Domestic spousal violence against women in developing countries like India, is now beginning to be recognized as a widespread health problem impeding development. This study aimed to explore the risk and protective factors for lifetime spousal physical violence. A cross-sectional household survey was carried out in rural, urban and urban-slum areas across seven sites in India, among women aged 15–49 years, living with a child less than 18 years of age. The sample was selected using the probability proportionate to size method. Trained field workers administered a structured questionnaire to elicit information on spousal physical violence. The main hypothesized variables were social support, witnessed father beating mother and experience of harsh physical violence during childhood, alcohol abuse by spouse and socioeconomic variables. The outcome variables included three physical violence behaviours of hit, kick and beat. Odds ratios were calculated for risk and protective factors of violence using logistic regression. Of 9938 women surveyed, 26% reported experiencing spousal physical violence during the lifetime of their marriage. Adjusted odds ratios calculated using multiple logistic regression analysis suggest that women whose husbands regularly consumed alcohol (OR 5·6; 95% CI 4·7–6·6); who experienced dowry harassment (OR 3·2; 95% CI 2·7–3·8); had reported experiencing harsh physical punishment during childhood (OR 1·6; 95% CI 1·4–1·8) and had witnessed their fathers beat their mothers (OR 1·9; 95% CI 1·6–2·1), were at increased risk of spousal physical violence (beat, hit and kick). Higher socioeconomic status and good social support acted as protective buffers against spousal physical violence. The findings provide compelling evidence of the potential risk factors for spousal physical violence, which in turn could help in planning interventions.