Climate in India varies significantly from the permanently snow-capped Himalayas in the north to the tropics in the south. The country has four seasons. December to February is relatively dry and cool, March to May is dry and hot, from June to September predominating southwest maritime winds bring monsoon rains to most of the country, and in October and November there are retreating dry monsoons originating from the northeast. Average temperatures range from 12.5̊ C to 30̊ C in the northwest, 17.5̊ C to 30̊ C in the north and northeast, and 22.5̊ C to 30̊ C in the south. Average annual rainfall is around 1,000 to 1,500 millimeters for much of the country, but can be quite low in some parts of the northwest (150 to 300 millimeters annually) and very high in the northeast and along the west coast (1,500 to 2,500 millimeters annually). [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Himalayas isolate South Asia from the rest of Asia. South of these mountains, the climate, like the terrain, is highly diverse, but some geographers give it an overall, one-word characterization — violent. What geographers have in mind is the abruptness of change and the intensity of effect when change occurs — the onset of the monsoon rains, sudden flooding, rapid erosion, extremes of temperature, tropical storms, and unpredictable fluctuations in rainfall. Broadly speaking, agriculture in India is constantly challenged by weather uncertainty. *

It is possible to identify seasons, although these do not occur uniformly throughout South Asia. The Indian Meteorological Service divides the year into four seasons: the relatively dry, cool winter from December through February; the dry, hot summer from March through May; the southwest monsoon from June through September when the predominating southwest maritime winds bring rains to most of the country; and the northeast, or retreating, monsoon of October and November. *

India experienced is worst heat wave in 50 years in May 1998. More than 2,500 people were killed. Global warming is believed to have been involved.

Variety of Climates

South Asia is subject to a wide range of climates — from the subfreezing Himalayan winters to the tropical climate of the Coromandel Coast and from the damp, rainy climate in the states of Assam and West Bengal to the arid Great Indian Desert. Based on precipitation and temperature, experts define seven climatic regions: the Himalayas, Assam and West Bengal, the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the Western Ghats and coast, the Deccan (the interior of the Peninsula south of the Narmada River), and the Eastern Ghats and coast. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In the Himalayan region, climate varies with altitude. At about 2,000 meters, the average summer temperature is near 18̊C; at 4,500 meters, it is rarely above 0̊C. In the valleys, summer temperatures reach between 32̊C and 38̊C. The eastern Himalayas receive as much as 1,000 to 2,000 millimeters more precipitation than do the Western Himalayas, and floods are common. Assam and West Bengal are extremely wet and humid. The southeastern part of the state of Meghalaya has the world's highest average annual rainfall, some 10,900 millimeters. * The Indo-Gangetic Plain has a varied climatic pattern. Rainfall and temperature ranges vary significantly between the eastern and western extremes. In the Peninsula region, the Western Ghats and the adjoining coast receive heavy rains during the southwest monsoon. Rainfall in the peninsular interior averages about 650 millimeters a year, although there is considerable variation in different localities and from year to year. The Eastern Ghats receive less rainfall than the western coast. Rainfall there ranges between 900 and 1,300 millimeters annually. *

The northern Deccan region, bounded by the Western Ghats, the Vindhya Range and the Narmada River to the north, and the Eastern Ghats, receives most of its annual rainfall during the summer monsoon season. The southern Deccan area is in a "rain shadow" and receives only fifty to 1,000 millimeters of rainfall a year. Temperature ranges are wide — from some 15̊C to 38̊C — making this one of India's most comfortable climatic areas.

Throughout most of non-Himalayan India, the heat can be oppressive and sometimes, such as was experienced in 1994 and 1995, literally can be a killer. Hot, relatively dry weather is the norm before the southwest monsoons, which, along with heavy rains and high humidity, bring cloud cover that lowers temperatures slightly. Temperatures reach the upper 30s̊C and can reach as high as 48̊C during the day in the premonsoon months.

Monsoons in India

The monsoons in India form two branches: the first, the southwest monsoon, sweeps from the Arabian Sea and drenches the Malabar coast of western India and then sweeps down towards Sri Lanka. The second, the southeast, moves northward around the same time from the Bay of Bengal and drenches Bangladesh and eastern Indian and then curves off towards the northwestern part of the country. [Source: Priit Vesilind, National Geographic, December 1984 [┾];

The southwest monsoon blows in from sea to land and usually breaks on the west coast early in June and reaches most of South Asia by the first week in July. Because of the critical importance of monsoon rainfall to agricultural production, predictions of the monsoon's arrival date are eagerly watched by government planners and agronomists who need to determine the optimal dates for plantings. *

With onset of summer in India in April, the land heats up more rapidly than the ocean and the monsoon winds begin to blow from west to east from the Arabian Sea inland across the Indian subcontinent. At the beginning of the summer monsoon "a low pressure area forms as heated air above the land expands, and rises and warm ocean air moves in to take its place. Passing over the hills and highland, the ocean winds then drop their moisture as torrential summer rains." The rain falls from June to September. The wind blow from west to east from April or May to September.

During the southeast monsoon (the second or autumn monsoon) the situation is reversed. As the land cools down more rapidly than the sea, a low-pressure area develops over the ocean from October to December, and the dry monsoon winds blow steadily seaward from east to west.

In ancient times and even today dhows steered by Arab, Persian and Indian mariners utilized the monsoon winds to travel across the Arabian Sea between the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and India. Sinbad the sailor is said to have reached China from Arabia by riding the monsoons and Islam reached India as well as Malaysia and Indian on the same winds.

Book: “Chasing the Monsoon” by Alexander Frater (Pan Macmillan, 1990)

Why the Monsoons Occur

Theories about why monsoons occur vary. Conventionally, scientists have attributed monsoons to thermal changes in the Asian landmass. Contemporary theory cites other factors — the barrier of the Himalayas and the sun's northward tilt (which shifts the jet stream north). The hot air that rises over South Asia during April and May creates low-pressure areas into which the cooler, moisture-bearing winds from the Indian Ocean flow. These circumstances set off a rush of moisture-rich air from the southern seas over South Asia. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The southwest monsoon occurs in two branches. After breaking on the southern part of the Peninsula in early June, the branch known as the Arabian Sea monsoon reaches Bombay around June 10, and it has settled over most of South Asia by late June, bringing cooler but more humid weather. The other branch, known as the Bay of Bengal monsoon, moves northward in the Bay of Bengal and spreads over most of Assam by the first week of June. On encountering the barrier of the Great Himalayan Range, it is deflected westward along the Indo-Gangetic Plain toward New Delhi. Thereafter the two branches merge as a single current bringing rains to the remaining parts of North India in July. *

The withdrawal of the monsoon is a far more gradual process than its onset. It usually withdraws from northwest India by the beginning of October and from the remaining parts of the country by the end of November. During this period, the northeast winds contribute to the formation of the northeast monsoon over the southern half of the Peninsula in October. It is also known as the retreating monsoon because it follows in the wake of the southwest monsoon. The states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala receive most of their rainfall from the northeast monsoon during November and December. However, 80 percent of the country receives most of its rainfall from the southwest monsoon from June to September. *

Hot Weather Before the Monsoons

The worst time to be in India is in May or early June, the months right before the monsoon. It is extremely hot at this time and it is not unusual for dust storms packing 65 mile per hour winds to strike New Delhi. Women sometimes collapse and die from heat exhaustion after laboring for eight hours in the fields and then walking many kilometers to haul water back to their homes.

Fist fights break out at water taps and profiteers sell gallon jugs of water for the equivalent f a week's pay. Industrial plants and movie houses shut down because there is not enough water in the rivers to generate dam-produced electricity. Elephants migrate from the parched forest onto the farms of villagers and the air smell likes iodine. The monsoon is supposed to arrive around June 1st, and every day it is late exacerbates the misery. [Source: Priit Vesilind, National Geographic, December 1984 [┾]

At the end of the dry season women place jugs on the side of the road in hope that they will be filled by water trucks. Dry season fodder for goats and sheep sometimes is so scarce, families are forced to climb trees and throw leaves down to their animals. Red dust from Rajasthan blows westward in the spring before the monsoons. The land is often baked so hard during that farmers have to wait for monsoon rains to dampen the ground before it can be plowed.

In the hot season before the monsoon many people beat the heat with a system called the desert cooler. It is comprised of a powerful fan that sucks air through water-soaked towels and blows the air through their houses. It is noisy but many people say it works better than an air-conditioners. It works the same way perspiration works: harnessing the cooling power of evaporation. People also use cooling evaporation by throwing water outside their houses and wet mopping their floors on the inside and utilize the shade keeping the drapes pulled when the sun is the hottest.

Arrival of the Monsoons

When the first monsoons arrive the rains can be spotty and fall only in some areas. An Indian proverb goes: it falls on one horn of the buffalo but no the other. During the week before the monsoon came to the Western Ghats journalist Priit Vesilind said he was served water he said looked like anti-freeze. "It had been filtered three times," the waiter told him defensively. In Madras he said deep-bore wells were sunk, plans were made to divert a river 250 miles away, and water brought in from steam-cleaned railroad cars was strictly rationed. And even see so people sleep all night in water rationing line to keep their place. [Source: Priit Vesilind, National Geographic, December 1984 [┾]

To bring rain 70 minute prayers are voiced to the gods; "miracle men' send telepathic rainwaves; and over hundreds of women dressed in red robes and carrying candles chant to the sky. "When a number of persons chant in a particular way," a Indian man told National Geographic, "it creates certain sound vibrations that affects the atmosphere and is acceptable for seeding the clouds. The priests don't know the scientific aspects of it—they only know the sound has to be in this fashion, in this way."┾

Describing the first rains of the monsoon, Alexander Frater, author of “Chasing the Monsoon” wrote: “The sky darkens, the wind strikes with a force that made our line bend and waver. Everybody shrieked and grabbed at each another...Thunder boomed. Lightning went zapping into the sea, the leader stroke of one strike passing the ascending return stroke of the last so that the whole roaring edifice seemed supported on pillars of fire...'The rains! everyone sang.'"

Monsoon Rain

The monsoons provide India and its South Asian neighbors with about 90 centimeters (35 inches or rain), about 80 percent of the annual rainfall. Monsoon rain is an import source of drinking water, agricultural water and irrigation water. It is vital for filing up wells and aquifers. Many dams have in South Asia have been built so its water can be stored and used the entire year and also harnessed for hydroelectric power.

When the monsoon finally arrive they can come with vengeance. Some area receive 20 to 23 centimeters (eight to nine inches) of rain in a single day. In some places, waist-high water fills the streets and mixes with sewage, cattle dung, drowned dogs, rotting grain and swollen carcasses. During heavy monsoons cars are submerged or stranded and only pedicabs can negotiate the roads. The monsoons can be very erratic. Sometimes they start normally, peter out after a month and then produce deluges, causing floods and crop damage.

The monsoons rains can be so strong they sometimes pit houses like hail. Flash floods wash buildings off of hillsides and trains off of tracks. Muddy water flows from the taps and beds are placed on the tops of tables inside houses to keep them dry. Dams overflow; 110 kilometers per hour (70 mph) winds tear off the roofs of houses; military helicopters have to be dispatched to bring supplies; and hundreds of people die.┾

Monsoon Celebrations and Everyday Life

The monsoons are of such importance in India that dark clouds rather than sunny skies symbolize happiness. Rain puts Indians in a good moods, fear of drought makes them depressed. Priit Vesilind wrote in National Geographic,"heavy rains are said to murmur the longing of a lover and a beautiful woman has hair as black as a monsoon cloud and eyes that flash like lightning.” [Source: Priit Vesilind, National Geographic, December 1984]

Young girls celebrate the coming of the monsoon by taking to swings in pairs, singing "At the First Swing, O my mother, the clouds appeared. Men have been known to shed tears of joy when the rains finally come and children's faces ignite with smiles and they sing "The lovely season has come to my country, The good season has come to my country. [Source: Raghubir Singh, National Geographic, February 1977]

In India, the monsoon is believed to have healing powers. It is regarded as a "source of spiritual inspiration, artist invention, miraculous medical cures and sexual freedom." Crowds often wait on the beaches of Kerala for the first rains of the monsoon. Poor families lather up and take baths and showers in the monsoon rains.

The monsoon season is critical for agriculture. Some 70 percent of all farmers in India are dependent on the monsoons. Some inhabitants of the Ganges receive a year-round supply of water through irrigation; others are at the mercy of the unpredictable monsoon climate which seemed to produce floods and droughts as often as it does sufficient rainfall.

Rickshaw pullers like the monsoon season even though it means they sometimes have to pull their carts through water up their chest. Why? They can charge higher rates. Street urchins sometimes plug storm drains with rags to earn money from people who need help restarting their stalled vehicles. Fisherman like the monsoon because it brings sharks, tuna and prawns closer to shore. People often die of snakebites during the monsoon floods as water-logged soil flushes snakes out of their holes.

Cherrapunji: the Wettest Place on Earth

Cherrapunji (53 kilometers south of Shillong, just north of Bangladesh) in Meghalaya State is often ranked as the world's wettest place. It receives an average of 1131.40 centimeters (445.43 inches), about 11.3 meters (37½ feet), a year. In 1993, it received 519 inches (13.2 meters). It holds the one month and one year record for rainfall. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it rained 366 inches (9.3 meters) in July 1861, and rained 1,041.8 inches (26.46 meters) between August 1 1860 and July 31, 1861. Many places in northeast India get more than a meter (three feet) of rain between July. Mawsynram, also in Meghalaya, is also very wet.. Another wet place is Waialeale, Hawaii, near an uninhabited peak on Kauai. It receives 459.99 inches of rain annually. Another very wet place is Lloro, Columbia.

Most of this rain in Meghalaya falls during the monsoon season from April to September when winds blow heavy moisture-laden clouds against an escarpment above Bangladesh in the Himalayan foothills where the town is located. Cherrapunji is located at the edge of a plateau at a convergence point of winds, clouds and an oddly positioned mountain range that traps monsoon clouds moving north from Bay of Bengal. [Source: Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times. August 2004]

The rainfall varies from light to medium to heavy and is present much of the year. According to the India Ministry of Tourism, it rains mostly at night and day activities are not disrupted too much by the weather, but I’m not sure if that can be believed. The heaviest rainfall is mostly from June to August September and during this time Cherrapunji becomes a sea of tiny rivulets.

Sometimes the rain comes in downpours. Sometimes it is an omnipresent drizzle. The air is so saturated with water, moss grows inside houses and black mildew covers the outside of buildings. Paint peels, food rots. To stay dry local people use unique umbrellas that look like upside down rattan chairs. After heavy downpours relent, when or if the sun peaks out, the vegetation turns vibrant green and rainbows may appear.

Cyclones and El Nino in India

Tropical cyclones are warm-core, low pressure systems without any "front" attached, that develop over the tropical or subtropical waters, and have an organized circulation. Depending upon location, tropical cyclones have different names around the world. 1) In the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific Oceans they are called Hurricanes. 2) In the Western Pacific they are called Typhoons. 3) In the Indian Ocean they are called Cyclones. Indian ocean Cyclones are usually associated with the Bay of Bengal but they can also occur in the Arabian Sea.

Tropical cyclones are powered by heat from the sea. They are products of a warm tropical ocean and a warm, moist atmosphere. Hurricanes are typically steered by easterly winds, generally south of 25 degrees north latitude and by high-level westerly winds north of 25 degrees north latitude.

There are several favorable environmental conditions that must be in place before a tropical cyclone can form. They are: 1) Warm ocean waters (at least 80 degrees F / 27 degrees C) throughout a depth of about 150 ft. (46 m). 2) An atmosphere which cools fast enough with height such that it is potentially unstable to moist convection. 3) Relatively moist air near the mid-level of the troposphere (16,000 ft. / 4,900 m). 4) Generally a minimum distance of at least 300 miles (480 kilometers) from the equator. 5) A pre-existing near-surface disturbance. 6) Low values (less than about 23 mph / 37 kph) of vertical wind shear between the surface and the upper troposphere. Vertical wind shear is the change in wind speed with height.

Although cyclones are well known for their strong and destructive winds, a cyclone’s storm surge is by far the greatest threat to life and property along the immediate coast. Storm surge is simply water that is pushed toward the shore by the force of the winds swirling around the storm. This advancing surge combines with the normal tides to create the storm tide, which can increase the mean water level five meters or more. In addition, wind driven waves are superimposed on the storm tide. This rise in water level can cause severe flooding in coastal areas, particularly when the storm tide coincides with the normal high tides. Because much of India’s densely populated Atlantic and Gulf Coast coastlines lie less than 10 feet above mean sea level, the danger from storm tides is tremendous.

El Niño is a periodic climate condition that occurs an average of every five years. It is strongest in the Pacific but has global ramifications. Caused when a dominate high pressure system over the Pacific collapses, it causes wind directions and ocean currents in the Pacific to change direction, throwing off prevailing winds and bringing drought to Indonesia, southern Asia, typhoons to Japan, and disruptions to monsoons in India. El Niño causes drought in India. In 1630, 5 million people died in India from an El Niño-induced drought and famine. La Niña brings higher temperatures and more rainfall to Australia, Indonesia and Southeast Asia and causes heavier rainfalls in the monsoon season in India.

Heat Waves in India

In June, 1994 temperatures soared to 49.5 degrees C (121 degrees F) in Rajasthan, leaving more than 400 people dead from heat related illnesses. One six-year old girl died of a heat stroke walking from the village bus stand to her rural hut. A construction worker told the Washington Post, "It is especially difficult for laborers. Sometimes everything goes hazy before my eyes. I get dizzy. I constantly have to keep watch on myself." At the same time, New Delhi thought it was going through a cold spell when temperatures dropped to 98 degrees . Coca Cola got into trouble when it ran an ad campaign during hot spell which read "Thank God for the heat wave."

A heat wave with temperatures reaching 51 degrees C in 1998 killed 3,000 people in India. A heat wave in early summer of 2003 left more than 1,300 people dead, many from sunstroke and dehydration. Among the areas hardest hit were the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, where temperatures reached 49 degrees C (120 degrees F) and more than 1,200 people died. Temperatures reached 43 degrees C (109 degrees F) in Calcutta. The heat wave finally dissipated when the monsoon rain arrived, In 2002, a similar heat wave killed more than 1,000 dead.

Cold Spells in India

A cold spell brought in by cold winds from the Himalayas in December 2002 and January 2003 left more than 1,800 people dead in India and Bangladesh. More than 400 people died in northern Bangladesh, many of them of them children and elderly people who lived in mud and straw houses without heat. Most if the dead in India were in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar state. Varanasi recorded its lowest temperatures in 40 years, (33 degrees F, or 0.6 degrees C).

The temperature did not drop below freezing (the coldest temperature, 34 degrees F (1.2 degrees C), was recorded in the northern Indian city if Kanpur. Still the cold proved to be devastating to people used to tropical temperature who live in homes without heat and electricity, and don’t have warm clothing. A wave of damp weather in December, 2003 left about 30 people dead on Madhya Pradesh and northern India.

A cold spell in December 2003 and January 2004 killed more than 400 people across South Asia The death toll was particularly high in Nepal and Bangladesh. Clothes were given to the homeless and bonfires were built in an effort to prevent even more deaths.

A cold spell in January and February 2005 left hundreds dead across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. People were killed by freezing temperatures, avalanches and food shortages. At one stage India reported 236 dead, Pakistan reported 346 dead and the Red Cross in Afghanistan reported 2006 dead there. Helicopters dropped food, blankets and clothes to places denied road access by snow.

Droughts in India

If the monsoon rains fail, crops often fail. Droughts shrivel crops and drive people to the cities. Those left behind survive on roti, corn and chilies. A drought in South Asia in the late 1990s and 2000s provoked a massive exodus from the deserts to the cities. A drought in 1987 was also bad.

Monsoon droughts can persists for two or three season. One drought in ancient times lasted for 12 years: lakes, wells and springs all dried up, crops and animals disappeared, heaps of bones were left everywhere, people abandoned cities and villages, domesticated animals attacked one another. People avoided each other because they feared each other. According to one epic poem "in that dreadful age when righteousness was at an end, men began to eat one another."

In April 2000, some 50 million people in Orissa and the eastern states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra were affected by the worst drought to hit India in a century. Thousands of animals died of starvation. Aquifers and wells ran dry and people were forced to drink contaminated water, which caused them to get diarrhea. In some places women were lowered on ropes into 200-foot-deep wells to collect water

The drought in 2002 was the worst in 15 years. In June and July, the first two months of the monsoon, rainfall was 40 percent what it usually is. In northern Haryana, part of India’s breadbasket, the rains were 70 percent below average. The drought was so bad it caused a half percent drop in economic growth for the nation as a whole.

The 2002 drought was particularly nasty in Tamil Nadu. Reservoirs were bone dry and sprouted wild flowers and short cut paths. There was no running water in homes. Water pumps were covered with dust. Water had to be brought in by tanker trucks, around which long lines formed after they arrived. In some places the situation was do desperate that fathers sold their daughter’s dowery jewelry to buy bottled for their families could drink and wash with.

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 April 2020

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