.

Q5: How does the inclusion of Afghanistan fit into the South Asian context?

A5: Afghanistan’s inclusion is somewhat contested due to its geographical and cultural links with both South Asia and Central Asia. However, it is often included in South Asia, especially in political and economic contexts such as its membership in SAARC.

Q6: Are there cultural factors that unify these countries?

A6: Yes, despite a diversity of languages, religions, and ethnic groups, these countries share several cultural traditions, historical legacies, and colonial histories, which contribute to a sense of regional identity.

Q7: How do the size and population of these countries compare within the region?

A7: India is by far the largest and most populous country in South Asia, influencing the region’s economic, cultural, and political landscape. The Maldives, on the other hand, is the smallest both in terms of area and population.

Q8: What is the economic significance of South Asia on a global scale?

A8: South Asia is significant for its rapidly growing economies, particularly India, which is one of the world’s largest economies. The region is a key player in global markets, especially in sectors like textiles, technology, and agricultural products.