South Asia

Per Capita GDP in Nepal and the Rest of South Asia

The most recent GeoCurrents post compared Nepal with the other political units of the southern Himalayan region on the basis of the Human Development Index (HDI). Today’s post does the same in terms of per capita GDP. The map below shows the per capita GDP standings (in Purchasing Power Parity) in 2020-2021 of the independent countries of greater South Asia along with the states of India (and India’s two largest union territories). This map is problematic in that the data for the states of India and for the region’s independent countries are not completely comparable, as is explained in the map legend. But the general pattern is clear: Nepal continues to lag behind its Himalayan neighbors on this metric, just as it does in regard to the HDI. The gap between Nepal and the Indian state of Sikkim is stark, especially when one considers the close cultural and physiographic similarities of these two polities. Sikkim is actually more Nepali than Nepal, in that only 44.6 percent of the people of Nepal speak Nepali as their first language whereas 66.6% of those in Sikkim do (with only 6.9 speaking Sikkimese). It is also noteworthy that Nepal falls into the same category on this map as the Indian union territory of Jammu and Kashmir (demoted from state status in 2019). On the HDI map, Jammu and Kashmir has a significantly higher standing than Nepal. Finally, note that Pakistan scores much better in this regard than it does in terms of HDI.

The second map is limited to the states and larger union territories of India, showing their per capita GDP in PPP for 2020-2021. Here there are no problems with data comparability. What I find surprising about this map is the relatively low standing, compared to those of neighboring states, of Maharashtra and Punjab. Maharashtra is often considered to be India’s economic pacesetter, and it clearly has India’s largest GDP in total. Punjab, in earlier decades, stood near the top of the per capita GDP list of Indian states. It is interesting that Punjab has lagged behind its neighbor, Haryana. Together, these two states are the core area of India’s agricultural green revolution, and until recently they had more similar developmental indicators.

Bihar, not surprisingly, stands at the bottom of the per capita GDP list for India. Bihar comes in last place in almost every socio-economic indicator in India. I once quipped when teaching that Bihar has been described as India’s Mississippi, meaning that it is in the bottom position in almost everything. That statement deeply offended a student in the classroom from Mississippi, leading me to stop making such comparisons in the classroom.

It is also notable that the small state of Manipur in far eastern India comes in at a much lower ranking on the per capita GDP map than it does on the HDI map. Manipur, like its highland neighbors, has relatively high levels of education, which propels it into a higher overall developmental position than its economic figures alone would warrant.

In the classroom, I like to complement maps of per capita GDP with ones showing per capita income. Per capita GDP can be quite misleading, as regions that have high levels of economic output based on a few key economic sectors, such as mining, often appear much more prosperous than they really are. China’s region of Inner Mongolia exemplifies this problem. I therefore made a map of India showing per capita income based on the most recent data that I could easily find (2017-2018). As can be seen, however, this map is very similar to the 2020-2021 per capita GDP map.

Human Development Index Mapped for Greater South Asia and the Southern Himalayan Belt.

A recent GeoCurrents post on Nepal noted that the country has experienced less development than the rest of the southern Himalayan region, which was illustrated with an old map of per capita GDP. A more recent map of the Human Development Index (HDI) makes the same point: Nepal scores worse on this metric than either Bhutan or any of India’s Himalayan states.

The 2021 map of the Human Development Index (HDI) across greater South Asia shows the Himalayan belt in general ranking significantly higher than the adjacent lowlands of north-central and northeastern India. These results may seem paradoxical, as highland areas of rough topography are often much less developed than nearby areas of flat topography, which typically have much better infrastructure. But in many parts of the world, this generalization does not hold. As can be seen in the map below, the mountains of far-northeastern India have much higher levels of human development than the adjacent lowlands, whether in India, Bangladesh, or Burma. India’s small states along the Burmese boundary have relatively high HDI scores despite their rugged topography, problems with ethnic insurgency, and history of relative isolation. This seeming anomaly is partially explained by the educational focus of Christian missionaries in the region. Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya all have solid Christian majorities, while Manipur is almost half Christian and Arunachal Pradesh has a Christian plurality. Recent Indian infrastructural investments, along with the gradual reduction in insurgency, have also boosted human and economic development in the region.

The densely populated lowland states of north-central India have the country’s lowest levels of human development, despite forming the historical core of South Asia. This area of low HDI also extends into the mostly lowland state of Assam in northeastern India. Somewhat higher levels of human development, however, are encountered in the lowland Bengali-speaking zone encompassing Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura. This area was until recently one of the poorest and least developed parts of South Asia, but it has experienced significant improvements in recent years. It is probably not coincidental that Bengalis have a well-deserved reputation for educational interest and intellectual engagement. To reflect the relatively high position of the Bengali-speaking zone in lowland northeastern South Asia, I have reconfigured the South Asia HDI map to depict Bengal as if it were a separate polity.

The partition of British India in 1947 was also a partition of Bengal, and the violence and economic destruction associated with it long held back the Bengali-speaking zone. A similar event occurred on the other side of South Asia, as the partition of British India was also a partition of Punjab. But here an entirely different pattern emerged. The parts of pre-partition Punjab that went to India (Punjab State, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh) have all experienced striking improvements in human well-being. The large Pakistani province of Punjab, on the other hand, has lagged behind, as has most of the rest of the country in which it is located. This pattern is not easy to explain. From 1947 to 1971, when Pakistan and Bangladesh formed one country, what was then West Pakistan was far ahead of what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on almost every economic and human-developmental score. But while Bangladesh experienced substantial improvements, Pakistan has struggled.

To illustrate the human-developmental gap between Pakistan and India/Bangladesh, I made another iteration of the HDI map that breaks down both Pakistan and India into their largest constituent units. I had to go back to 2019 to find easily accessible HDI data at this level, and I am not sure if the data are fully comparable. What the map shows, however, is stark, with Pakistani Punjab and most of the rest of the country coming in with scores much lower than almost any part of India. The extraordinarily low HDI figure for Balochistan is highly significant, helping explain the long-running insurgency of this resource-rich region.

Pakistan’s higher HDI values are found in the mountainous northern regions of the country. Other than tiny Islamabad, the country’s highest HDI levels are in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan (areas claimed by India). Gilgit-Baltistan is noted for his extremely rugged topography and, until recently, its relative isolation from the rest of the world. It has, however, seen remarkable gains in education and social development more generally over the past several decades. Pakistani infrastructural investments, aimed at securing access to western China, have no doubt play a role. More important have been the developmental projects of the Aga Khan Foundation. Many of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are Nizari Ismai’li Shia Muslims, a group headed by the Aga Khan. The Nizari Ismai’lis in general are a cosmopolitan, liberal, and well-educated people, and their leaders are keen to help their co-religionists in the most remote and rugged corners of northern Pakistan.

The final map in this post is the base map on which all of the other maps are constructed. Like all GeoCurrents maps, it is made in simple presentation software, Apple Keynote (equivalent to PowerPoint). Before long, I hope to make this map available for free on this website in both Keynote and PowerPoint formats. It is a very simple matter to click on any of the units and change their color or their boundaries in any way one sees fit. Similarly, the place names can be deleted, and others can be added, very easily.

The Amazing Linn Atlas Animates the Expansion of the Gorkha Empire, Showing the Political Fate of the Limbu People

When writing my recent posts on the expansion of the Gorkha Empire of Nepal, I was frustrated by the lack of maps on the topic. Although Wikipedia articles on such subjects are usually richly illustrated with maps, that is not the case regarding the history of Nepal. Other go-to cartographic resources also came up empty. Then I turned to YouTube and discovered the little-known but very impressive Linn Atlas. This historical map animation site focusses on Southeast Asia and environs, but goes as far afield as the expansion of the empire of Alexander the Great. Although one could criticize the Linn maps of South and Southeast Asia for portraying historical polities as neatly bounded unitary states, when they were usually somewhat spatially vague “mandalas,” with power dissipating with distance from the core, such an objection would miss the essential point: it is extremely difficult and often impossible to map such fluid political constructs. What the Linn Atlas does is done magnificently, with even microstates and their changing geographical expressions mapped at a level of detail that I would have thought unattainable.

I have extracted 2 frames from the Linn Atlas animation of the expansion of the Gorkha Empire to illustrate my point. The first shows the Gorkha polity when it was a tiny statelet, one of many ruled by the Khas people in what is now central Nepal. The second shows the situation when the expanding Gorkha Kingdom had completely surrounded the densely populated and pivotal Kathmandu Valley, then governed by three small Newar states. I have also used the Linn Nepal sequence to create my own map, which shows the expansion of the Gorkha Empire from 1743 to the time of its greatest territorial extent in 1814.

The initial frames of the Linn’s Nepal animation show the Limbuwan country as belonging to a kingdom called Vijayapur. (By 1771, however, this relatively sizable state is shown as having broken apart, its northern areas coming under the rule of an unspecified number of tiny Limbu kingdoms.) As “Vijayapur” is a Sanskrit term, one might assume that this state was ruled not by the Limbu people but rather by Hindus coming from outside the region. Professor Raja Ram Subedi, who taught at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, explained this complex situation in a brief undated article called “Historical Entity of Vijayapur State.

As Subedi noted, the Limbu and related Kirati peoples could defend their own tiny states: “The chieftains and people of Dasa Kirata were expert in archery, physical activities, military organization, building forts and agricultural works.” But they nonetheless came under the rule of a Hindu dynasty, the leaders of which were connected with the small state of Palpa located in what is now south-central Nepal. But as Subedi further explained, this did not entail the subjugation of the Limbu and other Kirati peoples:

Raja Vijaya Narayan Roy was an amicable as well as diplomatic ruler. He established cordial relations with the Kirata subjects…  . He made an alliance with Morey Hang, a chieftain of the Kirata, and appointed him as the minister (Dewan). With the help of the Kiratas, Vijaya Narayan Roy was able to repair the old fort of Bhatabhunge Gadhi and shifted his capital from Baratappa to that fort.

Subedi also noted that the Gorkha conquest did not initially change this situation:

After [the Gorkha ruler] King Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered Vijayapur, the separate entity of that state ended. But the privileges given to the Kirata chieftains tended to continue even after it was annexed to Nepal. Kiratas constituted majority in Vijayapur state. They set up local government. Only the sovereign power was vested in the center. Even after the unification of Nepal, local government tended to exist.

But as we saw in the previous post, local autonomy began to be whittled away in the mid nineteenth century and was eventually eliminated altogether, politically marginalizing the Limbu and other Kirati peoples.

Does Nepal’s historical origin as a conquest empire contribute to its modern political instability?  That will be the topic of the next GeoCurrents post.

Nepal’s Paradoxes of Nationalism and Historical Development: Why the Nepali Language Is Not the Nepali Language and Gurkhas Are Not Gorkhas

The past several GeoCurrents posts have examined the Limbu and related Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal, asking why they are so little known, all but erased from the history of the region. The simple answer is what might be called the myth of the nation-state, which rests on the idea that the people of virtually all countries are firmly united by sentiments of national solidarity. Although Nepal today forms a reasonably coherent nation-state, achieving such unifying identity has been a prolonged and contentious process that has never reached full completion. It also entailed the conquest and political suppression of many formerly independent peoples. Not surprisingly, this process is downplayed if not denied in the national mythos of Nepal.

On the surface, Nepal has a reasonably high degree of common cultural grounding. More than 80 percent of its people are Hindu, with another nine percent following Buddhism. The national language, Nepali, is spoken across the country and serves as an effective common tongue, used in government, education, and the media. Nepali is the mother tongue of almost half the population, and that figure is growing.

But there is an interesting oddity concealed by the term “Nepali language.” The sixth most widely spoken language in the country is Nepal Bhasi, which literally means “Nepali language.” Yet this Sino-Tibetan Nepali language does not even belong to the same language family as the country’s Indo-European official Nepali language. Nepal Bhasi was the language of the original state(s) of Nepal; the names of both the country and its tongue were usurped by the Gorkha Kingdom (or Empire), which conquered and annexed Nepal in 1768. The modern country of Nepal, put simply, originated as a conquest empire, one that later sought to refashion itself as a modern nation-state. In so doing it has obscured the processes that brought it into being in the first place

The story of these extraordinary acts of cultural appropriation are not difficult to find, but they tend to be papered over. Consider, for example, the following passage, taken from the second paragraph of the Wikipedia article on Nepal:

The centrally located Kathmandu Valley is intertwined with the culture of Indo-Aryans and was the seat of the prosperous Newar Confederacy known as the Nepal Mandala. The Himalayan branch of the ancient Silk Road was dominated by the valley’s traders. The cosmopolitan region developed distinct traditional art and architecture. By the 18th century the Gorkha Kingdom achieved the unification of Nepal.


This passage is not incorrect, but it is misleading. The large, fertile, and strategically located Kathmandu Valley was the center of a smallish kingdom (or, at times, kingdoms) that had long been known as Nepal. Its dominant ethnic group, the Newar, spoke (and still speak) the Sino-Tibetan Nepali language, or Nepal Bhasa. The Newar were originally part of the Kirati group, which is now mostly confined to eastern Nepal. As a cosmopolitan trade-oriented people, the Newar welcomed other ethnic groups into their state and interacted with them extensively. Their language and culture were subsequently heavily influenced by Indic (Indo-Aryan) newcomers. Most of the Newar eventually converted to Hinduism (although about 10% follow Buddhism), and they adopted some elements of the caste system. To this day, the Newar “pride themselves as the true custodians of the religion, culture and civilisation of Nepal,” and they “consistently rank as the most economically and socially advanced community of Nepal.” But they lost their state and political independence in 1768, when they were conquered by the aggressive Gorkha Empire based to their west. The Gorkha spoke an Indo-Aryan language, and their kingdom was ruled and run by a Hindu military-administrative caste/ethnicity called the Khas, who had originated much earlier in the lowlands of India. Until the 1800s, they called their own Gorkha state Khas Desh (or Khas country). Later renamed the Chhetri, the Khas are Nepal’s largest group of people, forming 16.6 percent of the national population.

In 1743, under the leadership of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Gorkha Kingdom began to conquer and annex its small neighboring states, thus effectively becoming an empire. After defeating the much wealthier and more sophisticated Newar states in 1768, Shah transferred his capital to the Kathmandu Valley and assumed its name – Nepal – for his expanding empire. (“Newar” and “Nepal” are actually variants of the same term, “Newar” being the colloquial form and “Nepal” the learned one.) Shah then went on to conquer dozens of other small states, first moving to the east to subdue the Kirati people, and then annexing many Himalayan statelets in the west. The empire that he founded later encompassed extensive lands in what are now the Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

The language of the original Gorkha Kingdom was first called Khas Kura, after the ruling Khas caste, and was later referred to as the Gorkha language. In 1933 it was finally renamed “Nepali” by the state’s official publishing agency, which simultaneously changed its own name from “Gorkha Language Publishing Committee” to “Nepali Language Publishing Committee.” In 1951, the term “Gorkhali” (or Gorkha people) in the country’s national anthem was finally changed to “Nepali.” At this time, the appropriation of the term “Nepal” was complete.

It was not easy for the Gorkha Empire to defeat the Limbu people, who were well equipped to defend themselves. After a three-year war, a peace treaty was signed in 1774 that incorporated Limbuwan into the Gorkha Empire but allowed the Limbu people to retain extensive autonomy, thereby securing their loyalty. In the 1860s, however, new policies of cultural and linguistic suppression incited widespread Limbu rebellions against the state. In the early twentieth century, Limbu land rights came under attack. By the 1950s, the continuing erosion of local autonomy combined with assaults on traditional land tenure again incited insurgency. An ethnonationalist state agenda enacted under the slogan “one country, one king, one language, one culture” further angered the Limbu and other minority peoples.

 The expansion of the Gorkha Kingdom and the subsequent creation of the modern state of Nepal is generally portrayed positively as a process of national unification. One can make the case that it was a beneficial development that prevented the British East India company from gobbling up the many tiny states of the region. But the term “unification” might imply that it was a semi-natural process that brought together various peoples who already constituted a kind of nation in embryo. Seem from the perspective of the Limbu and other minority peoples, including the Newar, the creation of the modern nation-state of Nepal can be framed as less a process of unification than one of appropriation and (attempted) forced assimilation.

The expansionistic Gorkha Empire eventually come to blows with the British East India company. After the hard-fought Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-1816, the victorious British annexed roughly two-fifths of the Gorkha territory. (This annexation given rise to a rather feckless “Greater Nepal” movement that still hopes to reclaim these lost lands.) But unlike other defeated South Asian kingdoms that were transformed into dependent “Princely States” under the British Raj, Nepal essentially retained its independence. The British were so impressed by the fighting ability of the Gorkha soldiers, moreover, that they insisted on the right to recruit them for their own Indian army. These storied fighters, called Gurkhas, still play an important role in the militaries of the United Kingdom and several other countries; they also serve as U.N. peacekeepers. More than 200,000 Gurkhas fought for Britain in World War I. Some experts regard them as the world’s best soldiers.

But although the British continued to recruit Gurkhas, before long they were no longer actually Gorkhas. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, formerly called the Sepoy Mutiny, the British grew suspicious of high-caste Hindus, including the Khas who had formed the bedrock of the Gorkha army. According to the Wikipedia, military recruitment subsequently shifted to the Gurungs and Magars, indigenous Sino-Tibetan peoples who had been conquered by the Gorkhas. But the Encyclopedia Britannica (Fifteenth Edition) article on the Kirati Rai people tells a somewhat different story: “With the Limbu and Magar peoples, they supplied the bulk of the Gurkha contingent to the British Indian armies.”

 Nepal is a politically troubled country today, and its social-economic indicators lag well below those of other Himalayan polities, such as the independent country of Bhutan and the Indian states of Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. The historical processes outlined are a major factor in Nepal’s current plight.  


The Fascinating but Forgotten Limbu People of Eastern Nepal and Their Unique Religion

On January 28, 2023, SBS Nepali ran a brief article with the intriguing title “Like the Vedas, the Mundhums are Limbu Community’s Hymns. Now It Has Been Published for the First Time.” Although the Vedas, the oldest texts of Hinduism, are very well known, the religious literature of the Limbu people is extremely obscure. It deserves more recognition, as do the people who created it. Numbering up to 700,000, the Limbu once had their own kingdoms (or kingdoms), recorded in their own annals and written in their own script. The study of Limbu history and the use of the Limbu script were severely curtailed after Limbuwan – the Limbu country – was conquered by the aggressive Gorkha Empire, later called the Kingdom of Nepal, in the late 1700s. Subsequently, many Nepali speakers streamed into the region, making the Limbu a minority in their own homeland. Today, Limbu scholars are reclaiming their rich history and Limbu activists are trying, although probably in vain, to create their own semi-autonomous region in Limbuwan.

The Limbu people form a subset of a larger group known as the Kirati people, who live in scattered areas of eastern Nepal and adjacent parts of India. The Kirati speak several languages, one of which is Limbu, but their tongues are closely related and they all have similar cultures and histories. Most other Kirati people follow the same ethnic religion as the Limbu, called Kirat Mundum, which has its own body of oral scriptures, some of which have now been published. This corpus is noted for its size, conceptual complexity, and the fact that it is not expressed in ordinary language. According to one recent study:

The mundum is the oral tradition among the Kiratis in east Nepal, and it is also a long-standing, and ancient, though not unchanging, ritual practice. But it is very difficult to say what the mundum is exactly. There are many issues about the mundum which so far have remained untouched by systematic and scientific publications.  …

The mundum language is also seen as a divine language, which is unlike the day-to-day language. It is used only for superhuman beings, like the ancestors, or special ritual ceremonies where the ancestors are evoked. The mundum language is different from the ordinary language in many respects, like the morphology of nouns, politeness register, chanting, etc.

A variety of ritual specialists, referred to as shamans in English, go to great lengths to master this intricate faith. Some must devote more than a decade to study and meditation before they are viewed as accredited practitioners. In the Kirat Mundum religion, nature is regarded as holy and a variety of deities are venerated, two of which, one male and the other female, are generally held as supreme. Some adherents focus their worship on a paramount goddess, Yuma Sammang (“Mother Earth” or “Grandmother”).

The survival of this indigenous religious complex in an area where most peoples long ago embraced either Hinduism or Tibetan Buddhism is rather remarkable. Where local faiths, collectively referred to as animism, persist in the Himalayan belt, it is generally among small-scale (or “tribal”) populations, found mostly in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. But the Limbu and other Kirati peoples retain their animistic beliefs despite having long had sophisticated states of their own that interacted extensively with neighboring kingdoms and empires.

Despite its complexity and persistence, the Kirat Mundum faith is all but cartographically invisible. World maps of religion typically portray Nepal as either entirely Hindu or completely Buddhist, with the better ones showing its as mostly Tibetan Buddhist in the high-elevation zone of the north and mostly Hindu in the lower elevation zones of the center and south. I did, however, find an impressive map world religion map that depicts the inhabitants of eastern Nepal as following an unspecified “folk religion” (see the detail of this map posted below). Unfortunately, I was unable to trace the origin of this map; it came up on an image search linked to a Vibrant Maps web page, but the map itself does not seem to be posted on that page.

The religious tradition of the Limbu and other Kirati peoples is by no means static or disconnected from modern currents of thought. In recent decades, a new syncretic form of the faith has emerged, drawing on Kirat Mundum practices and concepts but synthesizing them with elements from other religious and philosophical traditions. As the abstract of Linda Gustavson’s essay entitled “Yumaism: A New Syncretic Religion among the Sikkimese Limbus” reads:

This chapter discusses localized religious-modernist developments within the Limbu community in the borderlands of Buddhism in the eastern Indian Himalayas. It examines the invention of Yumaism by focusing on the Limbu middle class’ agency in relation to their lived contexts, through an actor-oriented and processual approach. Yumaism draws on elements from indigenous religious traditions, Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, scholarly and orientalist discourses, and modernism in general. The proponents of Yumaism are similarly attempting to define their religion as such a way of life, a philosophy that is both rational and modern, while at the same time being steeped in the long historical tradition of the Limbus. While the process of modernization involved in the creation of Yumaism and the impact of Buddhism upon this process should not be underestimated, the dynamics of the modernization of the Limbu religion are grounded in local economic changes, politics, and ethnic relations.

Yumaism is not limited to the small Limbu community in the Indian state of Sikkim. It has evidently spread widely in Limbuwan proper and among other Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal. A pie chart of “religion in Nepal” (which I found on the website indicates that roughly 3% of the people of Nepal now follow it.

The Limbu are characterized by other unique and interesting cultural features, which are outlined in the Wikipedia article devoted to the ethnic group. They have distinctive clothing, architectural forms and decorative motifs, music, and athletic events. Matrilineal cultural patterns are clearly evident. As the Wikipedia article notes, “They believe that lineage is not transmitted patrilineally. Rather, a woman inherits her mother’s gods, and when she marries and lives with her husband she brings with her the deities that will then be recognized as the household deities.” Alcohol consumption, particularly of millet beer, plays a prominent social role: “Weddings, mourning, gift exchanges, and conflict resolution involve consumption of alcohol, especially the Limbu traditional beer popularly known as thee which is drunk from a container called tongba.” Limbu cuisine is especially interesting, meriting its own later GeoCurrents post. As a foretaste, it is notable that the Limbu are perhaps the most “lichenophilic” (lichen-loving) people in the world.

A relatively cosmopolitan people, the Limbu have spread widely across the globe. Their main social-service organization in Nepal, the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung, has branches in the UK, the United States, the UAE, Israel, Hong Kong, South Korea, Germany, Portugal, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, and Macau. Among the main aims of the British branch of the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung are “To plan and carry out appropriate programmes in order to wipe out superstition and ignorance of people about health problems both in UK and Nepal [and] to work for human rights, indigenous rights, and women and child rights.”

Why the important Limbu people have been largely ignored and generally excluded from historical and geographical accounts of Nepal will be the subject of another GeoCurrents post.

The Cheetah: Vanishing from Africa but Returning to India

In 2016, National Geographic announced that the cheetah is “racing toward extinction,” with its population expected to decline precipitously over the next 15 years. Only around 7,000 cheetahs, the world’s fastest mammal, live in the wild. Their remaining habitat is dispersed and disjunct, with roughly 77 percent of it falling outside of protected areas. A recent scientific study found that outside of protected areas, cheetah populations are highly vulnerable and declining. The Asiatic subspecies, now limited to Iran’s arid Dasht-e Kavir, is now functionally extinct, its population limited to an estimated 12 individuals, nine of which are male.

Several hundred years ago, Cheetahs inhabited a vast area extending across most of Africa and southwestern Asia. (The map posted below, however, exaggerates and misconstrues the historical range, as is common in maps of this sort; cheetahs never lived in the dense forests of far north-central Iran or in the driest parts of the Sahara, and their range did not abruptly terminate at the modern political border between Iran and Armenia and Azerbaijan.) In prehistoric times, cheetahs also lived in Europe, where, according to one theory, they died out due to competition with lions. But as cheetahs easily coexisted with lions in historical times across most of Africa and southwestern Asia, this thesis is unconvincing. Regardless of where they lived, cheetahs evidently came close to extinction twice, once around 100,000 years ago and again around 12,000 years ago. Due to these near misses, cheetahs have extremely low genetic diversity, making them highly vulnerable to infectious diseases.

But just as cheetahs are vanishing from Africa, they are getting a new lease on life in India. In September 2022, eight cheetahs were transferred from Namibia to Kuno National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where they were personally released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his 72nd anniversary. (One of these cats later came down with a kidney ailment is currently undergoing treatment.) On January 25, 2023, South Africa announced that it sill send more than 100 cheetahs to India. Whether Kuno is large enough to sustain a viable cheetah population is an open question, leading some biologists to express reservations about the entire initiative. In the future, they might also have to compete with lions. In the 1990s, Kuno was selected as the main site of the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project, which resulted in the removal 1,650 Adivasis (tribal people) from Kuno National Park. India’s – and indeed, Asia’s – only remaining lion population has long been restricted to Gir National Park in Gujarat, making it highly vulnerable to extinction. Gujarat, however, has successfully resisted the transfer of any of its lions to Kuno, even though its own population has overpopulated its restricted range.

Cheetahs have a celebrated history in India, where they were widely used by aristocrats as a semi-domesticated hunting animal. According to the Indian author Divyabhanusinh, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great owned some 9,000 cheetahs over the course of his lifetime, although most experts think that this figure is greatly exaggerated. Regardless of numbers, tame Cheetahs figure prominently in Mughal art and were held in high esteem. But cheetahs were also killed in large numbers by elite Indian and British hunters. According to Wikipedia, “Three of India’s last cheetahs were shot by the Maharajah of Surguja in 1948. The same maharaja “has the notorious record of having shot and killed a total of 1,710 Bengal tigers, the highest known individual score.”

India was not the only place in which cheetahs were used extensively in hunting. Images from the third millennium BCE in both Mesopotamia and Egypt depict leashed cheetahs. According to the Indian blogger Rahultiwary, citing Wildcats of the World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist, “Later the cats were widely used in the Middle East, Afghanistan, southern Russia, Pakistan, India, and China. Tame cheetahs were used to hunt goitered [or black-tailed] gazelles, foxes, and hares in Russia and Mongolia, and the sport flourished during the middle ages in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. In 1474, one Armenian ruler owned 100 hunting cheetahs.” In Central Asia and the Caucasus, cheetahs here evidently exterminated in the 1950s, and by the late 1970s they were hunted out of the Arabian Peninsula as well.

The gradual disappearance of cheetahs from Africa, coupled with their reintroduction to India, has important lessons for conservation biology. Many environmentalists who warn about the impending “sixth wave of extinctions” also think that economic growth and development more generally are the root cause of the crisis. According to the noted Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, the primary drivers are “continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich” Continuing economic growth, such authors argue, entails the extraction of ever more resources, which will eventually – and quite soon in Ehrlich’s view – reach the point of exhaustion, resulting in a systemic collapse. Although their dire predictions have all failed thus far, eco-pessimists might be right in the long term , as only time can tell. But in the short term, they are almost certainly wrong. Rampant habitat loss and wildlife destruction is occurring primarily in the least developed parts of the world. Where economic development has reached an advanced stage, habitat is generally increasing and wildlife is rebounding. Economic development is also closely correlated with reduced human fertility; economically surging India now has a below-replacement-rate Total Fertility Rate of around 2.0, whereas in economically troubled Niger the figure stands at 6.6. To the extent that economic development is hindered in tropical Africa for environmental reasons, the destruction of nature can be expected to be intensified rather than reversed. Even in Europe, environmentally justified energy austerity programs are accompanied by increased environmental degradation. When people have difficulty affording power, trees can be quickly sacrificed for fuel, as is indeed occurring in some of Europe’s few remaining old growth forests.

India deserves credit for protecting and restoring wildlife and wild lands at a far higher level than might be expected on the basis on its raw developmental standing. Most of the world’s remaining wild tigers, for example, live in India, even though India accounts for a relatively small portion of the animal’s original range, and even though India is far poorer than most countries that had, or still have, viable tiger populations. The contrast in wildlife conservation between India and China is especially stark and has been apparent for hundreds if not thousands of years. The sad story of China’s long history of wildlife extirpation can be found in Mark Elvins’ well-researched book, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China.

As a final note, North America had its own “cheetah” (Miracinonyx trumani) until the Pleistocene-Holocene Extinction Event circa 12,000 years ago, which wiped out roughly 85 percent of its large mammals. This large America cat was morphologically similar to the cheetah. It was likewise built for speed, as was its main prey, the pronghorn “antelope.” Recent genetic research, however, has shown that Miracinonyx trumani was much more closely related to the puma (cougar or mountain lion) than to the eastern hemisphere’s cheetah, and is therefore now properly deemed “the American cheetah-like cat.” It came to resemble the cheetah through convergent evolution, not from descent from a common ancestral species.

South Asia’s Human Development Progress

One of my take-home messages for college geography students is that the world is probably both in worse shape and in better shape than they realize: in the geopolitical context of war and conflict, conditions are worse than might be expected from a casual reading of the news, whereas in regard to human development they are considerably better. Over almost all of the world, Human Development Index (HDI) scores have increased over the past thirty years, and in most places they have done so to a significant degree.

Greater South Asia has seen particularly large increases in human development, as is made clear by looking at the paired maps posted here. Not just every country in the region, but almost every major political subdivision has seen major gains in health, education, and average income. But it is also evident that regional HDI disparities have increased in the same period. Some places have made far greater gains than others.


In the regional map of HDI levels in 1990, three Indian states have anomalously high figures in 1990 – almost as high as their 2019 figures: Uttarakhand, in the north, Telangana in the center, and Jharkhand in the northeast.  Significantly, none was a state in 1990. At that time, all belonged to other states (Uttarakhand was then part of Uttar Pradesh, Telangana was part of Andhra Pradesh, and Jharkhand was part of Bihar). I suspect that statistical irregularities play a role in these surprising figures.

Human Development Discrepancies in (Greater) Punjab

Today’s post examines an interesting human developmental disparity in South Asia: that of the Punjab. When British India was partitioned into Pakistan and (independent) India in 1947, so too was the Punjab, an agriculturally productive cultural region that was united by language and culture but divided by religion (between Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh communities). Partition in Punjab was a horrifically violent process, but the region soon began to experience economic growth and social development. Such developments, however, proceeded at a much faster pace in the Indian state of Punjab than in the Pakistani province of the same name. As can be seen on the map posted here, the HDI ranking of Indian Punjab is now significantly ahead of that of Pakistani Punjab.

As Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous and economically productive province, its low HDI figure depresses the developmental standing of the country as a whole. Considering the many similarities of the two Punjabs, it also indicates problems with Pakistan’s governance. Simply put, a much better record in human development has been achieved in India. It might be tempting to argue that this is a matter of religion, as Pakistani Punjab is almost entirely Muslim whereas Indian Punjab has a Sikh majority and a large Hindi minority. But Muslim Bangladesh, once widely regarded as South Asia’s economic and social “basket case,” has also achieved a higher HDI level than Pakistan’s Punjab.

But it must also be noted that the southern half of Pakistan’s Punjab is not exactly “Punjabi,” at least in linguistic terms. Its local language, Saraiki, was once regarded as merely a Punjabi dialect, but it has now been given status as a separate language. The Saraiki-speaking parts of Pakistan’s Punjab are much poorer and less developed than the province’s Punjabi-speaking areas. Most of Pakistan’s districts that post relatively high HDI figures are located in northern (Punjabi-speaking) Punjab.


It also interesting that all of the Indian states of the former Province of Punjab under the British Raj now have relative high levels of human development, regardless of their language and culture. After Indian independence, the non-Punjabi-speaking (mostly Hindi-speaking) areas of this province were hived off as the separate states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. All have done quite well. It is also interesting that all of these areas, on both sides of the international border, constituted the Sikh Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century

Areas of Relatively High Human Development in Greater South Asia

Today’s post continues the GeoCurrents series on the Human Development Index (HDI), focusing initially on greater South Asia. Here we look at areas with relatively high HDI figures.

For decades, the region’s highest human development levels have been found in the far south and southwest, specifically in the Indian states of Kerala and Goa and in Sri Lanka. All invested heavily in health and education, reaping substantial rewards. For decades, Kerala was well ahead of the rest of India, especially in female literacy. This patterns partly reflects the region’s social structure, which has long been less male dominated than most of the rest of India.

Sri Lanka has also long outpaced other parts of South Asia, but its edge has been steadily slipping. In 1990, Sri Lanka posted an HDI figure of .629, substantially ahead of Goa’s .552 and Kerala’s .544, and well ahead of Tamil Nadu’s .471. By 2019, Sri Lanka has advanced to .782, but it was now behind Kerala’s .790 and just ahead of Goa’s .761. At the time, Tamil Nadu’s HDI figure had surged to .708. Give Sri Lanka’s current political crisis and economic meltdown, it would not be surprising to see Tamil Nadu and several other Indian states overtake it in the next few years.



In northern India, the adjacent states of Punjab and Haryana, along with the National Capital Territory of New Delhi, exhibit relatively high HDI numbers, and have done so for decades. These two states are at the center of India’s agricultural “green revolution,” and are the site of substantial agro-industrial economic growth. Although neither Punjab nor Haryana top of the list agricultural production by Indian state, their relative productivity becomes apparent when population is factored in (see the chart posted here). These two states were also the hub of the massive 2020-2021 farmer protest movement that roiled India and caused its government to backtrack on planned prom-market agricultural reforms.



The neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh also exhibits a relatively high HDI figure, but the factors behind its development are distinctive. Whereas Punjab and Haryana are lowland states with fertile soils, Himachal Pradesh is a land of rugged topography, located in the Himalayan mountains and foothills. Its developmental ascent, moreover, has been much more recent. Through the 1960s, its indicators remained relatively low. A World Bank report credits its transformation on effective and non-corrupt political leadership, female empowerment, and mass electrification based on hydropower. Intriguingly, the population of Himachal Pradesh is overwhelmingly rural, with the state posting one of India’s lowest urbanization rates. In general, both in India and the world at large, low urbanization correlates with low social and economic development. This seeming paradox has received relatively little attention, and as a result it will be the subject of a future GeoCurrents post.



Higher than average HDI figures are posted across greater southwestern India. This large region has been the site of most of India’s recent industrial and financial expansion. As the next map shows, it is also contains almost all of India’s major tech hubs.






A far different situation is found in India’s far northeastern periphery. This is another rugged area that was long noted for its relative isolation, poorly developed infrastructure, and numerous ethnic insurgencies. Yet its human development indicators are now well above the average for the country. Many of the so-called tribal peoples of this region converted from animism to Christianity under the influence of missionaries during the colonial period, and three of its states (Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya) now have solid Christian (mostly Protestant) majorities. Missionaries stressed education, resulting in mass literacy. Women also have a relatively high social position in these societies, which are more culturally related to those of Southeast Asia than they are to those of South Asia. Recent infrastructural initiatives by the Indian and local governments, especially in electrification and road construction, have significantly improved economic conditions.


In neighboring Burma, several rugged and so-called tribal regions with Christian majorities or large minorities also post higher than expected HDI figures.

Mapping the Human Development Index (HDI) in Greater South Asia

(Note: Today’s scheduled post on language and nationalism needs more work and therefore its publication will be delayed).

On a map of the World Bank’s Human Development Index divided into the standard categories, South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka*) is depicted as a land of “medium” development, better than central and north-central Africa, but worse than most of the rest of the world. Sri Lanka is an exception, falling instead into the “high development” category. This data, however, was collected before Sri Lanka’s recent economic melt-down. Presumably its HDI figure will decline.

When South Asia’s HDI rankings are broken down into finer categories and mapped in their regional context (one covering Burma and Afghanistan as well as portions of neighboring countries), several spatial patterns are evident. Here India, Bangladesh, and Nepal appear at a medium developmental level, and are flanked on the east and northwest by countries of lower ranking (Burma [Myanmar] and Pakistan & Afghanistan respectively). Bracketing “Greater South Asia” as a whole, one finds countries with much higher HDI levels (China, Iran, and Thailand).

These patterns vanish, however, when the larger countries of the region are broken down into their first-order administrative divisions (states, provinces, regions, etc. **). On this map, the borders between countries are hard to distinguish, and sometimes disappear altogether. China may have a much higher HDI level than India, but many Indian states post higher figures than the neighboring Chinese region of Tibet.

The rest of this post looks at parts of this Greater South Asia that have low HDI figures relative to the rest of the region. Later posts will examine areas with relatively high HDI, as well as regional developmental discrepancies.

South Asia’s most heavily populated area, India’s central Ganges Valley, is characterized low HDI. This region, consisting of the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is home to some 312 million people; it would be the world’s fourth most populous country if it were independent. The central Ganges Valley is a generally flat area with fertile soils and plentiful water (especially in the east). It is also the historical heartland of South Asia civilization. Its economic and social development, however, lags behind the rest of the country. Not coincidentally, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are also known for their high levels of corruption and their caste and religious tensions.

To the south of Bihar is the Indian state of Jharkhand, also characterized by low levels of social development. Ironically, it has India’s richest mineral deposits (especially coal) and has therefore been described as an example of the “resource curse.” Most of Jharkhand is a hilly plateau, and it has a large number of adivasis (“tribal people”). It has also been the site of numerous Maoist (Naxalite) attacks on governmental institutions.



Lower levels of human development are encountered in South Asia’s northwestern fringe. Both the western and eastern parts of Afghanistan, encompassing areas of both Pashtun and Tajik ethnicity, post very low HDI figures. Significantly higher levels are found in central Afghanistan, especially in and around Kabul. Across the country, HDI levels showed significant increases in the first two decades of the century. It will be interesting to see how they change with the Taliban back in power. Preliminary indications are not positive.

Very low levels of human development are also found in Pakistan’s Balochistan region, the country’ largest and most mineral-rich province. Not surprisingly, the ethnically distinct people of this area (mostly Baloch and Brahui) have been in periodic rebellion for decades. Baloch insurgents have recently launched attacks on Chinese-financed infrastructural projects in their region, which they see as benefitting the rest of Pakistan rather than themselves. While Balochistan as a whole posts an HDI figure of only .48, some of its internal districts have much lower numbers still. According to one source, Awaran, known as Pakistan’s “oasis of dates,” has a shockingly low HDI figure of only .17 (2017 data). Outside of Balochistan, the same data source claims that Pakistan’s former FATA region (“Federally Administered Tribal Areas”) had a similarly miserable figure of .22 in 2017. In 2018, this previously largely unadministered region of Pashtun ethnicity was merged with the neighboring state of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It still has one of the world’s lowest levels of female literacy. (Other sources give the dismantled FATA a substantially higher HDI figure of .46 [in 2019].)

Iran’s neighboring province of Sistan and Baluchestan is similar to Pakistan’s Balochistan in regard to its ethnic make-up and physical geography. Its HDI figure, .67, is, however, significantly higher. But Sistan and Baluchestan does have Iran’s lowest HDI figure, and by a sizable margin. It has also been the site of prolonged ethnic unrest.

Burma (Myanmar), although not conventionally classified as part of South Asia, also deserves a closer look. The country as a whole has a relatively low HDI figure despite its abundant resources and historical legacy of economic and social development (the noted historian Victor Lieberman thinks that Burma may have had the world’s highest level of literacy in the 1700s.) Intriguingly, Burma’s areas of particularly low development are not found in its marginalized, non-Burman, “tribal,” upland peripheries (more on this in the next most). The country’s profound “lowland/highland” and “Burman/ethnic minority” cleavages are not visible on this map.


Within Burma, a particularly low level of development is found in coastal Rakhine state. Known historically as Arakan, this area long formed an independent kingdom. The Arakanese people speak a language (dialect?) that is very closely related to Burmese. And like the Burmese-speaking ethnic Burmans, most of them follow Theravada Buddhism. Their lands have rich agricultural, marine, and forestry resources. But owing in part to its low levels of development, Rakhine is a restive region. The nationalist Arakan Liberation Army has recently ramped up its attacks on the Burmese state. The Arakan Liberation Army is also hostile toward the Muslim Rohingya minority, which until recently lived in the northern part of the region (vast numbers of Rohingya have been violently expelled from Burma).

Burma’s eastern Shan state posts an HDI figure lower than that of Rakhine, coming in at just over .5. The Shan state covers an upland plateau with some rugged topography and remote locales. It is not, however, a “tribal” area in general. The Shan themselves are a Tai-speaking people who also practice Theravada Buddhism. They were historically organized into small but military potent principalities. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Burma and Siam (which became Thailand) competed over gaining control of this sizable area, with Burma eventually coming out on top. In the late twentieth century, it became a focal point of the narcotics trade. For a time, the insurgent Shan State enjoyed effective independence. In the late 1900s, however, the Burmese government defeated the Shan military, made possible by its alliance with the drug-running United Wa State Army. (The Wa are a “tribal’ people living in the northern part of Shan state.). The entire region is still noted for its narcotics trade and ethnic conflicts.

*The Maldives, another South Asian country, is excluded here due to its very small population. Like Sri Lanka, it has a relatively high level of human development (HDI of .74).

** The provinces of Afghanistan have been amalgamated into larger informal regions by the data source used here.

India: Milk in the Northwest; Meat in the Northeast

India_dairy_consumption_ruralDue primarily to religious restrictions, vegetarianism is widespread in India. But very few Indians follow a vegan diet in which all animal products are avoided. Milk and other dairy products, derived from both cows and water buffalos, are avidly consumed across a large portion of the country. Indeed, India is the largest milk producer in the world by a good margin, having recently surpassed the entire European Union, and Pakistan ranks fourth. Milk is India’s leading agricultural commodity, produced on some 75 million dairy farms, most of which are quite small. Beginning in 1970, the Indian government provided high levels of support for the dairy industry through its “Operation Flood,” which doubled per capita milk consumption in a 30-year period.


India_dairy_consumption_urbanBut milk drinking and the consumption of other dairy products is by no means uniformly distributed across India. Instead, as the maps posted here indicate, the country has a strong longitudinal gradient in this regard. Milk drinking is pronounced in the northwest but is relatively rare in the northeast, with per capita consumption on the state-level varying by well more than an order of magnitude. The same pattern is found on the maps of both urban and rural consumption. The only major difference between the two is the fact that urban dwellers, being wealthier on average, tend to drink more milk than rural dwellers.


Lactose Tolerance MapAt one level, the east/west dairy disparity in India is easily explained on a genetic basis. In northwestern India, the vast majority of people are lactose tolerant, and hence can drink milk without digestive problems into adulthood. In eastern India, on the other hand, most adults are lactose intolerant. (Some dairy products, however, are generally digestible by those with lactose intolerance; this is particularly the case with ghee, or clarified butter, an essential component of many Indian dishes.) Lactose tolerance in western India may be connected to the Bronze-Age movement of Indo-European-speaking people into South Asia. Although lactose tolerance has evolved separately in at least four different areas of the world, it appears that Europeans and Indians share the same genes that allow milk digestion into adulthood. As was reported in a 2011 Wall Street Journal blog post:

Researchers were expecting a similar independent evolution to have taken place in India, the world’s largest milk producer and consumer. But to their surprise, they found mutation -13910T, which originated in Europe some 7,500 years ago, at high frequency in India as well.

“India was an unknown quantity…because cattle had been domesticated independently in India around seven or eight thousand years ago, we were expecting to see uniquely Indian genetic causes,” the study’s lead author, Irene Gallego Romero, said in the statement.

“To our surprise we found that the -13910T mutation was also common in India – especially in those populations with a tradition of milk drinking,” added Toomas Kivisild, a senior author of the study.

“Not only that, but by looking at nearby genetic regions we could show that the Indian -13910T has the same origin as that found in Europeans; that it could lead back to the same few people who may have migrated between Europe and India,” Mr. Kivisild said.

India_meat_consumption_ruralIn non-milk-drinking northeastern India, the lack of protein in the diet is generally made up by the consumption of meat, eggs, and fish. Vegetarian precepts are much weaker among Hindus in northeastern India than among those in the west. In Bengal, even Brahmins—whose dietary restrictions are pronounced—are allowed to eat fish, which can seem shocking to those from western India. The widespread consumption of fish India_meat_consumption_urbanin northeastern India is probably linked both to the abundance of fresh-water fish in this humid region and to the fact that most people here cannot digest milk. Evidently, fish eating—or at least the consumption of certain kinds of fish—is a long-standing practice among Bengali Brahmins. Later, restrictions on certain other kinds of meat were relaxed as well. As reported in a 2014 post by Shankariyerh:

… According to brhadddharma purANa, the rohita (rui), shaphara (pu~Ti, shapharI), sakula (sola) etc. white fish with scales are allowed for brahmins. jImutavAhana mentions oil from illisa (ilisha, ilsA) as commonly used. However, fish that live in holes or in mud, fish whose head is shaped like a snake’s (e.g. vANa), those that look ugly and those that do not have scales were not allowed for the brahmins. Snails, crabs, chicken, crane, duck, dAtyUha (cAtaka), camel, cow, and pigs were considered inedible by the upper caste, though no doubt at least snails, crabs, chicken, and various kinds of proscribed fish and birds were eaten by the common people. 

Chicken (and eggs of hen) was not popular and in fact is still not popular/not consumed in many Bengali Brahmin families. The reason is historical and has to do with the fact that hen farms/poultries were owned by Muslims and hence Hindus had religious reservations against consuming such items. However, in recent times chicken and eggs have come to be accepted unilaterally across all Bengalis.

The high levels of meat consumption in such Indian states as Goa, Mizoram, and Meghalaya, and Kerala is rooted in the fact that many or most of their inhabitants are non-Hindu (Christian in the first three cases; Christian and Muslim in the last). I am somewhat surprised that Jammu and Kashmir, a majority Muslim state, does not have a higher level of meat consumption. Note also that Chhattisgarh, a poor state in east-central India, has a low level of both milk and meat consumption.

Buffalo Milk Production mapFinally, as the last map shows, India is the overwhelming global leader in milk produced by water buffalos. The Chart Bin page on which the map posted here is found also has maps of cow-milk, goat-milk, sheep-milk, and camel-milk production.




The Lost World of the Sago Eaters

Sago PalmThe previous GeoCurrents post mentioned the Manusela people of the Indonesian island of Seram, who evidently incorporate elements of Hinduism, animism, and Christianity in their religious beliefs and practices. The Manusuela rely on the sago palm for their dietary staple, as do many other peoples of eastern Indonesia and the lowlands of Papua New Guinea. (I am referring here to the true sago palm, Metroxylon sagu, not the unrelated cycads [genus Cycas] that are unfortunately given the same common name.) Sago is a most unusual foodstuff, as it is derived from the pith found in the center of the palm’s trunk. Sago boles accumulate starch that is used to support massive flowering blooms; after the seeds are formed, the starch content is exhausted and the trees die back, although new shoots later emerge from the roots. To harvest the edible carbohydrates, the trees must be cut and then the pith must be pulverized and thoroughly washed out with water. This process removes the starch from the fibers, allowing it to be collected in relatively pure form.

The process of extracting sago flour is laborious, but overall sago production requires relatively little work. Sago palms either grow wild or under conditions of “semi-domestication” that entail little care, and they produce large quantities of carbohydrates. Sago groves are, in general, more productive than agricultural fields. They also produce a number of other useful products. The dried petioles (the stalk that attaches the leaf blade to the stem), for example, are widely used to make walls, ceilings and even rafts. Owing to these advantages, sago is being intensively studied by agricultural researchers who think that it has promise as a potential crop in many humid tropical areas.*

sago palm mapAccording to the conventional view, the use of sago as a staple food is essentially limited to Melanesian people, particularly those of New Guinea but including as well some of the mixed “Papuan” and Austronesian societies of eastern Indonesia. Botanical maps and descriptions paint the same picture. According to a map produced in association with the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (reproduced here), the true sago palm was originally limited to New Guinea and a few eastern Indonesian islands, including Seram, Buru, and Halmahera. The same map also indicates that the plant has been introduced to western Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Other maps show the same general pattern. So too does the Wikipedia description, although it claims that the sago palm is also native to Malaysia and possibly the Philippines.


Other lines of evidence, however, indicate that the sago palm has (and had) a much wider distribution and, more importantly, that it once played a much larger role in human sustenance. In a 2013 PLOS One article, for example, a team of scientists claim that sago had once been a staple foodstuff of southern China. As the abstract of the article puts it:

Poor preservation of plant macroremains in the acid soils of southern subtropical China has hampered understanding of prehistoric diets in the region and of the spread of domesticated rice southwards from the Yangtze River region. According to records in ancient books and archaeological discoveries from historical sites, it is presumed that roots and tubers were the staple plant foods in this region before rice agriculture was widely practiced. But no direct evidences provided to test the hypothesis. Here we present evidence from starch and phytolith analyses of samples obtained during systematic excavations at the site of Xincun on the southern coast of China, demonstrating that during 3,350–2,470 aBC humans exploited sago palms, bananas, freshwater roots and tubers, fern roots, acorns, Job’s-tears as well as wild rice. A dominance of starches and phytoliths from palms suggest that the sago-type palms were an important plant food prior to the rice in south subtropical China. We also believe that because of their reliance on a wide range of starch-rich plant foods, the transition towards labour intensive rice agriculture was a slow process.

Although sago apparently no longer grows in southern China, that is not the case in regard to northeastern India. In a number of remote villages in Arunachal Pradesh, sago is still an important source of food, although its use seems to be declining. As reported in a recent paper by Robert Blench:

The only other region [other than New Guinea and eastern Indonesia] where [sago] is exploited extensively is in NE India, where the Puroik [=Sulung] of Arunachal Pradesh still process it (Stonor 1952; Deuri 1982; Sharma 1984; Gangwar &Ramakrishnan 1990). Peoples such as the Milang prepare it to feed to pigs but will no longer eat it for everyday consumption (Modi 2008), although it is acceptable as a famine food (Photo 5). Peoples such as the Idu also remember the processing of sago in the recent past (Bhattacharjee 1983:57).

Puroik people mapThe Puroik people, who are the main remaining sago-eaters of Arunachal Pradesh, are themselves a most intriguing group. To begin with, they were traditionally hunter-gatherers, unlike all the other people of the region, although they have recently adopted some basic forms of cultivation. Their language, moreover, is highly distinctive. It has generally been assumed to be a member of the Sino-Tibetan family, like those of most neighboring groups, but it had been little studied. Current thinking tends to regard it either as an aberrant member of the Austroasiatic family (which includes Khmer and Vietnamese), or as a linguistic isolate, not provably related to any described language family. Roger Blench, who as we saw above traces the origin of the Sino-Tibetan family as a whole to the eastern Himalayan region, thinks that Puroik is probably a linguistic isolate, based in part on the subsistence activities of the people who speak it: “The past of the Puroik as foragers, the distinctiveness of their language, and the low incidence of CTB roots suggests that it may best be considered a language isolate.”

The social position of the Puroik people, formerly called the Sulung, is itself unusual, as the entire group had been essentially enslaved by members of neighboring tribes. As the Wikipedia article puts it, “Earlier forming the bonded labour of other tribes such as the Nishi, the term Sulung indicates slavery, and they were renamed as Puroik to rid their name from this association.” The situation in earlier times was rather complicated, as conveyed in this passage from Rann Singh Mann’s The Tribes of India: On-Going Challenges (M.D. Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1996, page 389):

In their marriages, they traditionally had and still have to pay a heavy bride-price, and the people are not that sound economically to pay toward their bride-price. For obvious reasons the people had to borrow mithuns (Bos frontalis), which formed an essential part of the bride-price, from neighboring tribes… . These tribes, subsequently, started establishing supremacy over the Sulungs as they were never able to pay back the amount borrowed. Indebtedness is hence a major cause for which the Sulungs had to remain as thralls and that too for generations. …. A Sulung has developed the habit of tolerating all sorts of torture [that] his master, known as Ato, does to him because he is a Nyeru (thrall). In recent years, the Sulungs have expressed an intention to change their name to Puroik as they think Sulung is a derogatory term.

The role of the mithun, or gayal (Bos frontalis), a semi-domesticated bovine, in the economy and culture of Arunachal Pradesh was nicely depicted in Frederick and Elizabeth Simoons’ 1968 book, Ceremonial Ox of India: The Mithan in Nature, Culture, and History. This work, coincidently, help convince me to pursue a Ph.D in geography at the University of California at Berkeley, as Fred Simoons was a product of the same department. A first-rate scholar, his work never received the attention that it deserves. I would especially recommend his 1961 book, Eat Not This Flesh: Food Avoidances from Prehistory to the Present.


* As argued in the abstract of a 2008 Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety article:

The common industrial starches are typically derived from cereals (corn, wheat, rice, sorghum), tubers (potato, sweet potato), roots (cassava), and legumes (mung bean, green pea). Sago (Metroxylon sagu Rottb.) starch is perhaps the only example of commercial starch derived from another source, the stem of palm (sago palm). Sago palm has the ability to thrive in the harsh swampy peat environment of certain areas. It is estimated that there are about 2 million ha of natural sago palm forests and about 0.14 million ha of planted sago palm at present, out of a total swamp area of about 20 million ha in Asia and the Pacific Region, most of which are under- or nonutilized. Growing in a suitable environment with organized farming practices, sago palm could have a yield potential of up to 25 tons of starch per hectare per year. Sago starch yield per unit area could be about 3 to 4 times higher than that of rice, corn, or wheat, and about 17 times higher than that of cassava. Compared to the common industrial starches, however, sago starch has been somewhat neglected and relatively less attention has been devoted to the sago palm and its starch. Nevertheless, a number of studies have been published covering various aspects of sago starch such as molecular structure, physicochemical and functional properties, chemical/physical modifications, and quality issues. This article is intended to piece together the accumulated knowledge and highlight some pertinent information related to sago palm and sago starch studies.

Third Africa-India Forum Summit: Meeting of the Lions

India-Africa Summit LogoAlthough I will continue writing on Scolbert08’s map of world religion next week, I can’t resist taking a brief detour to consider the Third Africa-India Forum Summit, which is coming to an end today in New Delhi. Regarded as India’s largest diplomatic endeavor in its history, the summit was attended by 40 leaders of African states. I am particularly struck by its logo, which entails some interesting cartographic imagery. (Several of the islands on the map, however, are greatly exaggerated in size, and a few do not actually exist.) As noted in the Wikipedia:

The logo depicts a Lion with one half of an African lion and another half of an Indian lion. The official website mentioned about the logo: “Proud, Courageous, Bold and on the Prowl, ready to take on the future and seize every opportunity”. In the background African map overlapping merges with Indian map in a reference to ancient Gondwanaland when Indian subcontinent used to be part of today’s Africa’s continental landmass millions of years ago. The India Gate, one of the iconic land mark of Delhi, the host city will be illuminated with 3D laser projection showing India-Africa shared heritage and India’s contribution in African peace and prosperity, through out the summit week.

Lion Range MapAlthough the Indian (or Asiatic) lion is confined to one wildlife refuge in the state of Gujarat and numbers only around 500 individuals, the animal is symbolically important across South Asia. The Emblem of India, for example, depicts lions. The Asiatic lion has also made an impressive comeback, as it was on the verge of extinction a few decades ago. In early Emblem of Indiahistorical times, its rage extended all the way to the Balkan Peninsula.

Some Indian leaders hope that the summit will encourage African leaders to support India’s bit for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Most of the discussions, however, seem to have focused on India’s potential role in boosting economic development in Africa. As noted in The Hindu:

During his address, PM Modi outlined India’s vision and desire to assist Africa with infrastructure building from “Cairo to Cape Town, Marrakesh to Mombassa”. He announced credit at concessional rates of $10 billion over 5 years, in addition to about $7.4 billion that India has already pledged since 2008. “We will also offer a grant assistance of 600 million U.S. dollars. This will include an India-Africa Development Fund of 100 million U.S. dollars and an India-Africa Health Fund of 10 million U.S. dollars,” the PM said, adding that 50,000 scholarships will be given to African students, whom he called the “new links” between India and the African continent.

The Hindu article also notes that the leaders of India’s oppositional Congress Party declined to participate, based partly on issues of historical symbolism:

Interestingly, according to reports the Congress leadership has decided to boycott the African summit, to protest its exclusion from all consultations and the lack of reference to Jawaharlal Nehru, the “architect of Africa-India ties”. While denying any official boycott, Congress Leader Anand Sharma told The Hindu that the India-Africa summit’s focus on bringing all leaders together was “condescending”, and said he was “disappointed” that the NDA government had chosen to ignore the contribution of Nehru, adding that even at the anniversary of the Afro-Asian Bandung conference, EAM Sushma Swaraj had made no reference to him.



Religious Complexity in Northeastern South Asia

Northeastern South Asia Religion MapNortheastern South Asia has one of the world’s most complex religious environments, and such complexity is captured nicely in Scolbert08’s amazing map of world religions. To illustrate this, I have posted a detail from this map of this region, both in annotated and non-annotated form, along with a smaller version of the same map juxtaposed with other maps of the same general area.

The strongly Christian areas of far eastern India stand out clearly on Scolbert08’s map. Protestantism, represented mostly by the Presbyterian and Baptist churches, dominates here, but the state of Meghalaya also has an area of Roman Catholic plurality. Most of India’s northeastern Northeastern South Asia Religion Map AnnotatedChristians are of tribal background, and hence were never incorporated into the Hindu world. Manipur, which has a Hindu plurality, forms a religious exception in this part of India. In the early modern period, Manipur was a strong Hindu kingdom, supported by a powerful cavalry. But Hinduism is prevalent only in the state’s central plain, which also has a small zone of Islam, whereas the uplands of Manipur are dominated by Protestant Christians. The state as a whole is 46 percent Hindu, 34 percent Christian, and 9 percent Muslim.


Arunachal Pradesh in the far northeast, which China claims as “South Tibet,” is strikingly heterogeneous in terms of religion, as it is in regard to language, with some 30 to 50 separate ethnolinguistic groups. Some of the people of Arunachal Pradesh have converted Northeast India Mapsto Protestant Christianity, whereas others remain animists. Buddhism, of both the Theravada and Tibetan Mahayana branches, are also well represented in the state, as is Hinduism. The 2010 India census gives the following breakdown for Arunachal Pradesh: Christian: 418,732 (30.26%); Hindu: 401,876 (29.04%); Others (mostly Donyi-Polo): 362,553 (26.2%); Buddhist: 162,815 (11.76%); Muslim: 27,045 (1.9%); Sikh: 1,865 (0.1%); Jain: 216 (<0.1%). The Donyi-Polo category is particularly interesting, as it represents an effort to retain traditional beliefs and practices by transforming them into an organized religion. As explained in the Wikipedia:

Donyi-Polo (also Donyi-Poloism) is the designation given to the indigenous religions, of animistic and shamanic type, of the Tani and other Tibeto-Burman peoples of Arunachal Pradesh, in north-eastern India. The name “Donyi-Polo” means “Sun-Moon”, and was chosen for the religion in the process of its revitalisation and institutionalisation started in the 1970s in response to the coercive proselytization of Christianity and the possibility of absorption into Hinduism.

The religion has developed a congregational system, hymns to be sung composed in the Tani ritual language of shamans, a formalised philosophy-theology and iconography of the gods and temples.


A similar movement is underway in the tribal belt of the Chota Nagpur Plateau in the Indian state of Jharkhand, where the new/old faith of Sarnaism is gaining strength. As explained in a different Wikipedia article:

Sarnaism or Sarna (local languages: Sarna Dhorom, meaning “Religion of the Holy Woods”) defines the indigenous religions of the Adivasi populations of the states of Central-East India, such as the Munda, the Ho, the Santali, the Khuruk, and others. During, colonial rule it was subsumed as a folk form of Hinduism, in recent decades followers have started to develop an identity, and more recently even an organisation, distinct from Hinduism, similarly to other tribal religious movements such as Donyi-Polo or Sanamahism. …

Sarnaist followers have been organising protests and petitions to have their religion recognised by the government of India in census forms.[ In 2013 Sarnaist followers have organised a protest against use of indigenous imagery by Christians in order to attract converts.

Evidently, Christians in the Chota Nagpur region have been attracting converts in recent years. As the map shows, some parts of this region have clear Roman Catholic majorities. Catholicism has a long history in this area, dating back to the actions of Flemish Jesuit missionaries in the late 1800s. According to a recent article in ACN-USA News, “Catholic beliefs and practices have been important factors in drawing tribal peoples to the Catholic Church in north-east India, where Christianity has grown phenomenally.” I would, however, like to see more solid data on this phenomenon.


Other interesting and important features are also evident on Scolbert08’s map. One example is the fairly solid belt of Buddhism (Theravada) in the Chittagong Hills of southeastern Bangladesh. Although Buddhism is rarely associated with Bangladesh, up to a million Bangladeshis adhere to this faith. At one time, Buddhism was common if not prevalent over the area that now constitutes Bangladesh, but the religion survived only in the more remote upland tracks of the southeast. (Throughout northeastern South Asia, upland areas correlate with religious minorities.) Bangladesh also has some Hindu majority districts in the southwest, a pattern that generates political complications. As explained in a Wikipedia article:

Despite their dwindling numbers, Hindus [in Bangladesh] still yield considerable influence because of their geographical concentration in certain regions. They form a majority of the electorate in at least two parliamentary constituencies (Khulna-1 and Gopalganj-3) and account for more than 25% in at least another twenty. For this reason, they are often the deciding factor in parliamentary elections where victory margins can be extremely narrow. It is also frequently alleged that this is a prime reason for many Hindus being prevented from voting in elections, either through intimidating actual voters, or through exclusion in voter list revisions (e.g., see Daily Star, 4 January 2006).


As a final point, it is noteworthy that the Rohingya Muslim area of Burma (Myanmar) along the border with Bangladesh is not evident on the map. As most Rohingya have been denied citizenship in Burma, they are evidently not counted in enumerations of religious belief.