India, with an area of 1.26 million square miles (3.29 million kilometers), is the largest democratic country in the world. The country has about 16 percent of the world’s total population and 2.4 percent of the global land area. India is one third the size of the United States and occupies most of the Indian subcontinent in south Asia. Below the Indo-Ganges plain, which extends from the Bay of Bengal on the east to the Afghan frontier and Arabian Sea on the west, the land is fertile and one of the most densely populated regions of the world. The three great rivers, the Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra, have their origins in the Himalayas. With one quarter of the land forested, the climate varies from tropical in the south to near-Arctic in the north. The Rajasthan Desert is in the northwest; in the northeast, the Assam Hills receive 400 inches of rain a year. [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality]

Location: Southern Asia, bordering the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, between Burma and Pakistan Area: total: 3,287,263 square kilometers, country comparison to the world: 7 land: 2,973,193 square kilometers; water: 314,070 square kilometers. Land boundaries: total: 13,888 kilometers: border countries: Bangladesh 4,142 kilometers, Bhutan 659 kilometers, Burma 1,468 kilometers, China 2,659 kilometers, Nepal 1,770 kilometers, Pakistan 3,190 kilometers Coastline: 7,000 kilometers. Terrain: upland plain (Deccan Plateau) in south, flat to rolling plain along the Ganges, deserts in west, Himalayas in north. Wlevation extremes: lowest point: Indian Ocean 0 meters; highest point: Kanchenjunga 8,598 meters.Land use: arable land: 47.87 percent; permanent crops: 3.74 percent; other: 48.39 percent (2011) . India dominates South Asian subcontinent; near important Indian Ocean trade routes; Kanchenjunga, third tallest mountain in the world, lies on the border with Nepal. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

India is a country of great diversity with a wide range of landform types, including major mountain ranges, deserts, rich agricultural plains, and hilly jungle regions. Indeed, the term Indian subcontinent aptly describes the enormous extent of the earth's surface that India occupies, and any attempt to generalize about its physiography is inaccurate. Diversity is also evident in the geographical distribution of India's ethnic and linguistic groups. In ancient times, the major river valleys of the Indo-Gangetic Plain of South Asia were among the great cradles of civilization in Asia, as were the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in West Asia and the Huang He (Yellow River) in East Asia. As a result of thousands of years of cultural and political expansion and amalgamation, contemporary India has come to include many different natural and cultural regions. [Source: Library of Congress *]

India occupies much of the South Asian subcontinent, and the Indian mainland stretches eastward from Pakistan in the west to Bangladesh and Burma in the east. On the north, India borders China, Nepal, and Bhutan. The Indian Ocean to the south, the Arabian Sea to the west, and the Bay of Bengal to the east form the country’s coastline. Noncontiguous to the mainland are the Lakshadweep Islands in the Arabian Sea and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands located 1,300 kilometers from the mainland in the Bay of Bengal. South Asia covers 4,430,780 square kilometers not including Afghanistan or Tibet. South Asia embraces India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, The Maldives and Sri Lanka. India alone covers 3,287,260 square kilometers.

India’s exact size is subject to debate because some borders are disputed. The Indian government lists the total area as 3,287,260 square kilometers and the total land area as 3,060,500 square kilometers; the United Nations lists the total area as 3,287,263 square kilometers and total land area as 2,973,190 square kilometers. In either case, India is the seventh largest country in the world and about one-third the size of the United States. *

The Indian subcontinent floated across the Indian Ocean, starting out around where Madagascar is today, and rammed into southern Asia tens of millions of year later. The collision took place about 55 million years ago. The force of the impact created the Himalayas, which are still rising.

Almost the entire Indian subcontinent sits on the Indian Plate, which is moving northeastward at a rate of about four centimeters (1.7 inches) a year relative to the Eurasian Plate which sits to north and east and embraces most of Asia and Europe. To the west is the Arabian Plate The collision of Indian plate and the Eurasian plate continues to push up the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. A great amount of energy drives the collision and is released at the boundaries of the plates, which explains partly why India experience some devastating earthquakes.

Principal Regions of India

There are three main geological regions of India: the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the Himalayas—collectively known as North India—and the Peninsula, or South India. These and other portions of India can be classified into diverse physiological regions that include highlands, plains, deserts, and river valleys. The country’s lowest elevation is zero meters at the Indian Ocean, and the highest is 8,598 meters at Kanchenjunga, which is the third highest mountain in the world and located in the Himalayas. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Himalayas (and the nations of Nepal and Bhutan) form India's northern frontier with China. Pakistan borders India to the west and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) to the east. Although both were formerly part of the British Indian Empire, India and Pakistan became separate countries in 1947 and East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh in 1971. The boundaries of the Indian polity are not fully demarcated because of regional ethnic and political disputes and are the source of occasional tensions. *

On the basis of its physiography, India is divided into ten regions: the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the northern mountains of the Himalayas, the Central Highlands, the Deccan or Peninsular Plateau, the East Coast (Coromandel Coast in the south), the West Coast (Konkan, Kankara, and Malabar coasts), the Great Indian Desert (a geographic feature known as the Thar Desert in Pakistan) and the Rann of Kutch, the valley of the Brahmaputra in Assam, the northeastern hill ranges surrounding the Assam Valley, and the islands of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. *

Indo-Gangetic Plain

In social and economic terms, the Indo-Gangetic Plain is the most important region of India. The plain is a great alluvial crescent stretching from the Indus River system in Pakistan to the Punjab Plain (in both Pakistan and India) and the Haryana Plain to the delta of the Ganges (or Ganga) in Bangladesh (where it is called the Padma). Topographically the plain is homogeneous, with only floodplain bluffs and other related features of river erosion and changes in river channels forming important natural features. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Two narrow terrain belts, collectively known as the Terai, constitute the northern boundary of the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Where the foothills of the Himalayas encounter the plain, small hills known locally as ghar (meaning house in Hindi) have been formed by coarse sands and pebbles deposited by mountain streams. Groundwater from these areas flows on the surface where the plains begin and converts large areas along the rivers into swamps. The southern boundary of the plain begins along the edge of the Great Indian Desert in the state of Rajasthan and continues east along the base of the hills of the Central Highlands to the Bay of Bengal. The hills, varying in elevation from 300 to 1,200 meters, lie on a general east-west axis. The Central Highlands are divided into northern and southern parts. The northern part is centered on the Aravalli Range of eastern Rajasthan. In the northern part of the state of Madhya Pradesh, the Malwa Plateau comprises the southern part of the Central Highlands and merges with the Vindhya Range to the south. The main rivers that flow through the southern part of the plain — the Narmada, the Tapti, and the Mahanadi — delineate North India from South India. *

Some geographers subdivide the Indo-Gangetic Plain into three parts: the Indus Valley (mostly in Pakistan), the Punjab (divided between India and Pakistan) and Haryana plains, and the middle and lower Ganges. These regional distinctions are based primarily on the availability of water. By another definition, the Indo-Gangetic Plain is divided into two drainage basins by the Delhi Ridge; the western part consists of the Punjab Plain and the Haryana Plain, and the eastern part consists of the Ganges-Brahmaputra drainage systems. This divide is only 300 meters above sea level, contributing to the perception that the Indo-Gangetic Plain appears to be continuous between the two drainage basins. The Punjab Plain is centered in the land between five rivers: the Jhelum, the Chenab, the Ravi, the Beas, and the Sutlej. (The name Punjab comes from the Sanskrit pancha ab , meaning five waters or rivers.) *

Both the Punjab and Haryana plains are irrigated with water from the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej rivers. The irrigation projects emanating from these rivers have led to a decrease in the flow of water reaching the lower drainage areas in the state of Punjab in India and the Indus Valley in Pakistan. The benefits that increased irrigation has brought to farmers in the state of Haryana are controversial in light of the effects that irrigation has had on agricultural life in the Punjab areas of both India and Pakistan. *

The middle Ganges extends from the Yamuna River in the west to the state of West Bengal in the east. The lower Ganges and the Assam Valley are more lush and verdant than the middle Ganges. The lower Ganges is centered in West Bengal from which it flows into Bangladesh and, after joining the Jamuna (as the lower reaches of the Brahmaputra are known in Bangladesh), forms the delta of the Ganges. The Brahmaputra (meaning son of Brahma) rises in Tibet (China's Xizang Autonomous Region) as the Yarlung Zangbo River, flows through Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, and then crosses into Bangladesh. Average annual rainfall increases moving west to east from approximately 600 millimeters in the Punjab Plain to 1,500 millimeters around the lower Ganges and Brahmaputra.

The Himalayas

The Himalayas as most everyone knows are the highest mountains in the world, with 30 peaks over 24,000 feet. The highest mountains in Europe, North and South America barely top 20,000 feet. The word Himalaya is Sanskrit for "abode of the snow" and a Himal is a massif of mountains. Technically Himalaya is the plural of Himal and there should be no such word as Himalayas.

The Himalayas stretch for 1,500 miles from eastern Tibet and China to a point where India, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan all come together. They extend along the northern frontiers of Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma. Lesser ranges jut southward from the main body of the Himalayas at both the eastern and western ends. The mountain kingdoms of Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal are all contained within the range. The southern side of the Himalayas are like a huge climatic wall. During the summer monsoon winds push massive rain clouds against the mountains squeezing out rain onto some of the wettest places on earth. On the leeward, rain-blocked side of the range, on the Tibetan plateau, are some of the driest and most barren places on the planet.

The Himalaya-Karakoram range contains nine of the world’s top ten highest peaks and 96 of the world's 109 peaks over 24,000 feet. If the Karakorum, Pamir, Tian Shan and Hindu Kush ranges and Tibet — -which are extensions of the Himalayas into Pakistan, China, Afghanistan and Central Asia — -are including in the Himalayas then the 66 highest mountains in the world are in the Himalayas. The 67th highest is Aconcagua in Argentina and Chile

Several of the greatest rivers in the world — -the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers — -originate in either the Himalayas or the Tibetan plateau. Some people live in valleys nestled between Himalayan ridges but few people actually live on the slopes of the mountains.

The southern slopes of each of the Himalayan ranges are too steep to accumulate snow or support much tree life; the northern slopes generally are forested below the snow line. Between the ranges are extensive high plateaus, deep gorges, and fertile valleys, such as the vales of Kashmir and Kulu. The Himalayas serve a very important purpose. They provide a physical screen within which the monsoon system operates and are the source of the great river systems that water the alluvial plains below. As a result of erosion, the rivers coming from the mountains carry vast quantities of silt that enrich the plains. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The area of northeastern India adjacent to Burma and Bangladesh consists of numerous hill tracts, averaging between 1,000 and 2,000 meters in elevation, that are not associated with the eastern part of the Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh. The Naga Hills, rising to heights of more than 3,000 meters, form the watershed between India and Burma. The Mizo Hills are the southern part of the northeastern ranges in India. The Garo, Khasi, and Jaintia hills are centered in the state of Meghalaya and, isolated from the northeastern ranges, divide the Assam Valley from Bangladesh to the south and west. *

The highest settlement in world, 19,650-foot-high Basasi, is located on the Indian-Tibetan border. It is only 9,384 feet lower than Mount Everest. According to the World Wildlife Fun (WWF), India has 5,243 glaciers that cover 37,958 square kilometers and have an ice volume of 143 square kilometers.

Greater Himalayas, Lesser Himalayas, and Outer Himalayas

The Himalayan system, about 2,400 kilometers in length and varying in width from 240 to 330 kilometers, is made up of three parallel ranges — the Greater Himalayas, the Lesser Himalayas, and the Outer Himalayas — sometimes collectively called the Great Himalayan Range. The Greater Himalayas, or northern range, average approximately 6,000 meters in height and contain the three highest mountains on earth: Mount Everest (8,796 meters) on the China-Nepal border; B.C. (8,611 meters, also known as Mount Godwin-Austen, and in China as Qogir Feng) in an area claimed by India, Pakistan, and China; and Kanchenjunga (8,598 meters) on the India-Nepal border. Many major mountains are located entirely within India, such as Nanda Devi (7,817 meters) in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The snow line averages 4,500 to 6,000 meters on the southern side of the Greater Himalayas and 5,500 to 6,000 on the northern side. Because of climatic conditions, the snow line in the eastern Himalayas averages 4,300 meters, while in the western Himalayas it averages 5,800 meters. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Lesser Himalayas, located in northwestern India in the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, in north-central India in the state of Sikkim, and in northeastern India in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, range from 1,500 to 5,000 meters in height. Located in the Lesser Himalayas are the hill stations of Shimla (Simla) and Darjiling (Darjeeling). During the colonial period, these and other hill stations were used by the British as summer retreats to escape the intense heat of the plains. It is in this transitional vegetation zone that the contrasts between the bare southern slopes and the forested northern slopes become most noticeable. *

The Outer or Southern Himalayas, averaging 900 to 1,200 meters in elevation, lie between the Lesser Himalayas and the Indo-Gangetic Plain. In Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, this southernmost range is often referred to as the Siwalik Hills. It is possible to identify a fourth, and northernmost range, known as the Trans-Himalaya. This range is located entirely on the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, north of the great west-to-east trending valley of the Yarlung Zangbo River. Although the Trans-Himalaya Range is divided from the Great Himalayan Range for most of its length, it merges with the Great Himalayan Range in the western section — the Karakoram Range — where India, Pakistan, and China meet. *

Geology of the Himalayas

The Himalayas are not just one range of mountains but a series of three parallel ranges that rise up from the plains of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Between the massifs and peaks are eroded river gorges, some of the deepest valleys in the world, and massive, slowly-creeping glaciers. The southernmost range, the Siwalik Hills, barely tops 5000 feet. The Lesser Himalayas, in the middle, vary in altitude between 7,000 and 15,000 feet, and are indented with valleys like the Kathmandu Valley. The third range is known as the Great Himalayas and this is where all the world's biggest peaks are found.

The Himalayas are young mountains. Because of this they experience frequent landslides and rapid erosion, creating precipitous topography with sharp peaks and V-shaped ravines rather than alluvial valleys or lakes. Wind, rain, run off and snow continue shaping the mountains today. The mountains remain about the same height because the rate of erosion is about the same as the amount of uplift. The amount of snow also varies considerably. The greatest depths are recorded in the summer when the monsoons dump large amounts of snow on the higher elevation of the Himalayas. In the winter, high wind scour the landscape and blow snow away.

Himalayas and Plate Tectonics

The Himalayas began 65 million years when the Indian subcontinent climaxed a 70 million year journey across the Indian Ocean with a collision into Asia. The force and pressure of the collision between the Asian plate and India, pushed massive folds of sedimentary rock up from out of the earth. The pressure and heat of the mountain building forces turned some of rock into metamorphic rocks such schists and gneisses. Wind, rain, run off and glacial ice created the awesome Alpine shapes you see today.

Much of the rock pushed upwards by the mountain building activity is limestone and sandstone that was once at the bottom of the ocean. It is possible to find fossils of sea creatures in the Himalayas at an elevation of four kilometers above sea level.

Plate tectonic continues to push the Indian subcontinent under Nepal and China, which sit on the Eurasian Plate, forcing Tibet and the entire Himalayan range to rise about 10 millimeters a year and move towards China at a rate if about five centimeters a year. Before it was pushed upwards Tibet was a well watered plain. As the Himalayas were pushed up they deprived Tibet of rain, turning it into a dry plateau.

The Indian Plate is moving northeastward at a rate of 1.7 inches a year relative to the Eurasian Plate which embraces most of Asia and Europe. A great amount of energy drives the collision and is released at the boundaries of the plates, which explains partly why India, Nepal , Tibet and China experience sometimes experience devastating earthquakes.

Peninsular India and Offshore Islands

The Peninsula proper is an old, geologically stable region with an average elevation between 300 and 1,800 meters. The Vindhya Range constitutes the main dividing line between the geological regions of the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the Peninsula. This range lies north of the Narmada River, and when viewed from there, it is possible to discern the prominent escarpments that rise between 800 and 1,400 meters. The Vindhya Range defines the north-central and northwestern boundary of the Peninsula, and the Chota Nagpur Plateau of southern Bihar forms the northeastern boundary. The uplifting of the plateau of the central Peninsula and its eastward tilt formed the Western Ghats, a line of hills running from the Tapti River south to the tip of the Peninsula. The Eastern Ghats mark the eastern end of the plateau; they begin in the hills of the Mahanadi River basin and converge with the Western Ghats at the Peninsula's southern tip. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The interior of the Peninsula, south of the Narmada River, often termed the Deccan Plateau or simply the Deccan (from the Sanskrit daksina , meaning south), is a series of plateaus topped by rolling hills and intersected by many rivers. The plateau averages roughly 300 to 750 meters in elevation. Its major rivers — the Godavari, the Krishna, and the Kaveri — rise in the Western Ghats and flow eastward into the Bay of Bengal. *

The coastal plain borders the plateau. On the northwestern side, it is characterized by tidal marshes, drowned valleys, and estuaries; and in the south by lagoons, marshes, and beach ridges. Coastal plains on the eastern side are wider than those in the west; they are focused on large river deltas that serve as the centers of human settlement. *

India's offshore islands, constituting roughly one-quarter of 1 percent of the nation's territory, lie in two groups located off the east and west coasts. The northernmost point of the union territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands lies 1,100 kilometers southeast of Calcutta. Situated in the Bay of Bengal in a chain stretching some 800 kilometers, the Andaman Islands comprise 204 islands and islets, and their topography is characterized by hills and narrow valleys. Although their location is tropical, the climate of the islands is tempered by sea breezes; rainfall is irregular. The Nicobar Islands, which are south of the Andaman Islands, comprise nineteen islands, some with flat, coral-covered surfaces and others with hills. The islands have a nearly equatorial climate, heavy rainfall, and high temperatures. The union territory of Lakshadweep (the name means 100,000 islands) in the Arabian Sea, comprises — from north to south — the Amindivi, Laccadive, Cannanore, and Minicoy islands. The islands, only ten of which are inhabited, are spread throughout an area of approximately 77,000 square kilometers. The islands are low-lying coral-based formations capable of limited cultivation. *

India’s Borders and Territorial Claims

Land Boundaries: Land boundaries total 15,200 kilometers. India shares common borders with Pakistan (3,325 kilometers; the Jammu and Kashmir border is 1,085 kilometers), China (line of actual control is 3,439 kilometers), Bhutan (605 kilometers), Nepal (1,690 kilometers), Burma (1,452 kilometers), and Bangladesh (4,339 kilometers). Although India and Sri Lanka do not share a land boundary, the narrowest distance between the two countries is only 64 kilometers across the Palk Strait. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Disputed Territory: Most of Jammu and Kashmir is contested with Pakistan, and the Aksai Chin area of Jammu and Kashmir is disputed with China, as is the border of Arunachal Pradesh state in northeast India. Nepal claims a 75-square-kilometer-area called Kalapani. Possession of recently emerged New Moore Island (South Talpatty) in the Bay of Bengal has been disputed by Bangladesh, and much of the border with Bangladesh is not demarcated. * Length of Coastline: India’s total coastline is 7,516 kilometers in length, which comprises 5,422 kilometers for the mainland, 132 kilometers for the Lakshadweep Islands, and 1,962 kilometers for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Maritime Claims: Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, India has a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, a 24-nautical-mile contiguous zone, and a legal continental shelf extending to a depth of 2,500 meters or to the end of the continental margin. *

Land Disputes Between India and Pakistan

In the mid-1990s, India had boundary disagreements with Pakistan, China, and Bangladesh; border distances are therefore approximations. The partition of India in 1947 established two India-Pakistan frontiers: one on the west and one on the east (East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971). [Source: Library of Congress *]

Disputes over the state of Jammu and Kashmir led to hostilities between India and Pakistan in 1947. The January 1, 1949, cease-fire arranged by the United Nations (UN) divided control of Kashmir. India controls Jammu, the Vale of Kashmir, and the capital, Srinagar, while Pakistan controls the mountainous area to the northwest. Neither side accepts a divided Kashmir as a permanent solution. India regards as illegal the 1963 China-Pakistan border agreement, which ceded to China a portion of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. The two sides also dispute the Siachen Glacier near the Karakoram Pass. Further India-Pakistan hostilities in the 1965 war were settled through the Soviet-brokered Tashkent Declaration. *

In 1968 an international tribunal settled the dispute over the Rann of Kutch, a region of salt flats that is submerged for six months of the year in the state of Gujarat. The following year, a new border was demarcated that recognized Pakistan's claim to about 10 percent of the area. In 1992 India completed fencing most of the 547-kilometer-long section of the boundary between the Indian state of Punjab and the Pakistani province of Punjab. This measure was undertaken because of the continuing unrest in the region caused by both ethnic and religious disputes among the local Indian population and infiltrators from both sides of the frontier. The more rugged terrain north of Punjab along the entire cease-fire line between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir continues to be subject to infiltration and local strife. *

Land Disputes Between India and China

The 2,000-kilometer-long border with China has eastern, central, and western sections. In the western section, the border regions of Jammu and Kashmir have been the scene of conflicting claims since the nineteenth century. China has not accepted India's definitions of the boundary and has carried out defense and economic activities in parts of eastern Kashmir since the 1950s. In the 1960s, China finished construction of a motor road across Aksai Chin (a region under dispute between India and China), the main transportation route linking China's Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region and Tibet. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In the eastern section, the China-India boundary follows the McMahon Line laid down in 1914 by Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, the British plenipotentiary to a conference of Indian, British, and Chinese representatives at Simla (now known as Shimla, Himachal Pradesh). The Simla Convention, as the agreement is known, set the boundary between India and Tibet. Although the British and Tibetan representatives signed the agreement on July 3, 1914, the Chinese delegate declined to sign. The line agreed to by Britain and Tibet generally follows the crest of the eastern Himalayas from Bhutan to Burma. It serves as a legal boundary, although the Chinese have never formally accepted it. China continued to claim roughly the entire area of Arunachal Pradesh south of the McMahon Line in the early 1990s. In 1962 China and India fought a brief border war in this region, and China occupied certain areas south of the line for several months. India and China took a major step toward resolving their border disputes in 1981 by opening negotiations on the issue. Agreements and talks held in 1993 and 1995 eased tensions along the India-China border. Sikkim, which became an Indian state in 1975, forms the small central section of India's northern border and lies between Nepal and Bhutan. *

Land Disputes Between India and Bangladesh and Myanmar

India's border with Bangladesh is essentially the same as it was before East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971. Some minor disputes continued to occur over the size and number of the numerous enclaves each country had on either side of the border. These enclaves were established during the period from 1661 to 1712 during fighting between the Mughal Empire and the principality of Cooch Behar. This complex pattern of enclaves was preserved by the British administration and passed on intact to India and Pakistan. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The 1,300-kilometer frontier with Burma has been delimited but not completely demarcated. On March 10, 1967, the Indian and Burmese governments signed a bilateral treaty delimiting the boundary in detail. India also has a maritime boundary with Burma in the area of the northern Andaman Islands and Burma's Coco Islands in the Bay of Bengal. India's borders with Nepal and Bhutan have remained unchanged since the days of British rule. In 1977 India signed an accord with Indonesia demarcating the entire maritime boundary between the two countries. One year earlier, a similar accord was signed with the Maldives. *

Indian Rivers

Principal Rivers: India’s longest rivers are the Brahmaputra and Indus, which are both 2,896 kilometers long, although neither is entirely within India. Other major rivers are the Ganges (Ganga, 2,525 kilometers), Godavari (1,465), Kaveri (Cauvery, 800), Krishna (1,401), Mahanandi (851), Narmada (1,312), and Yamuna (1,370). [Source: Library of Congress *]

The country's rivers are classified as Himalayan, peninsular, coastal, and inland-drainage basin rivers. Himalayan rivers are snow fed and maintain a high to medium rate of flow throughout the year. The heavy annual average rainfall levels in the Himalayan catchment areas further add to their rates of flow. During the monsoon months of June to September, the catchment areas are prone to flooding. The volume of the rain-fed peninsular rivers also increases. Coastal streams, especially in the west, are short and episodic. Rivers of the inland system, centered in western Rajasthan state, are few and frequently disappear in years of scant rainfall. The majority of the South Asia's major rivers flow through broad, shallow valleys and drain into the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges River basin, India's largest, includes approximately 25 percent of the nation's area; it is bounded by the Himalayas in the north and the Vindhya Range to the south. The Ganges has its source in the glaciers of the Greater Himalayas, which form the frontier between India and Tibet in northwestern Uttar Pradesh. Many Indians believe that the legendary source of the Ganges, and several other important Asian rivers, lies in the sacred Mapam Yumco Lake (known to the Indians as Manasarowar Lake) of western Tibet located approximately 75 kilometers northeast of the India-China-Nepal tripoint. In the northern part of the Ganges River basin, practically all of the tributaries of the Ganges are perennial streams. However, in the southern part, located in the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, many of the tributaries are not perennial. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Brahmaputra has the greatest volume of water of all the rivers in India because of heavy annual rainfall levels in its catchment basin. At Dibrugarh the annual rainfall averages 2,800 millimeters, and at Shillong it averages 2,430 millimeters. Rising in Tibet, the Brahmaputra flows south into Arunachal Pradesh after breaking through the Great Himalayan Range and dropping rapidly in elevation. It continues to fall through gorges impassable by man in Arunachal Pradesh until finally entering the Assam Valley where it meanders westward on its way to joining the Ganges in Bangladesh. *

The Mahanadi, rising in the state of Madhya Pradesh, is an important river in the state of Orissa. In the upper drainage basin of the Mahanadi, which is centered on the Chhattisgarh Plain, periodic droughts contrast with the situation in the delta region where floods may damage the crops in what is known as the rice bowl of Orissa. Hirakud Dam, constructed in the middle reaches of the Mahanadi, has helped in alleviating these adverse effects by creating a reservoir. *

The source of the Godavari is northeast of Bombay (Mumbai in the local Marathi language) in the state of Maharashtra, and the river follows a southeasterly course for 1,400 kilometers to its mouth on the Andhra Pradesh coast. The Godavari River basin area is second in size only to the Ganges; its delta on the east coast is also one of the country's main rice-growing areas. It is known as the "Ganges of the South," but its discharge, despite the large catchment area, is moderate because of the medium levels of annual rainfall, for example, about 700 millimeters at Nasik and 1,000 millimeters at Nizamabad. *

The Krishna rises in the Western Ghats and flows east into the Bay of Bengal. It has a poor flow because of low levels of rainfall in its catchment area — 660 millimeters annually at Pune. Despite its low discharge, the Krishna is the third longest river in India. The source of the Kaveri is in the state of Karnataka, and the river flows southeastward. The waters of the river have been a source of irrigation since antiquity; in the early 1990s, an estimated 95 percent of the Kaveri was diverted for agricultural use before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The delta of the Kaveri is so mature that the main river has almost lost its link with the sea, as the Kollidam, the distributary of the Kaveri, bears most of the flow. *

The Narmada and the Tapti are the only major rivers that flow into the Arabian Sea. The Narmada rises in Madhya Pradesh and crosses the state, passing swiftly through a narrow valley between the Vindhya Range and spurs of the Satpura Range. It flows into the Gulf of Khambhat (or Cambay). The shorter Tapti follows a generally parallel course, between eighty kilometers and 160 kilometers to the south of the Narmada, flowing through the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat on its way into the Gulf of Khambhat. *

Harnessing the waters of the major rivers that flow from the Himalayas is an issue of great concern in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. Issues of flood control, drought prevention, hydroelectric power generation, job creation, and environmental quality — but also traditional lifestyles and cultural continuities — are at stake as these countries grapple with the political realities, both domestic and international, of altering the flow of the Ganges and Brahmaputra. Although India, Nepal, and Bangladesh seek to alleviate problems through cooperation over Himalayan rivers, irrigation projects altering the flow of Punjab-area rivers are likely to continue to be an irritant between India and Pakistan — countries between which cooperation is less likely to occur — in the second half of the 1990s. Internally, large dam projects, such as one on the Narmada River, are also controversial. *

Deserts in India

The Great Indian desert averages 48 people per square kilometer—fifteen times more than most deserts. Historically, this region of India has the country's highest mortality rate. To get the most out of the land crops are raised on the desert. Near Bikaner 80 percent of the sand dunes are now cultivated.

Beginning at the equator, rainy tropical hot air rises and sheds its moisture as it cools. The cooled air begins to subside and warm up again between 15 degrees and 30 degrees latitude. The subsiding air is too dry for clouds an rain to form. This sub tropical high-pressure belt parches the Sahara through the Middle East in the northern latitudes and the arid sands of the Kalahari and Namib Deserts of Africa as well as the deserts of Peru, Chile, and Australia's barren outback in the southern latitudes. [Source: Rick Gore, National Geographic, November 1979 [┵];

Gujarat Stepwells

Gujarat is also famous for its step wells, beautiful temple-like structures that penetrate into the earth to harvest water from artificial aquifers. The earliest ones were built in the late A.D. 6th and early 7th centuries. They were built upwards with huge stone blocks, laid without mortar, in the trenches, and stone stairs leading up from the water to the surface. Over time the idea spread to Rajasthan and thousands of them, then thousands of them were built. Some of the elaborate ones had pillars and arches and looked like inverted Roman temples. Not only were they beautiful and practical they also served as gathering place for local communities. Bathing in one was considered the next the best thing to taking a bath in the Ganges.

The golden period of stepwell building was from the 11th century to the 16th century. The most ostentatious ones were the Queen Rudabai’s Stepwell at Adalaj and Rani ki Vav, or Queen’s Stepwell, in Patan. The the grandest of them all was Ambapur Stepwell at Budthal. When the British introduced pipes and taps for drawing water, stepwells fell into disuse. The deepest ones descend more than nine stories into the earth. Building them was not an easy task. Low caste laborers toiled to chisel and move huge stones.

Stepwells are built into depressions or behind earthen dams that collected monsoon rains. When the water percolates through the soil and silt, particles in the water were removed. The water was stopped by a layer of impermeable clay. The alluvial soils in the Gujarat area are particularly good for filtering. The water rises and falls reaching high levels after the heavy monsoon season and lows during droughts. When the water levels are high large parts of the step well are submerged and the steeps disappear in the clear water.

According to UNESCO: Rani-ki-Vav, on the banks of the Saraswati River, was initially built as a memorial to a king in the 11th century AD. Stepwells are a distinctive form of subterranean water resource and storage systems on the Indian subcontinent, and have been constructed since the 3rd millennium BC. They evolved over time from what was basically a pit in sandy soil towards elaborate multi-storey works of art and architecture. Rani-ki-Vav was built at the height of craftsmens’ ability in stepwell construction and the Maru-Gurjara architectural style, reflecting mastery of this complex technique and great beauty of detail and proportions. Designed as an inverted temple highlighting the sanctity of water, it is divided into seven levels of stairs with sculptural panels of high artistic quality; more than 500 principle sculptures and over a thousand minor ones combine religious, mythological and secular imagery, often referencing literary works. The fourth level is the deepest and leads into a rectangular tank 9.5 m by 9.4 m, at a depth of 23 m. The well is located at the westernmost end of the property and consists of a shaft 10 m in diameter and 30 m deep. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

“Rani-ki-Vav is an exceptional example of a distinctive form of subterranean water architecture of the Indian subcontinent, the stepwell, which is located on the banks of the Saraswati River in Patan. Initially built as a memorial in the 11th century CE, the stepwell was constructed as a religious as well as functional structure and designed as an inverted temple highlighting the sanctity of water. Rani-ki-Vav is a single-component, water management system divided into seven levels of stairs and sculptural panels of high artistic and aesthetic quality. It is oriented in an east-west direction and combines all of the principle components of a stepwell, including a stepped corridor beginning at ground level, a series of four pavilions with an increasing amount of storeys towards the west, the tank, and the well in tunnel shaft form. More than five hundred principle sculptures and over a thousand minor ones combine religious, mythological and secular imagery, often referencing literary works.

“Rani-ki-Vav impresses not only with its architectural structure and technological achievements in water sourcing and structural stability, but also in particular with its sculptural decoration, of true artistic mastery. The figurative motifs and sculptures, and the proportion of filled and empty spaces, provide the stepwell’s interior with its unique aesthetic character. The setting enhances these attributes in the way in which the well descends suddenly from a plain plateau, which strengthens the perception of this space.:

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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