What are often thought of as “Indian” art and culture spread not only throughout the modern nation of India but also through Pakistan and Bangladesh. This huge area was never politically unified except under British colonial rule (1858–1947). Earlier, various kingdoms and principalities controlled large or small areas, and occasionally a conqueror created a vast empire.
The Indian cultural area was separated from other cultural areas by formidable natural barriers. Oceans surrounded southern India. To the north and northeast the Himalayas and other mountain ranges, as well as great deserts, made overland travel to and from China exceedingly arduous. The northwest too was blocked by mountains and deserts, but these were less difficult to cross, so invaders typically entered from this direction.
In spite of these barriers, South Asia engaged in contact with other cultures in a variety of ways. Traders and pilgrims could, with effort, cross the deserts and mountain passes. The ocean prevented the large-scale movement of populations but served as a highway for shipborne travel and trade.