India, or officially the Republic of India, is the biggest country in South Asia. It occupies a huge peninsula that points southwards into the Indian Ocean. The country occupies a total land area of 3,287,240 sq km (1,269,210 sq mi), making it the second biggest country in Asia proper (excluding Russia and Australia).

India is bounded by the Bay of Bengal to the east, the Arabian Sea to the west and the Indian Ocean to the south. It shares land borders with Bhutan, China, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan. It is also the closest neighbor of Sri Lanka. Union territories of India include the Laccadive Islands (now written as Lakshadweep) in the Arabian Sea, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in the Andaman Sea, south of Myanmar.

India has a population of 1.18 billion people (2010 estimate), making it the most populous democracy in the world. It is also the second most populous country in the world after China, but with a birth rate of 23 per 1000 versus China’s of 13.1 per 1000 (according to United Nations), the population of India is growing at a much faster rate than China’s.

India has the 11th largest economy in the world by nominal GDP and the 4th largest by purchasing power parity. Since the introduction of market-based economic reforms in 1991, it is also one of the fastest growing major economies in the world, despite the existence in India of a gulf between the filthy rich and the absolute poor. India is a founding member of the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement, the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation and the G20 industrial nations.

India is made up of 28 states and 7 union territories. New Delhi, a metropolis of 13.8 million people, was chosen by the British to be the capital of the then British India in 1911, and it holds on to the position as capital of India ever since. It was designed by the British to the south of the Old City of Delhi established by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.

India sits atop the Indian tectonic plate. It has 7,517 kilometers of coastline of which 5,423 (3,400 mi) is along the Indian peninsula, while the remaining 2,094 km belong to the Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep Islands. The Ganges and Brahmaputra are the two important rivers of India. The Ganges is regarded as a sacred river to the Hindus, as is the Yamuna, one of its major tributary.

The climate of India is influence by the Himalayan mountain range and the Thar Desert. The Himalayas form a natural barrier that prevents the cold Central Asian Katabatic wind from blowing in. This keeps India warmer than most places along the same latitude. The Thar Desert helps attract moisture-laden summer monsoon winds that blow between June and October. This provides the bulk of the rainfall of the country.

Visiting India

India is a vast country. Tourism infrastructure can be described as uneven. The bulk of tourists to India do the “Golden Triangle” circuit between the cities of New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. This is the part of India most first-time tourists visit, and hence, it has better tourist infrastructure than other parts of India. But India is much more than that, and on this guide, I will take you to every region of the country.

India is not a gentrified society, and at times, tourists accustomed to the comfort of home will find it a bit of a nightmare. There are things and people to be wary of the whole time, from bottled water sold by the street side, to “helpful people” approaching you on the street. Having said that, to truly appreciate India, you need to expose yourself to life on the streets of India, rather than remain cocooned in your hotel room.

Except if you’re a citizen of Nepal or Bhutan, you will need a visa to enter India. Do check with the nearest embassy of India on the visa requirements for your country. For most nationals, a tourist visa lasting six months from the date of issue (not date of arrival) will be issued. Since 1 January, 2010, the nationals of Finland, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Singapore can also get 30-day non-extendable visa-on-arrival at the airports in Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata, for US$60. If you are a US national, your India visa application is processed by Travisa , a third-party company outsourced by the Indian government.

Most international travelers to India arrive at the airports in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore. These major cities have just unveiled a new airport (Bangalore in 2008, Delhi in 2010 in time for the 2010 Commonwealth Games) or upgrading an existing one. In addition, the cities of Kolkata, Hyderabad and Goa also receive some international flights.

The main airlines serving domestic routes include flag-carrier Air India, as well as Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways. There are also other private operators including SpiceJet, IndiGo Airlines, Go Air and Kingfisher Red.

A good way to explore India is to travel by rail. The country has one of the biggest network of railway lines in the world, a legacy left behind by the British. It can be considered the safest way to discover India and at the same time get to know the people. Trains in India ranges from the basic to the luxurious. The tourist trains such as Palace on Wheels and Indian Maharaja feels like five-star hotels on rails. To buy your ticket, visit the Indian Railway’s Online Reservation Service or the website of the respective tourist train.

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