South Asia: Landforms and Resources

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE Thousands of years ago, the Hindus of what is now north India imagined a gigantic mountain reaching more than 80,000 miles into the sky. They believed that this enormous peak, called Mt. Meru, was the center of the physical and spiritual world. In their writings, they described “rivers of sweet water” flowing down the sides of the mountain. While Mt. Meru exists only in myth, it did have a reallife inspiration—Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest mountain peak at 29,035 feet above sea level. Mt. Everest and the other towering peaks of the Himalaya Mountains have been a lure to mountain climbers around the world. Many climbers had died on Everest’s icy slopes before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa guide, became the first people to reach its summit in 1953.

Mountains and Plateaus

The Himalayas are part of South Asia, a region that includes seven countries—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. South Asia is sometimes called a subcontinent, a large landmass that is smaller than a continent. In fact, it is often referred to as the Indian subcontinent because India dominates the region. Although South Asia is about half the size of the continental United States, it has more than one billion inhabitants—one-fifth of the world’s population.

Formation of the Himalayas

As you saw on the map on page 543, natural barriers help to separate the South Asian subcontinent from the rest of Asia. The Himalayas and other mountain ranges form the northern border, while water surrounds the rest of the region. The South Asian peninsula, which extends south into the Indian Ocean, is bordered by the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east.


Millions of years ago, the land that is now South Asia was actually part of East Africa. About 50 million years ago, it split off and drifted northward. As the illustration on page 551 shows, it collided with Central Asia. The gradual collision of these two large tectonic plates forced the land upward into enormous mountain ranges. These mountains, which are still rising, now form the northern edge of the South Asian subcontinent.

The magnificent Himalayas are a system of parallel mountain ranges. They contain the world’s highest mountains, with nearly two dozen peaks rising to 24,000 feet or above. The Himalayas stretch for 1,500 miles and form a giant barrier between the Indian subcontinent and China. Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest peak, sits at the heart of the Himalayas. Nestled high up within these mountains are the remote, landlocked kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan.

The Hindu Kush are mountains that lie at the west end of the Himalayas. They form a rugged barrier separating Pakistan from Afghanistan to the north. For centuries, the Hindu Kush stood in the way of Central Asian tribes trying to invade India. Bloody battles have been fought over control of major land routes through these mountains, including the Khyber Pass. The mighty Karakoram Mountains rise in the northeastern portion of the chain. They are the home of the world’s second highest peak, K2.


The collision of tectonic plates that pushed up the Himalayas also created several smaller mountain ranges in central India, including the Vindhya Range. To the south lies the Deccan Plateau. This large tableland tilts east, toward the Bay of Bengal, and covers much of southern India. Two mountain ranges, the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats, flank the plateau, separating it from the coast. These mountains also block most moist winds and keep rain from reaching the interior.

As a result, the Deccan is a largely arid region.

Rivers, Deltas, and Plains

The Northern Indian Plain, or Indo-Gangetic Plain, lies between the Deccan Plateau and the northern mountain ranges. This large lowland region stretches across northern India and into Bangladesh. It is formed by three great river systems: the Indus, the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra.


The three great rivers of South Asia have their origins among the snowcapped peaks of the high Himalayas. The Indus flows west and then south through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. The Ganges drops down from the central Himalayas and flows eastward across northern India. The Brahmaputra winds its way east, then west and south through Bangladesh. The Ganges and Brahmaputra eventually meet to form one huge river delta before entering the Bay of Bengal.


These rivers play a key role in supporting life in South Asia. Their waters provide crucial irrigation for agricultural lands. They also carry rich soil, called alluvial soil, on their journey down from the mountains. When the rivers overflow their banks, they deposit this soil on alluvial plains, lands that are rich farmlands. As a result, the Indo-Gangetic Plain is one of the most fertile farming regions in the world.

The Indo-Gangetic Plain is also the most heavily populated part of South Asia. In fact, the area contains about three-fifths of India’s population. Many of the subcontinent’s largest cities, including New Delhi and Kolkata in India, and Dakha in Bangladesh, are located there. Population densities at the eastern end of the plain, particularly in the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, are especially high, as you can see on the map on page 547. To the west, in the area between the Indus and Ganges rivers, the plain becomes drier and requires more irrigation. To the south lies one of the world’s most arid regions—the Thar, or Great Indian Desert.

Offshore Islands

Two island groups are also countries of South Asia—Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Sri Lanka is located in the Indian Ocean just off India’s southeastern tip. The Maldives island group is situated farther off the Indian coast to the southwest.


Sri Lanka is a large, tear-shaped island country. It is a lush tropical land of great natural beauty. Dominating the center of the island is a range of high, rugged mountains that reach more than 8,000 feet in elevation. Many small rivers cascade from these mountains to the lowlands below.

The northern side of the island consists of low hills and gently rolling farmland. Circling the island is a coastal plain that includes long, palm-fringed beaches.


The Maldives comprise an archipelago, or island group, of more than 1,200 small islands. These islands stretch north to south for almost 500 miles off the Indian coast near the equator. The islands (shown at right) are the low-lying tops of submerged volcanoes, surrounded by coral reefs and shallow lagoons. This type of island is called an atoll. The total land area of the Maldives is 115 square miles (roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C.). Only about 200 of the islands are inhabited.

Natural Resources

The natural beauty of the southern islands is just one of the many physical assets of South Asia. In fact, the subcontinent boasts a wide variety of natural resources that support human life. At the same time, South Asia’s rapidly growing population puts great pressure on its land and resources.


South Asia relies heavily on its soil and water resources to provide food through farming and fishing. The great river systems that bring alluvial soil down from the mountains help enrich the land. They also bring the water necessary for crops to grow. Both small- and large-scale irrigation projects divert the water to the farmlands that need it. Many types of fish are also found in South Asian rivers and coastal waters, including mackerel, sardines, carp, and catfish.

South Asian waters also provide a means of transportation and power. Boats travel the rivers and coastlines, carrying goods and people from town to town. Governments also are working to harness hydroelectric energy from the waters. For example, India and Pakistan have a number of hydroelectric and irrigation projects underway.


Timber and other forest products are another important resource in South Asia. Rain forests in India produce hardwoods like sal and teak, along with bamboo and the fragrant sandalwood. Highland forests in Bhutan and Nepal have thick stands of pine, fir, and other softwood trees. Deforestation is a severe problem, however. It causes soil erosion, flooding, landslides, and loss of wildlife habitats. Overcutting
has devastated formerly dense forests in India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.


Much of South Asia’s energy is still generated from mineral resources. For example, India ranks fourth in the world in coal production and has enough petroleum to supply about half its oil needs. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh also have important natural gas resources. Uranium deposits in India provide fuel for nuclear energy.

South Asia also has large iron-ore deposits, particularly in India’s Deccan Plateau. India is one of the world’s leading exporters of iron ore, which is also used in that country’s large steel industry. Other South Asian minerals include manganese, gypsum, chromium, bauxite, and copper.

India supplies most of the world’s mica, a key component in electrical equipment. This is one of the reasons that India has a growing computer industry. Mica is also found in Nepal. India and Sri Lanka both have substantial gemstone deposits. India is traditionally known for its diamonds, while Sri Lanka produces dozens of types of precious and semi-precious stones. The island is most famous for its beautiful sapphires and rubies.