Where are the largest cities in India?

Now the most populous country in the world, which of India's cities are driving that growth?

By Silvia Pellegrino

India has officially become the most populated country in the world as of April 2023, when it surpassed China by reaching an estimated 1,425,775,850 people, an has some of the world’s largest cities. The United Nations predicts that India’s population will keep growing significantly for the next several decades based on the trends in fertility and mortality. But which urban centres house the most people?

largest cities in India
People crowd at a market on the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Mumbai. (Photo by Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images)

City Monitor has collated five of the largest cities in India by population, using our old friend the World Urban Areas Report

Delhi – 32.2 million

Delhi is divided between Old Delhi and India’s capital, New Delhi. It has a rich history and it is the second wealthiest city in the country after Mumbai. Delhi is situated in the north-central area of India, on the west bank of the Yamuna River, a branch of the Ganges River. 

Up until the early 1900s, India’s capital was Calcutta – today called Kolkata – but 1911 saw Delhi established as the new capital territory, and New Delhi as the new official capital in 1947. That year also marked a turning point for the city, since thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees started moving there following India’s independence. In the 1950s, however, the infrastructure was not yet advanced enough to house so many people and, consequently, the sanitation, electricity and clean water supplies were heavily impacted. In the last 20 years of the 20th century, the population of Delhi almost doubled and, between the lack of up-to-standard housing and jobs, and already-problematic air pollution, it slowed down the capital’s development.

Until now, there has been a steady growth in population, which today sits at 15.2 million inhabitants, although the wider metro area is more than double at 32 million. The distribution of foreign communities is mostly concentrated in newer housing developments such as Chanakyapuri, which is also known as the Diplomatic Enclave due to the high number of foreign embassies.

Like any major city, Delhi’s economy spans different sectors. The most widespread one is the service field, which includes manufacturing and public administration. Public services, banking, trade and social services are also popular categories of work in India’s capital. From a more creative point of view, Delhi is also renowned for its handmade products such as paintings and ivory carvings, alongside jewellery and embroidery. 

Since the 1990s, New Delhi has established itself as a major element in the international corporate and financial sector. This was also thanks to the city being the headquarters of the Reserve Bank of India and the State Bank of India, as well as being home to the Delhi Stock Exchange. Electronics and engineering took over the manufacturing sector in the last century, with precision instruments and automobile parts being the highest percentage of manufactured products.

Mumbai – 24.9 million

The capital of Maharashtra state, Mumbai is the most populous city in India with more than 24 million residents. Throughout its history, Mumbai has seen incredible growth, more than doubling between the start of the 20th century, when it counted less than 900,000 people and the 1950s. Between then and 2000, the population increased significantly reaching 16 million. 

Content from our partners
The key role of heat network integration in creating one of London’s most sustainable buildings
The role of green bonds in financing the urban energy transition
The need to grow London's EV infrastructure at speed and scale

There are a couple of explanations behind this growth spurt, mostly attributed to migrants in search of work. The majority of residents live in the city’s older part, which is mostly industrial and devoid of green spaces, while the upper classes reside in wealthier areas such as Back Bay and Malabar Hill. The city also includes a business district in the north and some other industrial areas.

With such a high number of residents, almost every religion and Indian dialect is practised and spoken in Mumbai, from Hinduism to Islam and from Marathi – the official language – to Urdu.

Like the contrast between the industrial and overcrowded poorer areas and the wealthier ones, Mumbai’s economy is also formed by contrasting elements. Under the British Empire’s control in the 1860s, Mumbai (then called Bombay) was not a great economic asset. However, with the growth that happened in the 19th century, the city started to prosper and establish a few industries like textiles and cotton trading, also facilitated by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. 

Today, although the city showcases great technological advancement and financial establishments like the Reserve Bank of India, the country’s central bank, some of the city’s areas, especially the outskirts, still rely on high pollutants and obsolete ways of living, like using cow dung for fuel and energy. 

Kolkata – 18.5 million

The urban centre of the east of India is Kolkata, which today is the capital of the West Bengal state, but once used to be the capital of British India from 1772 until 1911.

Its position along the Hugli River and the direct connection to both the Ganges River and the Bay of Bengal allowed the city to become one of the main ports in India, connecting rivers and seas. Until 2001, the city was called Calcutta. Both denominations derive from the Bengali word Kalikata, which also comes from Kalikshetra, carrying the meaning of ‘ground of the Goddess Kali’.

Kolkata’s population, today tallying over 18 million people, is mostly divided between Hindu and Muslim people, the latter of which is also the largest minority group. However, Kolkata also includes other Asian ethnicities – mostly Chinese and Bangladeshis – alongside a smaller percentage of Europeans, North Americans and even Australians. Under British rule, the population was heavily segregated, seeing Europeans in the centre and Indians spread between the north and south outskirts. 

The majority of residents live in total poverty, with no access to suitable accommodation or financial aid, reflecting the insurmountable housing shortage contrasting with the eclectic European architecture characterising most monuments such as the governor’s residence Raj Bhavan and the Victoria Memorial Hall. 

Kolkata is still well-known in the manufacturing sector, alongside its fishing and trading activities backed by the presence of one of the largest ports in the country. Apart from manufacturing and, in particular, the jute-processing industry, Kolkata is also known for its engineering sector. The city’s financial market, in addition, is mostly fuelled by the Calcutta Stock Exchange (CSE). 

The production of paper, publishing, printing and newspaper circulation lift the economy up and are perfectly reflected in the high level of culture and intellectual interest that the residents showcase. From book fairs to art exhibitions and even concerts, as well as its reputation as the ‘city of posters’, Kolkata’s vitality remains acute even in dire living situations. 

Bengaluru – 15.3 million

Bengaluru is India’s third-biggest city by population. Its inhabitants are a melting pot of three different cultures: Kannada, Telugu and Tamil, each speaking a different dialect. 

From 1831 until 1881, Bengaluru was under the control of the British administration, which kept its influence until India’s independence. During those years, the city was called Bangalore and it was established as the capital of the newly formed state of Mysore until 1973 when the region was renamed Karnataka. In 2006, the name officially changed to Bengaluru

After the country gained its independence, the 1950s were characterised by a large influence of immigrants from other areas such as Persia and Pakistan, which led the region to invest more resources in the public sector and education. As a result, Bangalore became a career hub with thousands of jobs being created as well as one of the largest cities in India.

The biggest percentage of these livelihoods were focused on the manufacturing industry, but with the technological advances that the 1990s brought, the hub started to develop from both an economic and educational point of view. Ultimately, this led to the formation of an information and communications technology (ICT) sector in Bangalore, which today is a global power in the field. The area of Whitefield, near the centre of the city, is now considered the Silicon Valley of India, as it is filled with technology, software and communications companies such as Wipto and Infosys. 

From a layout perspective, Bengaluru today consists of an old town and a new town. The old town is surrounded by newer buildings, which used to be suburbs, with many green spaces such as the Lalbagh Botanical Garden and Cubbon Park. Most of the transportation systems in the city are also owned by the federal government, alongside the electrical plants. 

The peculiarity of Bengaluru, however, is the presence of a large military base in the south-east of the region. This is because Bengaluru is one of the training grounds for the Indian Army, including also the Defence Electronics Research Laboratory, the Defence Avionics Research Establishment, and the Defence Bio-Engineering and Electro-Medical Laboratory. 

Chennai – 12.39 million

Along the Coromandel Coast on the Bay of Bengal, the city of Chennai is the capital of the Tamil Nadu state in southern India. Due to its geographical position, the city is referred to as the ‘Gateway to South India’, also thanks to its reputation as a cultural and administrative hub. With over 12 million inhabitants, Chennai is the fourth most populated city in India, and its population is subdivided among Tamil and Hindu for the most part, also including smaller percentages of Muslims, Christians and Jains. 

Chennai’s former name was Madras and, under the British Empire and the British India Company’s power, it was chosen as the capital in 1801. In 1947, however, India gained its independence and Madras Presidency turned into Madras State, which is now known as the region Tamil Nadu, maintaining the city of Madras as the capital.

As its history suggests, Chennai is a mostly industrial city, with both newer buildings in the west and south, and older and more traditional ones in the centre. In particular, the territory is famous for the presence of seven temples spread across George Town, Mylapore and Triplicane. 

The manufacturing industry is widely developed in Chennai too. From automobiles to leather and even oil refineries, Chennai has multiple facades. Because of its heavy involvement in the automobile field, the city is also called the Detroit of Asia, since it houses brands like Nissan, Yamaha, Mahindra and Ford. Similarly to Bengaluru, Chennai also has the Mahindra Research Valley, which is the second-largest research valley in the world. From Siemens to Motorola and Samsung, Chennai includes many electronic manufacturing companies as well, making it one of the leading electronics hardware exporters in the country. 

Thanks to Chennai’s road links and international airport, tourism covers a big percentage of the city’s economy, also aided by the presence of hotels and resorts alongside the picturesque Marina Beach. Chennai is also considered the Health Capital of India, as institutions like Apollo Hospitals and Madras Medical Mission attract thousands of visitors every year. 

Outside of these main industries, the city is also well equipped with the headwaters of the Indian Bank and the Indian Overseas Bank, also housing foreign financial institutions like Allianz and Citibank. 

[Read more: India’s economic contributors: The cities driving GDP]

Topics in this article :
Websites in our network