Background Understanding the relative influence of vicariance and dispersal in shaping Old World tropical biodiversity remains a challenge. We aimed to infer the roles of these alternative biogeographic processes using a species time-tree for the centipede genus Ethmostigmus from the Old World tropics. Additionally, we explored fine-scale biogeographic patterns for an endemic radiation of Ethmostigmus from the peninsular Indian Plate (PIP), an area with complex geological and climatic history. Results Divergence time estimates suggest that Ethmostigmus began diversifying in the Early Cretaceous, 125.4 (± 25) million years ago (Ma), its early biogeographic history shaped by vicariance. Members of Ethmostigmus in PIP form a monophyletic group that underwent endemic radiation in the Late Cretaceous, 100 (± 25) Ma. In contrast, a new species of Ethmostigmus from north-east India formed a clade with African/Australian species. Fine-scale biogeographic analyses in PIP predict that Indian Ethmostigmus had an ancestor in southern-central parts of the Western Ghats. This was followed by four independent dispersal events from the southern-central Western Ghats to the Eastern Ghats, and between different parts of the Western Ghats in the Cenozoic. Conclusions Our results are consistent with Gondwanan break-up driving the early evolutionary history of the genus Ethmostigmus. Multiple dispersal events coinciding with geo-climatic events throughout the Cenozoic shaped diversification in PIP. Ethmostigmus species in PIP are restricted to wet forests and have retained that niche throughout their diversification. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (10.1186/s12862-019-1367-6) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.