Physical Features

Bharat, India, Hindustan – various names by which we know our Homeland is a land of great antiquity. It has seen the birth and disappearance of many civilizations, kingdoms and dynasties, and yet it has sustained its remarkable continuity amidst all these changes.

Through this series of Video lectures, we will take you back in time; on a journey that will illuminate a number of known and unknown chapters of its glorious past.

Welcome Aboard.

India: Physical Features

It is said that history of a country is the product of two great factors: the land and its people.

Any narrative of the actions of the people must necessarily take into account the surroundings in which they are placed. Therefore, before we begin our story, let us set up the stage.

Uttaram Yat Samudrasya,
Himādréshchaiva Dakshinam
Varsham Tad Bhāratam Nāmā
Bhāratī Yatra Santatī

According to Vishnū Pūrāna:

“The Country that lies north of the ocean and south of the snowy mountains is called Bhārat; for there dwell the decedents of Bharat.”

Bharat was a king famous in the Paurānic traditions. He was the son of the Epic ruler Dushyanta and his beloved Shakuntala. The country he ruled came to be known after him as Bhārat or Bhāratvarsha.

According to the traditions, Bhāratvarsha formed part of a larger unit called Jambū-dvīpa. Jambū-dvīpa, in turn, was one of the seven concentric Island-continents, into which Earth was supposed to have been divided.

India – another name by which this land is known, is derived from the famous river Sindhu. The early invaders of the country, namely the Greeks, called this river Indus, and the country as India.

Sindhu was called as Hindu by the Persians, since they pronounce ‘s’ as ‘h’. The word Hindu, in turn, gave birth to the names Hind or Hindustan.

All these names continue in use by the people.

The globe shows the Indian sub-continent as the southward extension of the great landmass of Asia. The Indian Peninsula rises in the great Himalayas and tapers towards the Indian Ocean.

The continental character of India is one of the most dominating factors of its history. Impenetrable Himalayan range in the north and smaller mountain ranges on the sides isolate India from Tibet, China and the rest of Asia.

Its shores are guarded by the Bay of Bengal in the east, Arabian Sea in the west and the Indian Ocean in the south.

This splendid geographical isolation gave India a unique individuality that is reflected throughout in its institutions, traditions, customs, rituals and practices – practically in every aspect of the life of its people.

Let us have a closer look at the main geographical divisions of India.

Ancient geographers divided India into five regions, namely:

  1. Uttarāpath or Āryāvrata: The northwest region including the eastern part of modern Afghanistan.
  2. Madhya Desh: The land between the Himalayas and the river Narmada and the Vindhyachal mountain range.
  3. Dakshināpath: The country south of river Narmada and the Vindhyachal mountain range.
  4. Pūrva Desh or Prāchya: The country east of Kashī (Vārānasī), and
  5. Pāshcha Desh or Abaranta: The country west of Ujjain, including modern Sind and Baluchistan.

However, on the basis of physical features, the country is divided into four distinct parts:

1. Mountains
2. The Northern Plain
3. The Central Plateau
4. The Deccan Plateau, and the Coastal Plains.

The Indian sub-continent is demarcated by a chain of seven mountain ranges – some snow-covered, other forest-clad and yet other arid and bare.

The 2,500 km long Himalayan range forms a formidable barrier on the north. It covers an area of about 500,000 sq. km.

The Patkai and allied mountain ranges run along the Indo-Bangladesh-Myanmar border and are collectively known as Pūrvāchal or the Eastern mountains.

The Aravali range in north-western India is one of the oldest mountain systems in the world.

The Vindhyan range, which separates the Northern Plain and Central Plateau from the Deccan Plateau traverses nearly the whole width of Peninsular India. It covers a distance of about 1050 km with an average elevation of some 300 meters.

The Satpura range is triangular in shape, with its two sides running parallel to the Narmada and Tapti rivers. It extends for a distance of 900 km with many of its peaks rising above 1000 meters.

The Sayadri or Western Ghats runs along the western border of Deccan Plateau – from the mouth of the river Tapti to Kanyakumari. Overlooking the Arabian Sea, this mountain range is about 1600 km long, with an average height of 1200 meters.

The Eastern Ghats take off from Mahendragiri near the coast in the Ganjam district of Orissa and end in another Mahendragiri in the Kullakal Hills in Tirunelvelli district of Tamil Nadu. The continuity of the Eastern Ghats is broken by the powerful rivers like Mahanadi, Godavari and Krishna. Its northern part is about 300 km long with over 1200 meters in elevation.

Bounded by the mountain ranges on the north, northeast and northwest, is the Northern Plain. It is formed by thick alluvial deposits washed down by great rivers which originate in the Himalayas. It comprises the basins of three major river systems:

• The Sindhu or Indus
• The Ganga, and
• The Brahmaputra

The Sindhu or Indus Plain is about 1,000 km in length from north to south; it is at its widest at about 700 km in the northern half but narrows to about 250 km between the Thar Desert and Kirthar range. Its three sides are bounded by the Karakorum, Hindukush, Safed Koh, Sulaiman and Kirthar ranges. On the southeast, the Indus Plain is bounded by the Thar Desert. The main approaches to the Plain are from the northwest, but subsidiary approaches do exist from the west and the east.

The major part of the Northern Plain is covered with what is called the Gangatic Plain. It covers an area of 11,40,000 sq. km. Th Gangatic Plain is dominated by Ganga, Yamuna and their tributary rivers. It is bounded on the north by the Himalayan foothills, the Terai – a broad belt of semi-marshy terrain with thick forests, on the west by the Aravali ranges and on the south by Central Plateau.

The third constituent of the Northern Plain is the Brahmaputra Plain. This is a fertile, low-lying alluvial and riverine Plain, covered with many water courses. Apart from the Bengal Plain, it comprises the Assam valley and the basin of the river Meghna. It is bounded on the north by the Himalayan foothills, the Duars – a tract covered with thick impenetrable forests. On the east lie the Patkai and its allied mountain ranges, which separate India from Myanmar.

One of the most notable physical feature of the Northern Plain is the Thar of the Great India Desert. It runs northeast from the Rann of Kutchh for about 650 km with an average width of 250 km. It is backed by a dry belt called the Rajasthan Bagar. It merges with Aravali range, thus cutting off Sind from the interior of the country.

The Central Plateau lies immediately south of the Nothern Plain and extends far enough to include the basins of the Godavari and the Mahanadi rivers. On the west it takes in the Aravali range while the Chottanagpur Plateau in modern Jharkhand, and Garhjat Hills in Orissa are its eastern bastions. With narrow Coastal strips at the two extremes, the Plateau extends from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea.

The Deccan Plateau lies to the south of Tapti-Mahanadi basin. Geologically, it is the most ancient and stable part of the sub-continent. The Plateau is flanked by the Eastern and Western Ghats, which run parallel to the east and west coasts. The Plateau which lies between the Ghats slopes from west to east, with its rivers taking off in the Western Ghats close to the Arabian Sea. These rivers flow across the Plateau and pierce the Eastern Ghats, forming large deltas in the coastal plains, before falling into the Bay of Bengal.

The Deccan Plateau has coastal strips on its east and west coasts. The coastal strip on the west is narrow. It extends from the Gulf of Khambat or Cambay, down to Kanyakumari. The coastal strip on the east, on the other hand, is broad and is marked by large riverine deltas.

Thus we have seen that the Indian sub-continent is characterised by a great diversity in its physical features. These geographical features have often dictated political boundaries, social responses and ethnic expansion.

In our next episode we will tell you about the river system of India; rivers that have played a dominant role in the unfolding of historical events of this wonderful land called India. Until then: JAI HIND

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