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India is the world’s seventh largest country and contains a wide variety of terrain types. In the north are the towering Himalayas, the highest mountains in the world. In the north-west are the deserts and semi-deserts of Rajasthan. South of the Himalayan foothills lies the fertile plain of the Ganges, a holy river to many Indians. This is one of the most densely populated regions in the world. The rest of the sub-continent is dominated by the Deccan plateau, which descends via the Western and Eastern Ghats to fertile coastal lowlands.
India is politically divided into 28 states and seven territories. State boundaries are generally drawn along linguistic lines, and the states vary greatly in size. The seven territories include the National Capital Territory and the six union territories, which were formerly French and Portuguese colonies.
Delhi is the capital and third largest city in India. Technically, one of Delhi’s nine districts, the elegant garden city of New Delhi, is in fact the capital, as this is where all the official administrative buildings are. Quite often (on Google Maps, for example) the city of Delhi as a whole is erroneously referred to as New Delhi. Delhi’s economy is dominated by construction, telecommunications and power generation.
To the north of Delhi lies the Punjab, a Sikh majority state containing Amritsar, the Sikh holy city with its magnificent Golden Temple. Further north is Jammu and Kashmir, usually known as Kashmir, which is a beautiful mountainous state that has been torn apart by war for decades. Parts of the state are currently occupied by Pakistan and China.
The highly fertile Ganges basin is one of the most densely populated areas on earth. This area was once part of the Moghul Empire and is where most Indian Muslims live. India’s most important tourist city is Agra in Uttar Pradesh. It contains not only the world-famous Taj Mahal, but two other UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Agra Fort and the nearby Fatehpur Sikri. Benares (or Varanasi), on the Ganges, is the holiest city to Hindus.
Kolkata (Calcutta), near the Bangladeshi border in the east, is India’s most culturally important city, with book festivals, fairs and many other cultural events. Founded by the British, it has an intriguing mix of architectural styles.
Further east of Kolkata is the North-East. This area gets hit by two monsoons and consequently has very high levels of precipitation. In fact, Cherrapunjee in Meghalaya is the wettest place on earth. Though this area contains no large cities, it is the most ethnically diverse in India; the people are of Tibetan, Indo-Aryan and Burmese stock.
Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is India’s main financial and commercial centre and is also a major port. It is also the home of Bollywood, which is the main contributor to India’s film industry, the largest in the world. Mumbai is a highly cosmopolitan city and the locals are generally friendly.
The South of India is culturally different form the North. Southern cities have grasped the economic opportunities that are on offer. The majority of people in the southern states speak Dravidian languages that are unrelated to Hindi and the other Indo-Aryan languages. They feel distinct from the northern Indians and are proud of their culture.
Bangalore (the re-Indianised form, Bengaluru, does not seem to have taken root yet) is the dynamic, up-and-coming capital of the southern state of Karnataka. It is growing rapidly both in terms of population and economy. Producing around 35% of India’s IT exports, Bangalore is known as the Silicon Valley of India. It was the development of IT on the back of its existing heavy industries which has led to the city’s spiralling fortunes.
Chennai (Madras) is another major centre for IT and is also notable for technology and hardware manufacture. The city is also famous for its many remarkable temples, and is the largest cultural centre for Tamil-speakers.
Other important Indian cities include Pune (pronounced as the former name, Poona, suggests), a centre for car production and electronic goods manufacture, Hyderabad, important for biotechnology and pharmaceuticals and Jaipur, which is a fast-developing and partly planned city. Surat, in the western state of Gujarat, is India’s fasting-growing city in economic terms. Its economy is based on textile manufacture, and it has a virtual world monopoly on diamond polishing.
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