India is part of the continent of Asia. Most of India forms a peninsula, which means it is surrounded by water on three sides. The world's highest mountain range, the Himalaya, rises in the north. The southeast is bordered by the Bay of Bengal, and the southwest is bordered by the Arabian Sea.
India's terrain varies widely, from the Thar Desert in the west to jungles in the northeast. A fertile area called the Ganges Plain covers much of northern India. This formation was created from soil that was deposited by rivers running from the Himalaya. In some places, this layer of silt is over 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) deep.
Map created by National Geographic Maps
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Society throughout India is divided into social ranks, called castes. Caste is determined by birth and there is almost no way to change it. High castes include priests, landowners, and soldiers. So-called Untouchables have no caste and do the most menial jobs.
India is a very spiritual country. It has no official religion, but more than 80 percent of Indians are Hindu. About 13 percent are Muslim. Other religions include Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, which all began in India.
For thousands of years, since the Hindu religion first evolved, respect for animal life has been an important part of Indians' beliefs. Cows in particular are sacred and cannot be harmed. They are even allowed to wander through city streets, which often causes traffic jams!
India's varied climate zones support about 65,000 animal species, including elephants, pythons, river dolphins, and rhinos, and 12,000 types of flowering plants. It is the only country in the world with both lions and tigers. It's also a bird watcher's paradise.
On the coast of the Bay of Bengal is the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest. Here, tigers swim in the same rivers as dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, and saltwater crocodiles. This unique landscape is constantly under threat as sea levels rise and humans hunt illegally and clear trees for firewood.
The Himalaya mountains provide a home for some of India's rarest animals and plants. The most elusive animal is the snow leopard. Bears and black buck live lower down, and in the northeast, the tiger and one-horned rhinoceros can be found.
GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY
India's parliamentary government was inherited from the British. After independence in 1947, one party, the Congress Party, and one family, the Nehru family, dominated politics in India for decades. Now, however, many parties compete for elected positions.
India's economy is growing so fast that experts predict it will soon become one of the world's leading markets. Indians are hard workers. And though many are poorly educated, there are many others who are highly trained college graduates.
India's earliest known civilization arose about 5,000 years ago on the Indus River in what is now Pakistan. Archaeologists uncovered the remains of two huge cities with brick houses, piped water, and sewer systems. Nobody knows why, but these cities, called Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, were abandoned in 1700 B.C.
The Aryan people were farmers from Central Asia who arrived in India around 1500 B.C. They spoke Sanskrit, one of the world's oldest known languages. The Vedic Scriptures, writings that form the basis of the Hindu religion, were written during the Aryan reign.
In the 200-year reign of the Gupta Empire, starting in the fourth century A.D., arts, crafts, and sciences flourished. During this time, the Indian astronomer Aryabhatta determined that the Earth revolved around the sun. This was long before the Western world accepted the theory.
Beginning in the 16th century, following a series of invasions by Muslim forces, a Mongol leader named Babur founded the Mongol Empire. The Mongols oversaw a golden age of art, literature, and architecture in India between 1527 and 1707. They built roads, mosques, gardens, and enormous tombs, including the grand Taj Mahal.
In the late 1400s, Europeans arrived in India and began setting up trading companies. In 1757, Britain gained control over most of the country. Uprisings against British rule began in 1856. In 1920, the famous Mahatma Gandhi began nonviolent protests to push the British out. In 1947, India had independence.