The magical, mystical, stunning, infuriating, and utterly incomprehensible land of India is at once the hope and despair of humanity. Home to a sixth of all humans, it is a huge experiment in democratic governance – given its extreme diversities, its multilingual nature, its millennia old history, its reverence for tradition yet inhuman economic inequality. Incredible India is indeed a wonder for the rest of the world, and for many Indians as well. Experience the country in all its paradoxes.
Where is it? India lies in the northern hemisphere in Asia, occupying the core of South Asia. It lies 28°36.8′N 77°12.5′E. The Tropic of Capricorn almost bisects the country. The country is today roughly shaped like a diamond, with an extention in the north east.
It’s neighbours include China (Tibet) (3,380 km shared boundary), Nepal (1,690 km) and Bhutan (605 km) to the north. Myanmar (1,463 km) is to its east, and Bangladesh (4,053 km) as almost an enclave, also in the east. In the south east is the Bay of Bengal, which has some Indian islands just north of Sumatra. Also to the south east is Sri Lanka, separated by a narrow stretch of sea, while Maldives and the Arabian Sea are to the south west of India. Directly south is the Indian Ocean. To the west and north west is Pakistan (2,912 km). The coastline is about 7,517 km long, of which mainland India has 5,423 kilometres.
How large is it? India has a land area of 3,287,263 km2, of which the land area is 2,973,193 km2, making it the seventh largest country in the world, after Russia, Canada, USA, China, Brazil and Australia. This is about a third of US’ land area. The distance between northern and southern ends of the country is 3,214 km and from east to west, it stretches across 2,933 km.
What are its main geographical features? It is a diverse subcontinent. The north is dominated by the Himalayas, the tallest mountain range in the world, full of snow capped peaks set in long ranges and deep valleys. Just south of the mountains are huge plains created by rivers flowing mainly from the Himalayas. The rivers of the plains are Indus, Satlej, Beas, Chenab, Jhelum, Ganga, Yamuna, Gomti, Kosi, Gandak, Teesta and Brahmaputra. These are both the main food producing area and have heavy concentrations of population.
To the west is the Thar desert, bordered on its east by plateaux, which extend right till the south of India. India’s long coastline has narrow coastal plains adjacent to them. There is a lower mountain ranges along the western coast, which ends up in a series of minor hill ranges, some of India’s oldest parts geologically. A number of long rivers, largely flowing west to east, criss cross the Deccan peninsula. A range of volcanic islands, Andaman and Nicobar, are in the Bay of Bengal, while a series of coral islands, Lakshadweep, are just off the south western coast.
What is its climate like? There are huge climatic differences. For most of India, summer is long, from April to September, though the latter part is dominated by the monsoon. India is dominated by the south west monsoon, which bring rain to most of India from May to September. The north east monsoon brings rain in December to a small part of the south eastern coast. About 90 per cent of India’s rainfall comes during the monsoon. India has the wettest spots on the planet, though many parts of the Indian hinterland are regularly impacted by drought.
Winter is shorter or indeed absent from most parts of India, though the northern and north eastern extremities of the country freeze in winter. Temperatures in summer in the desert can touch 50 C, while they are well below freezing in winter in the Himalayas. Different parts of India
How is India divided administratively? India is divided into states and union territories. Their number has kept changing over the decades. Given below is the current list:
Andhra Pradesh Hyderabad
Arunachal Pradesh Itanagar
Himachal Pradesh Shimla
Jammu and Kashmir Srinagar
Madya Pradesh Bhopal
Tamil Nadu Chennai
Uttar Pradesh Lucknow
West Bengal Kolkata
UNION TERRITORY CAPITAL
Andaman and Nicobar Islands Port Blair
Dadar and Nagar Haveli Silvassa
Daman and Diu Daman
What is India’s population? India has about 1,250 million people (2014), about four times US’ population, and the second largest in the world after China’s. This is about 17.5% of the world’s population, or about 1 in 6 people in the world is an Indian. The population is largely concentrated in the plains, and is growing at about 1.3% pa (2012). More than 50% of its population are below the age of 25 and more than 65% below the age of 35. It is expected that by 2020, the average age of an Indian will be 29 years. The population density of India is 364 per sq km, though it is much higher in the plains.
Which languages are spoken in India? There is a great diversity of languages spoken in India. 11 languages have over 30 million people each who claim them as their mother tongues (2001) – Hindi (422 million), Bangla (83mn), Telugu (74mn) Marathi (72mn) Tamil (61mn) Urdu (52mn) Gujarati (46mn) Kannada (38mn) Malayalam (33mn) Oriya (33mn) and Punjabi (30mn). There is no single link language, though Hindi and English come closest! Most literate Indians are bilingual, and many privately educated ones are trilingual. India has more than two thousand ethnic groups.
As a traveller, language will often be a problem. While there is a small minority that speaks good English, many others in the bigger cities can manage a broken pidgin variety. In the interiors, and in local markets, language will be an issue.
When did India become independent? In August 15, 1947, when the nearly a century of direct colonial rule by Great Britain came to an end. GB had taken over the direct rule of India from the East India Company in 1857, and divided the nation into directly rules states and ‘princely states’ – those under English protectorate. At independence, the country was divided into India and Pakistan, which later further split to create Bangladesh in 1971.
Is India a democracy? The short answer, yes. India is a federal parliamentary constitutional republic. It elects a party to a majority in the Parliament, which is the highest legislative body in the country. The winning party or combination of parties then chooses an executive – a council of ministers, who govern. The president is a more ceremonial post, akin to the English monarch.
Elections are held to the Indian parliament every five years usually. All states and some union territories also elect their representatives. There are two houses of Parliament – Lok Sabha, which is directly elected, and Rajya Sabha, where states send their representatives.
There is a judicial system, and though it is enjoys a fair reputation, there is enormous backlog of cases in India. it would be very unadvisable to get embroiled in an Indian legal case.
How is India doing economically? India’s GDP (PPP) 2014 estimate is about $5.302 trillion, making it the fourth largest economy in the world after US, China and Japan. In per capita terms India ranks 133, with a pci of $4,209. There is great inequality of wealth in India, which means there is a section of society which is very well off, and comparable to upper classes around the world, while there are also huge sections of middle and lower income groups.
What to keep in mind while travelling? Safety is the top concern. It is best to alert in public spaces while travelling in India. Indians can be very friendly, and inquisitive – often with the best of motives. However it is best to be alert, especially when dealing with the unorganised sector – independent cabs for hire, small shops, independent agents. If you are not confident about dealing with them, opt for organised players – a listed cab service, a chain department store or a high end store, a travel agency rather than an independent guy who offers to accompany you.
Be careful of your belongings, both in the hotel and while on the move. Keep passports, phones, laptops and other valuables in a safe or keep with always with you if you choose to carry them.
Women need to be specially careful in the north and in India’s biggest cities, especially in the north. If you are travelling alone, take precautions such as securing your hotel door, checking your phone line with the reception, travelling as far as possible during daylight. Do not get into autos (tuk tuks) if the driver does not inspire confidence in you. While in crowded places, preferably wear clothes that cover the better part of you. In big cities, do not accept a number of people who will try to entice you with offers to show you different aspects of exotic India. The south and the east, as well as the smaller towns and villages are generally not so aggressive sexually, but be wary at all times in public spaces. Call cops if necessary – they have a poor reputation for corruption in India, but should be able to assist with basics.
How long will it take me to see India? ‘Doing’ India is impossible. Trying to see India at one go is like trying to see Europe in a single trip. There are just as many, if not more, diversities of people and cultures and language, and food and religions. Remember not only is it just as large with twice the number of people, the infrastructure is not as good, which means traversing takes much longer.
Divide and see. Given the increasingly better aviation links with India, it is better to divide into smaller parts and choose where you want to go. While the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur circuit is most popular, India offers hundreds of equally beguiling attractions that are nothing like what these are. Popular destinations besides the ones above include Kerala, Goa, the rest of Rajasthan and the western Himalayas.
However India has high mountains, extensive river valleys, hills and plateaus, deserts, forests, islands, beaches comparable to global levels. India’s biodiversity is immense, and though a lot of it needs more protection, it is still possible to access many parts of exceptional richness fairly easily. India is also famous for its wildlife, and this too differs by geography.
India’s culture is possibly the single most diverse within a country. The people of India do not speak a common language and differ from each other in almost all socio-cultural parameters including race. This includes language, shared history, culture, attire, food, customs, religion, etc. It is not unknown for Indians to mistake a fellow citizen as a foreigner and deal with him as such!
PLAN YOUR TRIP – not just where you want to go, but also in terms of connections, accommodations etc. Let the spontaneity be in the beauty you behold, not in logistics.
How easy is it to travel within India? Well, it is not as simple as in the first world. The relative plus – it is fairly to very inexpensive.
Aviation in India is growing. Now there are major local airlines connecting India’s biggest cities. So Delhi and Bombay could be connected by about 30 daily flights. Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai are very well connected nationally. Kolkata, Pune, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Kochi, etc are also fairly well connected. About 35 of India’s top cities have commercial aviation links, and this is likely to grow fast in the near future. However there are vast parts of India not connected as easily by flights, so plan your trip. The main operators are Air India (state owned, and regularly voted the worst in terms of consumer satisfaction), Jet, Indigo, Spicejet and Goair.
Indian railways – still state owned, has a vast network, and this covers almost all parts of India except high mountains. However the condition of trains is poor, even in the more expensive classes.
The road network in India is patchy. While some states have improved road conditions of late, do not opt for long road journeys if you can avoid them. What are called National Highways are in the best condition. It is best to avoid public bus service unless you are confident about navigating India. Some cities have good inter city buses such as Hyderabad and Bangalore, or Delhi and Jaipur, frequented by tourists as well.
India’s bigger cities are seeing the emergence of metro services. While Delhi has the most extensive service, and arguably the best in India, Kolkata has the oldest – a single line connecting the north to the south. Bangalore has a short service in operation, while Mumbai, Chennai, Kochi, Jaipur are all building their metro lines. Mumbai has a limited monorail service.
Waterways in India is now very localised. You will get ferries in some cities, and pleasure boats in some, but use of waterways has declined sharply in India, and you will not get a commercial service easily.
Where do I shop? Now you are warming up. Contributing to the Indian economy can be fairly budget friendly, though this depends on what you want.
Top tourist buys are clothes. They are available everywhere – from top international luxury labels in airconditioned malls to trendy high streets to massive bargain markets. Estimate your comfort level and if opting for the inexpensive, then almost all big and small cities have options. Knockdowns and imitations of designer wear are easily available.
Bargaining is common, and expected in open street markets for clothes, accessories etc. Prices could fall anywhere from 50 to 90 per cent depending on your negotiating skills.
Top accessory buys include bags of all shapes and sizes. Cloth embroidered bags are a favourite.
Souvenier shops abound in all major tourist locations. Unless you are in the really top end stores, compare a few shops. You can also check out a few innovative design stores that retail online as well. Textile, leather, ceramic, stone, wood etc are top buys.
Be very wary of agents leading you to gift shops. The Indian state has the fairly high end Central Cottage Industries Emporium in many leading cities. Most states have their own similar govt-owned stores. You will not have to bargain here, and will get most of what you want. There are also other big stores, often chain stores, that focus on the tourist and need no bargaining – check with your hotel.
Indian jewellery is distinctive and very common – from expensive gold and other metals to imitation. Everything is available in distinctive regional styles and price points. If you are considering expensive buys, choose a standard store.
What is India’s time zone? India does not fall into a neat time zone. Instead it is +5.30 ahead of GMT in winter and +4.30 ahead of GMT in summer. The latter is not usually followed.
What is India’s currency? India uses the rupee. A hundred paise make up a rupee. A US dollar is currently is worth about Rs 61. The rupee is available in denominations of 1000, 500, 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1. Most of the higher values are in notes, while the lowest three are almost exclusively in coins. Rs 10 comes commonly in notes and coins.
Exchanging currency at airports is more expensive, even for places such as Thomas Cook etc.
The commonly used currency is the rupee, and only it will be accepted anywhere, though top end hotels will take other currencies as well.
International cards are used commonly in India – Mastercard and Visa are most common. Check before you transact. Also you might be asked to sign the merchant copy – its standard practice in India.
What is India’s country code? India’s country calling code is +91. To dial a cell phone in India from abroad, one has to dial +/00 91 xxxxx xxxxx. To dial a landline call +/00 91 area code xxx xxxxx.
Can I get a local phone number in India? It is easy to get a local prepaid number in India. You will have to show proof of identity – a passport suffices. There are a number of telecom operators. If you are planning to go to multiple locations, opt for those at offer a pan India service eg Airtel or Vofafone, though Idea, Docomo and Aircel are large too. Compared to most of the world, charges are inexpensive, but if possible, enlist local help while getting a phone.
What is the electrical plug in? Electricity 230V/50Hz, Indian (Old British)/European plugs. Foreigners will need an adaptor. While adaptors are easily available in Indian gadget stores, it is better to carry your own when you travel.
Which side does India drive on? Left, like the British, and unlike the Americans, Europeans etc. it is not advisable for non residents to attempt to drive in India as traffic rules are poorly implemented, traffic congestion is common in big cities, while roads are below world average almost everywhere.