The South Asian subcontinent is a well-defined geographical unit. It may be divided into four major regions: the Himalayan Mountains, the Indo-Gangetic Plains, the Southern Peninsula, and offshore island. There are eight countries in the subcontinent – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. India is the largest among them and it comprises twenty-eight states and six Union Territories. According to the 2001 Census, the population of India alone was over one billion people.
The Himalayan Mountains are situated on the north of India. Starting from the Pamir in the extreme northwest of India, the mighty Himalayan range extends towards northeast. It has a length of nearly 2560 kilometers with an average breadth of 240 to 320 kilometers. The highest peak of the Himalayas is known as Mount Everest with its height being 8869 metres. It acts as a natural wall and protects the country against the cold arctic winds blowing from Siberia through Central Asia. This keeps the climate of northern India fairly warm throughout the year. The Himalayan region is mostly inhospitable in winter and generally covered with snow.
It was considered for a long time that the Himalayas stood as a natural barrier to protect India against invasions. But, the passes in the northwest mountains such as the Khyber, Bolan, Kurram and Gomal provided easy routes between India and Central Asia. From prehistoric times, there was a continuous flow of traffic through these passes. Many people came to India through these passes as invaders and immigrants. The Indo-Aryans, the Indo-Greeks, Parthians, Sakas, Kushanas, Hunas and Turks entered India through these passes. The Swat valley in this region formed another important route. Alexander of Macedon came to India through this route.
The Indo-Gangetic plain is irrigated by three important rivers, the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra. This vast plain is most fertile and productive because of the alluvial soil brought by the streams of the rivers and its tributaries. The Indus river rises beyond the Himalayas and its major tributaries are the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas. The Punjab plains are benefited by the Indus river system. The literal meaning of the term ‘Punjab’ is the land of five rivers. Sind is situated at the lower valley of the Indus. The Indus plain is known for its fertile soil.
The Thar Desert and Aravalli hills are situated in between the Indus and Gangetic plains. Mount Abu is the highest point (5650 ft.) in the Aravalli hills. The Ganges river rises in the Himalayas, flows south and then towards the east. The river Yamuna flows almost parallel to the Ganges and then joins it. The area between these two rivers is called doab – meaning the land between two rivers. The important tributaries of the Ganges are the Gomati, Sarayu, Ghagra and Thar Desert Gandak.
In the east of India, the Ganges plain merges into the plains of Brahmaputra. The river Brahmaputra rises beyond the Himalayas, flows across Tibet and then continues through the plains of northeast India. In the plains, it is a vast but a slow-moving river forming several islands. The Indo-Gangetic plain has contributed to the rise of urban centres, particularly on the river banks or at the confluence of rivers. The Harappan culture flourished in the Indus valley. The Vedic culture prospered in the western Gangetic plain. Banares, Allahabad, Agra, Delhi and Pataliputra are some of the important cities of the Gangetic plain.
The Vindhya and Satpura mountains along with Narmada and the Tapti rivers form the great dividing line between northern and southern India. The plateau to the south of the Vindhya Mountains is known as the Deccan plateau. It consists of volcanic rock, which is different from the northern mountains. These rocks are easier to cut into, and there are a number of rock-cut monasteries and temples in the Deccan.
The Deccan plateau is flanked by the Eastern Ghats and Western Ghats. The Coramandal Coast stands between the Eastern Ghats and the Bay of Bengal. The Western Ghats runs along the Arabian sea and the lands between these are known as Konkan up to Goa and beyond that as Kanara. The southernmost part is known as Malabar Coast. The Deccan plateau acted as a bridge between the north and south India. However, the dense forests in the Vindhya Mountains makes this region isolated from the north. The language and culture in the southern peninsula are preserved in tact for a long time due to this geographical isolation.
By the time of the Great War, the Indian Empire included the kingdom of Burma to the east of the Bay of Bengal, which was annexed in three instalments in the years 1826, 1852, and 1886. Burma, however, which has a history of its own, is not naturally a part of India. The island of Ceylon, on the other hand, although physically an imperfectly severed fragment of the mainland, was not a part of the Indian Empire, being administered as a Crown colony under the direction of the Secretary of State for the Colonies.
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