Framed by the Arabian Sea to the west, the Bay of Bengal to the east and the Himalayan mountain range to the north, the landmass of India has a recordable human history dating back approximately 500,000 years. In this time, the land has given birth to a number of major religions, has been the seat of power for numerous dynasties and empires, and has spawned the largest democracy in the world. With a total of 7517 km of coastline, important land routes to China and Central Asia, and several ancient urban centres, the country has never lost its place as a crucial centre of trade and commerce, bringing with it diverse cultural practices and languages.

EARLY INHABITANTS: The discovery of a homo in 1982 suggests that early human life, archaic man, inhabited the Indian sub-continent as far back as the Middle Pleistocene age, approximately 500,000 years ago. The state of Madhya Pradesh was also home to the first semi-permanent settlements 9000 years ago, but it is perhaps with the Indus Valley civilisation, beginning around 3300 BCE, that India’s distinguished and colourful history really comes alive. Settled along the Indus River, the inhabitants of this area, the Harappans, developed one of the earliest urban civilisations, excelled in the extractive industries and pioneered new techniques in metallurgy.

This was followed by the Vedic civilisation, which gave birth to Hinduism, the oldest extant religion in the world and a backbone for much of India’s later cultural and philosophical output. The second of India’s four home-grown religions, Buddhism (the other two religions being Jainism and Sikhism), arrived in the first millennium BCE, but only began to spread widely across the sub-continent under the patronage of Ashoka, an emperor of the Mauryan dynasty, between 269 BCE and 232 BCE.

Ancient India might have given form to the cultural and religious practices that still define much of the modern country, but it was later dynasties in the common era that resonate most vividly in the history books and that have left a fine architectural legacy synonymous with the country.

THE MUGHALS: Chief among these dynasties were the Mughals. Descendants of the Timurids, a TurcoMongol power from Central Asia, the Mughals formed an empire that conquered most of the sub-continent between the 16th and the 18th centuries. The zenith of the empire, in architectural terms at least, was the rule of Shah Jahan. The fifth emperor of this Muslim dynasty and ruling from 1628 until 1658, Shah Jahan oversaw the construction of some of Islam’s finest buildings, including the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, the Lahore Fort and Jama Masjid in Delhi.

These buildings still draw in visitors from around the world and are often considered the apogee of monumental architecture on the sub-continent. However, Delhi, India’s capital since 1911 and a city dating back at least two-and-a-half millennia, has a rich array of imperial and religious architecture. Indeed, India’s and Delhi’s imperial history did not end with the Mughals.

THE BRITISH: New Delhi, a meticulous, distant and lifeless area planned by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker, is a stark reminder of British influence and control of the sub-continent, which lasted from 1858 to 1947. The physical residue of British economic and administrative life still reaches far beyond Delhi and is evident in the Raj architecture of North India’s hill stations and the country’s extensive rail network, among other things.

Britain’s oftentimes brutal control of India meant that the road to independence and the formation of the modern republic was a long and bloody affair. The non-violent resistance of Mahatma Gandhi, as well as the political manoeuvring of Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian National Congress, eventually brought independence in 1947, but it came at the cost of partition, as Pakistan, predominantly Muslim, and India were born and millions of people displaced.

The country’s half century of independence since 1947 has not always been plain sailing, but the republic can lay claim to being the largest democracy in the world, and the nation has lately emerged as a potential economic powerhouse.

GEOGRAPHY: The seventh-largest country in the world by area, the landmass of India runs for some 3214 km from north to south. The country’s borders contain a diverse topography from the Himalayan mountain range in the north, to the deserts of Rajasthan in the west and the jungles of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the south.

Indeed, more than 20% of the geographical area of India is comprised of jungles and forests, providing a ready-made habitat for a diverse range of species. The country is one of only 18 mega-diverse (countries that harbour the majority of the Earth’s species) on the planet. It may be best known for the Asian elephant and the Bengal tiger, but it also contains 7.6% of all mammalian, 12.6% of all avian, 11.7% of all fish and 6% of all flowering plant species.

CLIMATE: The country’s biodiversity is helped by a rich and varied climate. India lies north of the equator, with the Tropic of Cancer bisecting the country at the head of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Despite this, the vast majority of the country can be defined as climatically tropical. This leads to a level of climatic instability, which produces erratic weather patterns and gives way to storms, flooding and droughts. The Himalayas and the Hindu Kush mountain ranges to the north protect the country from cold Central Asian winds and mean that the country generally has a warmer climate than other areas on a similar latitude.

The coldest months of the year are December and January, when temperatures average between 10°C and 15°C in the north of the country, while in the summer months temperatures can often exceed 40°C in the interior regions .

India also has two monsoon seasons, the southwest summer monsoon between May and August, which produces 80% of India’s annual rainfall and is the earth’s most productive wet season, and the north-east monsoon from September to March, which brings clear dry weather to the north but can also produce significant precipitation in the far south and south-east parts of the country. Average annual precipitation can be as high as 2890 mm in Port Blair on the Andaman Islands, east of mainland India, and as low as 116 mm in Leh in Jammu and Kashmir in the far north of the country.

POPULATION: India is the second-most-populous country in the world, with more than 1.21bn inhabitants, according to the 2011 census. The country, which currently has a population growth rate of 1.41%, is set to overtake China as the most populous country on the planet by 2050, according to the Population Reference Bureau. By this date, India’s population will have swelled to approximately 1.63bn.

More than 50% of the population is below the age of 25, with estimates suggesting the dependency ratio (dependents to working age population) will drop to 0.4 by 2030. The country, therefore, has significant productive potential, public revenue earning potential and a lighter burden on public funds. The most populous state is Uttar Pradesh in the north of the country bordering Nepal. If it were a country in its own right, it would be the fifth-most-populous in the world, ahead of Brazil.

LANGUAGE: The main official language of India is standard Hindi, while English is the secondary official language of the country. However, the sub-continent is home to a wide range of mother tongues. According to the 1961 census, there were a total of 1652 languages recognised in India. However, according to figures from the 2001 census, the latest year for which statistics are available, there are a total of 122 languages in the country that are spoken by more than 10,000 people and 30 languages that are spoken by more than 1m people natively.

NATURAL RESOURCES: Given its rich geology and topography, it is hardly surprising that India is blessed with significant mineral and resource wealth. India has the fourth-largest coal reserves in the world, while its oil reserves, which are located largely off the coast of Maharashtra and in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Assam, meet around 25% of the country’s demand. As of April 2010, India also had 1437bn cu metres of confirmed natural gas reserves. However, the country remains highly dependent on coal and foreign imports for its ever-rising energy needs.

The sub-continent is also home to various other minerals. India is particularly rich in thorium, used in nuclear power, and has significant deposits of iron ore, manganese, bauxite, titanium ore and diamonds. The mining sector contributed some 2.62% to India’s GDP between 2010 and 2011, according to the Ministry of Mines. However, in December 2011, it was announced that the government hopes to add $210bn to GDP from the mining and minerals sector by 2025 at a growth rate of 12% per year.