sschub - How to Prepare the Atlas for IAS Prelims

Map based questions can fetch you 10-15 marks quite easily in the Prelims provided you go through the atlas regularly. But not all books or atlases are equal. I always recommend the Oxford Student Atlas as the best atlas to refer for the civil services exam. As I said in Books for CSAT the Oxford Atlas is very detailed, accurate, has good colour contrast for readability and is the atlas of choice for UPSC as most of the map based questions in Prelims are asked from it.
But so many aspirants find it difficult to prepare the atlas. Let me tell you, once you know how to read/see the atlas it will be a fun filled experience and you will actually look forward to exploring it more. So let’s get started with preparing the atlas. I’ve taken the Oxford Student Atlas as the reference for this guide, so if you have it beforehand it will be really beneficial and this article will make more sense to you.
There are No Rules to Start with the Atlas. Yes you read it right. Don’t think there’s a perfect way to begin with reading the atlas, mostly, from start to finish like we do with other books. Remember, the atlas is a graphic representation of maps so you can look at the map which you need or want to. If you want want to start with India’s political map, fine. Or maybe you prefer the world map at a glance, even this is ok. Some people may be curious about the middle east countries, they can find more information about them. So to reaffirm start the way you want to, there are no rules.
In this post I will cover the WHAT and HOW of atlas preparation. What to look for and How to look for. If you can master these two aspects you’ve mastered atlas preparation. It’s this simple really.

How to read Political Map of India

When looking at India’s map focus on these things – location of states and major cities, neighbouring states and countries, coastal states and cities, and position of states with respect to tropic of cancer. If you’re wondering why focus on these topics, remember the WHAT and HOW of atlas reading. To understand what type of questions are asked refer the past 5 years solved papers as mentioned in post on the importance of solved papers and syllabus. Now I will elaborate on how to read the atlas to tackle these questions.
When looking at states remember to determine the number of bordering states. For instance, Maharashtra shares borders with 6 other states. Also you should know the states by name. Do this for all states, particularly states sharing borders with 5 or more states like UP and MP. Next remember the bordering countries as questions are asked relates to it. For instance question like “Which among Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam and Meghalaya does NOT border Bangladesh”. Visualise different variations of this question.
Also in case of North Eastern states remember the north-south chronology of the states as well as the bordering countries. For instance while Arunachal, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram border Myanmar, Tripura does not.
Numerous questions on cities are also asked like arrange the cities from North to South or East to West. Or which city appears on river abc etc. So focus on the location of the city relative to other major cities and also if they lie on any river bank.
The tropic of cancer also requires attention. Always remember the 8 states through which the tropic of cancer passes. Also have a look at the states that lie just below and above the tropic of cancer.

How to read Physical Map of India

Compared to the political map the physical map is harder to prepare, simply because there are so many things to cover and remember. Rivers, lakes, mountains, soils, islands etc. So lets take them one by one. If starting with mountain ranges and plateaus, cover them systematically. Look at the middle Indian plateaus from east to west or west to east like Mahadeo Hills, Maikal Range, Ramgarh Hills and Garjhat Hills.
Next, remember the mountain ranges in the southern peninsula that appear from north to south like Nallamalla Hills, Palkonda Range, Nagari Hills, Javadi Hills, Shevaroy Hills, Panchaimalai Hills, Palni Hills etc. If you find it difficult to memorize the names think up some acronym like NPJS (first letters of the mountain ranges) or something of your own. Do the same for mountain ranges in the north-east.

How to read Rivers – Flow with the Waves

Many aspirants find it difficult to tackle questions based on rivers simply because there are so many rivers and different combinations of questions are possible. So you should prepare accordingly.
First cover the important rivers of India. Their origin, flowing through which states, major tributaries and where do they meet the main river, place where the river meets the sea (its mouth) and so on. Next also focus on whether the river is east flowing or flowing westwards, understand the chronology of the major rivers from north to south. Also keep an eye on major dams or river disputes in news. For instance the Periyar river which is in focus owing to the Mullaperiyar dam dispute.
Also look at the major rivers in a state or region. For instance in J&K, questions have been asked on north-south chronology of Shyok, Zaskar and Spiti. Some aspirants find it difficult to locate these rivers but if you look at the Oxford Atlas closely you can easily locate them. Tributaries of Ganga and Yamuna have been asked many times. When looking at the tributaries look at the left bank and right bank tributaries. That is, taking the flow of the river from west to east in the case of Ganga its major left bank tributaries (those rivers that meet from left) are Yamuna and Son while the major right bank tributaries include Rapti, Gandak and Kosi.
Now take the case of the mighty Brahamaputra. Originating from the Mansoravar lake in Himalayas it flows through Tibet where it is known as the Tsangpo (pronounced Sangpo) and enters India in Arunachal Pradesh where is called Dihang then continues its journey through Assam and Bangladesh (where its name changes to Jamuna) before meeting the Bay of Bengal. The major towns that lie along its banks include Guwahati and Dibrugarh.
Notice how I traced its origin, flow, different names, and major towns. Do the same for other important rivers.
While on the topic of rivers locate the major dams on rivers. For example Govind Sagar dam on Satluj, Hirakud dam on Mahanadi and so on. Apart from rivers and dams also locate the important lakes on the map.

How to read Mountains and Glaciers

Although I’ve told to understand the north-south and west-east chronology of mountains, lets look at the mountain ranges in more detail.
The Himalayas are by far the most important mountain ranges in India. They are classified into three parts – northern (Greater), middle and eastern (Little). Locate the important mountain peaks like Karakoram, Kanchenjunga, Mt Everest etc. Further, in the northern Himalayas there are a number of ranges like Karakoram, Ladakh, Zaskar, Dhaoladhar Shivalik, and Pir Panjal. Arrange them from north to south. Do the same for other groups of mountain ranges.
Then in the northern Himalayas there are number of glaciers with their length indicated. Find out the biggest ones and determine their north-south chronology.
While in the topic of mountains lets take a look at national parks. Although important national parks and wildlife and bird sanctuaries are indicated, not all are listed. And the reason is not too difficult to find out. With over 500 sanctuaries and national parks it is not possible to list all. Further the list is dynamic. New ones are getting added all the time. So you will find only the most prominent national parks and sanctuaries listed on the atlas. Find the location of all. If you want to know about more parks and sanctuaries look up on the internet or the Manorama Year Book.
Finally, determine the important mountain passes and the states they are situated. Some prominent ones include Shipki La, Jelep La, Khardung La, Lipu Lekh, and Chang La.

Now fight with Highways

If you look at the past years papers you will realize that questions related to highways, the golden quadrilateral, north-south and east-west corridors are pretty common. So how should you prepare for these?
While its not possible to remember or recollect all the 235 national highways nor is it required focus on the important ones, the first ten. Know the starting and ending towns and important towns en-route. For instance NH-7, the longest NH, stretches from Varanasi to Kanyakumari and passes through 5 states and important cities like Jabalpur, Nagpur, Hyderabad, and Bangalore.
Also look for cities and towns where many NH’s meet. One such city is Nagpur where three important  National Highways cross.  But apart from the first 10 NH’s there a few other important National Highways like NH-31, 223, and 228. National Highways is also a good way to understand the location of major towns and cities from north to south and west to east. For instance Bangalore is located in a lower latitude than Chennai. Keep your eyes open for such kind of minute information in the Atlas.
Likewise, study the golden quadrilateral and north-south, east-west corridor route and locate the major towns en-route.

Understanding India’s Coastal Regions

Coasts and Islands are other interesting topics in the atlas to prepare. First have a look at all the coastal states and towns. Then continue to the important straits and gulfs between islands. For instance, the Gulf of Mannar, Palk Strait, Nine and Ten Degree channel etc. The Andaman and Nicobar islands are quite important from the exam viewpoint. Look at their position from north to south. The lowest point (Indira point), the dormant volcanoes on Barren island, the Coco channel separating them from Coco islands and so on.
Your curiosity is the key here. The more you’re curious to know about places and things the more you can gain from the atlas. For instance the Adam’s Bridge lies in the Palk Bay in the Gulf of Mannar and not the Palk Strait. A question related to this was asked a few years back in the Prelims and candidates who weren’t aware chose Palk Strait which is obviously incorrect. The more often you go through the atlas the more places and facts you will discover. Keep discovering.
Similarly locate the important ports along the east and west coasts. As you might now there are separate maps for waterways, highways, railway zones in the Oxford Atlas which is what makes it so useful for the prelims.

India’s Neighbours and the World

Now that we are done with India lets get on with other countries. I suggest you go through the maps of our neighbours in detail. Look at the important cities and towns as well as the major rivers and mountains. Similarly do so for other countries and continents.
Find out the countries through which the Equator passes. Also, in case of island countries like Japan, Indonesia, Philippines and others find out the major islands and locate the island on which the capital city is located. Also you should know the location of disputed islands in the news like the Coco Islands and Falkland Islands. Some rivers like the Mekong, Amazon, Danube and Nile pass through several countries. Which are these? Also do you know the capital cities and other major towns that lie on river banks? Find out.
Locate all the major sea’s and the surrounding countries like the Mediterranean and Caspian sea countries. Similarly discover important bays surrounding bigger nations like the Bay of Biscay, English Channel, Strait of Hormuz, Torres Strait etc.
As I mentioned earlier, curiosity is your best friend when preparing the atlas. Look at the atlas at least four times a week for minimum 30 minutes, and if possible, everyday. Keep the What and How questions in mind and once in a while let your self go and just keep discovering stuff for the pleasure your get from it. And I guarantee in no time you will actually seek more map based questions in the exam and excel at them too. Once again I recommend the Oxford Student Atlas for its comprehensiveness, accuracy and detail. Happy reading.


  1. the article was informative and detailed. Thanks! I am a student and preparing for IAS Mains geography exam. I am a working professional and so don't get enough time to visit coaching insti and that's why looking for online Geography IAS Mains coaching. Kindly guide me about a online course for IAS mains at . Let me know its usefulness and credibility.

    1. Online paid course not recommended. Follow standard books and believe in yourself. For General Studies (Mains) exam ==> Indian Geography = (NCERT + Spectrum Geography) is enough. But if you were talking about Geography as an optional subject then ==>
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  2. very informative post indeed.. being enrolled in,I was looking for such articles online to assist me in Geography for IAS Mains... and your post helped me a lot :) .one more thing,can you recommend me few books for Geography for IAS Mains which can further assist me in my preparation.any advice will be highly obliged and appreciated. :)

  3. thanks for the info. sir
    sir iam a civil service aspirant ...nd confuse abt ma optonal sub. i am good in geography and most of the topics are familier to me but i am facing problem due to map questions .....because i am preparing optional by ma own so can above trick help me to solve the map ques. in optional ...waiting for ur advice and thnks for the post sir......

    1. off course.... these all articles are for aspirants who prepare on their own. So follow above article and see the change in your geography... Good Luck

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  10. Maps questions are very much important and reserves a good number of marks from the total marks. These marks can be solved easily but a little sharp observation is needed to answer them quickly and accurately. Anyways, thanks for your valuable and detailed info. This year I am going to appear the IAS exam for the second time. Importantly, I am concentrating more on my weaker portions and practicing them thoroughly. Aspiring students should keep patience and practice as much as they can.
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