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INDIA

India is a land that truly takes ones breath away. Nowhere on Earth will one come across such an astonishingly vibrant land, pulsating with a dizzying energy exuded from the myriad culture and religion, races and tongues that inhabit it. Every facet of the country - be it its size, the clamour, the beauty and its people - may hit one as large, colossal, massive or even exaggerated. But it is the diversity - of the people, culture, religion, language, flora and fauna that will never fail to amaze and confound. Every turn offers a wholly different insight into the intricacies of nature, man and life itself. It is no wonder then that most visitors develop a lasting passion for this land.

India is a litmus test for many travellers - some are only too happy to leave, while others stay for a lifetime. The country's glorious diversity means there's an astonishing array of sacred sites, from immaculately kept Jain temples to weathered Buddhist stupas; there's history around every corner, with countless monuments, battle-scarred forts, abandoned cities and ancient ruins all having tales to tell; and there are beaches to satiate the most avid sun worshipper. On a personal level, however, India is going to be exactly what you make of it. Perhaps the only thing more difficult than to be indifferent to India would be to describe or understand India completely.

So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked.

Mark Twain, from Following the Equator

Location, Geography, & Climate

Set apart from the rest of Asia by the supreme continental wall of the Himalayas, the Indian subcontinent touches three large bodies of water and is immediately recognizable on any world map. It is the huge, terrestrial beak between Africa and Indonesia. This thick, roughly triangular peninsula defines the Bay of Bengal to the east, the Arabian sea to the west, and the India Ocean to the south.

India's puzzleboard of 26 states holds virtually every kind of landscape imaginable. An abundance of mountain ranges and national parks provide ample opportunity for eco-tourism and trekking, and its sheer size promises something for everyone. From its northernmost point on the Chinese border, India extends a good 2000 miles (3200 km) to its southern tip, where the island nation of Sri Lanka seems to be squeezed out of India like a great tear, the synapse forming the Gulf of Mannar. India's northern border is dominated mostly by Nepal and the Himalayas, the world's highest mountain chain. Following the sweeping mountains to the northeast, its borders narrow to a small channel that passes between Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, and Bhutan, then spreads out again to meet Burma in area called the "eastern triangle." Apart from the Arabian sea, its western border is defined exclusively by Pakistan.

India can be organized along the compass points. North India, shaped like a throat and two lungs, is the country's largest region. It begins with the panhandle of Jammu and Kashmir, a dynamic area with terrain varying from arid mountains in the far north to the lake country and forests near Sringar and Jammu. Falling south along the Indus river valley, the North becomes flatter and more hospitable, widening into the fertile plains of Punjab to the west and the Himalayan foothills of Uttar Pradesh and the Ganges river valley to the East. Cramped between these two states is the capital city, Delhi. The southwestern extremity of the North is the large state of Rajastan, whose principal features are the Thar Desert and the stunning "pink city" of Jaipur. To the southeast is southern Uttar Pradesh and Agra, home of the famous Taj Mahal. West India contains the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, and part of the massive, central state of Madhya Pradesh.

The west coast extends from the Gujarat peninsula down to Goa, and it is lined with some of India's best beaches. The land along the coast is typically lush, with rainforests reaching southward from Bombay all the way to into Goa. A long mountain chain, the Western Ghats, separates the verdant coast from the Vindya mountains and the dry Deccan plateau further inland. Home of the sacred Ganges river and the majority of Himalayan foothills, East India begins with the states of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, which comprise the westernmost part of the region. East India also contains an area known as the eastern triangle, which is entirely distinct. This is the last gulp of land that extends beyond Bangladesh, culminating in the Naga Hills along the Burmese border. India reaches its peninsular tip with South India, which begins with the Deccan in the north and ends with Cape Comorin, where Hindus believe that bathing in the waters of the three oceans will wash away their sins.

The states in South India are Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, a favorite leisure destination. The southeast coast, mirroring the west, also rests snugly beneath a mountain range---the Eastern Ghats.

Because of India's size, its climate depends not only on the time of year, but also the location. In general, temperatures tend to be cooler in the north, especially between September and March. The south is coolest between November to January.In June, winds and warm surface currents begin to move northwards and westwards, heading out of the Indian Ocean and into the Arabian Gulf. This creates a phenomenon known as the south-west monsoon, and it brings heavy rains to the west coast.

Between October and December, a similar climatic pattern called the north-east monsoon appears in the Bay of Bengal, bringing rains to the east coast. In addition to the two monsoons, there are two other seasons, spring and autumn. Though the word "monsoon" often brings to mind images of torrential floods and landslides, the monsoon seasons are not bad times to come to India. Though it rains nearly every day, the downpour tends to come and go quickly, leaving behind a clean, glistening landscape.

People and Culture

With nearly 1 billion citizens, India is the second most populous nation in the world. It is impossible to speak of any one Indian culture, although there are deep cultural continuities that tie its people together. English is the major language of trade and politics, but there are fourteen official languages in all.

There are twenty-four languages that are spoken by a million people or more, and countless other dialects. India has seven major religions and many minor ones, six main ethnic groups, and countless holidays. Religion is central to Indian culture, and its practice can be seen in virtually every aspect of life in the country.

Hinduism is the dominant faith of India, serving about 80 percent of the population. Ten percent worship Islam, and 5 perscent are Sikhs and Christians; the rest (a good 45 million) are Buddhists, Jains, Bahai, and more.

Environment

India is a large, triangular-shaped country in southern Asia, buttressed by the long sweep of the Himalaya in the north and protruding into the Indian Ocean in the south. It's bordered by Pakistan to the northwest, China, Nepal and Bhutan to the north, and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east. Sri Lanka is the teardrop-shaped island hanging off its southern tip. India covers a land area of some 3,287,000 sq km (1,281,930sq mi), though disputed borders with Pakistan and China make this figure somewhat arbitrary. India is the seventh largest country in the world.

Northern India contains the snow-bound peaks and deep valleys of the Himalaya, and the vast Gangetic Plain, which separates the Himalayan region from the southern peninsula and stretches from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. South of the plains, the land rises up into a triangular-shaped plateau known as the Deccan, which ranges in altitude from 300m (985ft) to 900m (2950ft). The plateau is bordered by the Eastern and Western ghats, ranges of hills which run parallel to India's eastern and western coasts and separate the fertile coastal strips from the interior.

Wildlife in India is often purported to have enjoyed a privileged and protected position thanks to the religious ideals and sentiments of Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, but much of this tradition has been lost. Extensive hunting by the British and the Indian rajahs, large-scale clearing of forests for agriculture, poaching, pesticides and the ever-increasing population have had disastrous effects on India's environment. Only around 10 per cent of the country still has forest cover and only 4 per cent is protected within national parks and reserves. In the past few decades the government has taken serious steps to improve environmental management and has established over 350 parks, sanctuaries and reserves.

The highlights of India's fauna are its lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, elephants and rhinoceroses, but the country is also home to a rich variety of deer and antelope, wild buffaloes, massive Indian bisons, shaggy sloth bears, striped hyenas, wild pigs, jackals and Indian wild dogs. Monkeys include rhesus macaques, bonnet macaques and long-tailed common langurs. The reptilian world boasts magnificent king cobras, pythons, crocodiles, large freshwater tortoises and monitor lizards, while the diverse birdlife includes large hornbills, serpent eagles and fishing owls, as well as the elegant national bird, the peacock