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In social and economic terms, the Indo-Gangetic Plain is the most important region of India. The plain is a great alluvial crescent stretching from the Indus River system in Pakistan to the Punjab Plain (in both Pakistan and India) and the Haryana Plain to the delta of the Ganga (or Ganges) in Bangladesh (where it is called the Padma). Topographically the plain is homogeneous, with only floodplain bluffs and other related features of river erosion and changes in river channels forming important natural features.
Two narrow terrain belts, collectively known as the Terai, constitute the northern boundary of the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Where the foothills of the Himalayas encounter the plain, small hills known locally as ghar
(meaning house in Hindi) have been formed by coarse sands and pebbles deposited by mountain streams. Groundwater from these areas flows on the surface where the plains begin and converts large areas along the rivers into swamps. The southern boundary of the plain begins along the edge of the Great Indian Desert in the state of Rajasthan and continues east along the base of the hills of the Central Highlands to the Bay of Bengal (see fig. 1). The hills, varying in elevation from 300 to 1,200 meters, lie on a general east-west axis. The Central Highlands are divided into northern and southern parts. The northern part is centered on the Aravalli Range of eastern Rajasthan. In the northern part of the state of Madhya Pradesh, the Malwa Plateau comprises the southern part of the Central Highlands and merges with the Vindhya Range to the south. The main rivers that flow through the southern part of the plain--the Narmada, the Tapti, and the Mahanadi--delineate North India from South India (see Rivers, this ch.).
Some geographers subdivide the Indo-Gangetic Plain into three parts: the Indus Valley (mostly in Pakistan), the Punjab (divided between India and Pakistan) and Haryana plains, and the middle and lower Ganga. These regional distinctions are based primarily on the availability of water. By another definition, the Indo-Gangetic Plain is divided into two drainage basins by the Delhi Ridge; the western part consists of the Punjab Plain and the Haryana Plain, and the eastern part consists of the Ganga-Brahmaputra drainage systems. This divide is only 300 meters above sea level, contributing to the perception that the Indo-Gangetic Plain appears to be continuous between the two drainage basins. The Punjab Plain is centered in the land between five rivers: the Jhelum, the Chenab, the Ravi, the Beas, and the Sutlej. (The name Punjab
comes from the Sanskrit pancha ab
, meaning five waters or rivers.)
Both the Punjab and Haryana plains are irrigated with water from the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej rivers. The irrigation projects emanating from these rivers have led to a decrease in the flow of water reaching the lower drainage areas in the state of Punjab in India and the Indus Valley in Pakistan. The benefits that increased irrigation has brought to farmers in the state of Haryana are controversial in light of the effects that irrigation has had on agricultural life in the Punjab areas of both India and Pakistan.
The middle Ganga extends from the Yamuna River in the west to the state of West Bengal in the east. The lower Ganga and the Assam Valley are more lush and verdant than the middle Ganga. The lower Ganga is centered in West Bengal from which it flows into Bangladesh and, after joining the Jamuna (as the lower reaches of the Brahmaputra are known in Bangladesh), forms the delta of the Ganga. The Brahmaputra (meaning son of Brahma) rises in Tibet (China's Xizang Autonomous Region) as the Yarlung Zangbo River, flows through Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, and then crosses into Bangladesh. Average annual rainfall increases moving west to east from approximately 600 millimeters in the Punjab Plain to 1,500 millimeters around the lower Ganga and Brahmaputra.
The Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world, extend along the northern frontiers of Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma. They were formed geologically as a result of the collision of the Indian subcontinent with Asia. This process of plate tectonics is ongoing, and the gradual northward drift of the Indian subcontinent still causes earthquakes (see Earthquakes, this ch.). Lesser ranges jut southward from the main body of the Himalayas at both the eastern and western ends. The Himalayan system, about 2,400 kilometers in length and varying in width from 240 to 330 kilometers, is made up of three parallel ranges--the Greater Himalayas, the Lesser Himalayas, and the Outer Himalayas--sometimes collectively called the Great Himalayan Range. The Greater Himalayas, or northern range, average approximately 6,000 meters in height and contain the three highest mountains on earth: Mount Everest (8,796 meters) on the China-Nepal border; K2 (8,611 meters, also known as Mount Godwin-Austen, and in China as Qogir Feng) in an area claimed by India, Pakistan, and China; and Kanchenjunga (8,598 meters) on the India-Nepal border. Many major mountains are located entirely within India, such as Nanda Devi (7,817 meters) in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The snow line averages 4,500 to 6,000 meters on the southern side of the Greater Himalayas and 5,500 to 6,000 on the northern side. Because of climatic conditions, the snow line in the eastern Himalayas averages 4,300 meters, while in the western Himalayas it averages 5,800 meters.
The Lesser Himalayas, located in northwestern India in the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, in north-central India in the state of Sikkim, and in northeastern India in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, range from 1,500 to 5,000 meters in height. Located in the Lesser Himalayas are the hill stations of Shimla (Simla) and Darjiling (Darjeeling). During the colonial period, these and other hill stations were used by the British as summer retreats to escape the intense heat of the plains. It is in this transitional vegetation zone that the contrasts between the bare southern slopes and the forested northern slopes become most noticeable.
The Outer or Southern Himalayas, averaging 900 to 1,200 meters in elevation, lie between the Lesser Himalayas and the Indo-Gangetic Plain. In Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, this southernmost range is often referred to as the Siwalik Hills. It is possible to identify a fourth, and northernmost range, known as the Trans-Himalaya. This range is located entirely on the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, north of the great west-to-east trending valley of the Yarlung Zangbo River. Although the Trans-Himalaya Range is divided from the Great Himalayan Range for most of its length, it merges with the Great Himalayan Range in the western section--the Karakoram Range--where India, Pakistan, and China meet.
The southern slopes of each of the Himalayan ranges are too steep to accumulate snow or support much tree life; the northern slopes generally are forested below the snow line. Between the ranges are extensive high plateaus, deep gorges, and fertile valleys, such as the vales of Kashmir and Kulu. The Himalayas serve a very important purpose. They provide a physical screen within which the monsoon system operates and are the source of the great river systems that water the alluvial plains below (see Climate, this ch.). As a result of erosion, the rivers coming from the mountains carry vast quantities of silt that enrich the plains.
The area of northeastern India adjacent to Burma and Bangladesh consists of numerous hill tracts, averaging between 1,000 and 2,000 meters in elevation, that are not associated with the eastern part of the Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh. The Naga Hills, rising to heights of more than 3,000 meters, form the watershed between India and Burma. The Mizo Hills are the southern part of the northeastern ranges in India. The Garo, Khasi, and Jaintia hills are centered in the state of Meghalaya and, isolated from the northeastern ranges, divide the Assam Valley from Bangladesh to the south and west.
Data as of September 1995