FACTS & FIGURES
Source Gangotri glacier
Length 2,525 km
Tributaries Alakananda, Chandrabhaga, Mandakini, Yamuna, Ghaghra, Gandak, Kosi, Sone
Important Cities Haridwar, Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna, and Calcutta.
The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, around which are intertwined her memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and
civilization, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga.
-Jawaharlal Nehru First Prime Minister of India .
High up in the Garhwal Himalayas lies the Gangotri glacier, bearing ice believed to be 400 years old. The mighty Ganga (also Ganges) emerges from beneath this glacier, at a height of 3,959 m above sea level. Here she is known as the Bhagirathi, after the legendary prince Bhagirath who is accredited with bringing her down from heaven to earth.
Bursting forth at Gaumukh, out of a huge cavern shaped like the mouth of a cow, snow laden and hung with giant icicles, the Bhagirathi goes rushing, sparkling, foaming around chunks of ice that are constantly breaking off from the glacier above. Eighteen kilometers downstream stands Gangotri, which was the source of the river until the glacier melted and retreated to its present position above Gaumukh. From here, onwards the river passes through the whole of north Indian plain covering the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and Bangladesh.
GANGA THROUGH THE AGES
The history of Ganga is as long as the history of Indian civilization. Barring the period of Harappan civilization, Ganga basin has been the spectator to all the actions that shaped Indian mythology, history, and people. It was in this plain that the great kingdoms of Magadh, Gupta, and Mughals found their home. It was in this region that one of the most homogenous cultures of all times was born. Furthermore, it was in this place that the essence of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism was created.
There are many legends associated with the coming down of Ganga from heaven to earth. According to one story, once Vishnu heard Shiva play the flute and was so entranced by the music that his feet began to melt. Brahma caught the liquefied portion of Vishnu in a pot and from it created Ganga, the river-goddess. Hence, Ganga is also known as Vishnupadi (one born out of Vishnu’s feet).Ganga has many names associated with its many roles in Sanskrit mythology. Bhagirath (who brought Ganga to the earth) himself is the source of the name Bhagirathi, its initial stream, but it is also another name for the Hooghly.
At one point, Bhagirath went too close to the sage Jahnu’s meditation site, and the disturbed hermit immediately gulped up all the waters. Eventually, after much persuasion from Bhagirath, the sage yielded the waters, but Ganga retained the name Jahnavi. Another explanation for the same name is derived from the Sanskrit word Janu (meaning knee). This is from a version of the story in which the saint released Ganga through a slit at the knee.
PLACES TO VISIT
There was a time when people deferred a pilgrimage to the source of the Ganga until after all their daughters were safely married. Some pilgrims went so far as to make provision for their last rites before setting out. Their fears were not exaggerated, for the mountain trails were extremely treacherous and demanding, and the temperature often sank to subzero. Nevertheless, over the years, a road right up to Gangotri has made it both safe and easy for pilgrims and tourists to scale these heights.
Pushing past the Gangotri temple, dedicated to goddess Ganga, the Bhagirathi plunges headlong into Gaurikund and, tumbling in a series of smaller cascades, enters the Bhaironghati gorge. An hour spent beside Gaurikund, within sound of the falls, is a deeply spiritual experience. There’s enough here to drive all worldly thoughts from the mind-the roaring waters, the beauty of the surrounding mountains, and towering peaks like the Bhagirathi Sisters Bhrigupanth, Meru and Shivling.
Of all the main river valleys of Garhwal, the Bhagirathi valley is perhaps the most beautiful, for deep glens and forests of deodar, birch, oak, and pine flank the river here. Legend has it that when Ganga descended from heaven to earth, Lord Shiva received her in his matted locks, releasing her slowly, or else the sheer force of the flow would have washed the earth away. Indeed the forests of Garhwal could well represent the locks of Shiva. Were it not for these forests, Ganga would sweep down to the plains in a fury of landslides and floods. In the upper reaches of the Ganga, there are no large towns above Uttarkashi and that may be the reason why the forests here are better preserved than those further downstream.
Uttarkashi, literally the Kashi (Varanasi) of the North, stands on the banks of the river Bhagirathi at a height of roughly 1,150 m above sea level. Uttarkashi was a holy but remote and not-really-talked about place until a devastating earthquake hit it few years back.
For the pilgrim and the serious trekker alike, Uttarkashi remains the starting point. A motor road winds up through some enchanting scenery to Gangotri and breathtaking treks lead to Gangotri-Gaumukh-Nandavan-Tapovan-Yamunotri. Uttarkashi is also the last point for stocking up provisions and medicines for the treks.
The Bhagirathi, swift and green to the eye, is serene as compared to the turbulent Alakananda, which goes fretting and fronting over a bed strewn with boulders. The two rivers meet at Devprayag. Traditionally, the confluence of two rivers (Prayag) is considered holy and Devprayag is the holiest of all. A tiny temple town from where Lord Rama is said to have performed penance after killing Ravana, it also marks the place where the name Ganga is first used for the swirling waters.
Before she merges her identity with the Bhagirathi, many other rivers swell the Alakananda. The Pindar joins her at Karnaprayag and the Mandakini slips in at Rudraprayag, to name only two. The temple of Badrinath clings to the banks of the Alakananda. The river here runs through a small gorge, waters green and opalescent, fed with melting glaciers. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the temple had fallen into decay but was restored by the great 9th-century religious reformer, Adi Shankaracharya. Below the shrine, there are hot sulfur springs welling up beside the icy mountain river. On the bank of the Mandakini stands the temple of Kedarnath, sacred to Lord Shiva.
The Alakananda is full of dangerous rapids. One particular rapid, just below Karnaprayag and some 20 feet wide from rock to rock, is known as Kakar Bhali (deer’s leap)-probably because deer are spotted leaping over it from time to time. However, sadhus living nearby will assure you that it isn’t deer but Lord Shiva himself in disguise. Who else could leap over the raging torrent and find a foothold on rock slippery as glass?
Seventy kilometers downstream from Devprayag, at a point where the Ganga meets the Chandrabhaga, stands Rishikesh, built above the very last gorge that the Ganga must negotiate before entering the plains. Rishikesh is a cool, beautiful, restful place, with a kind of benediction in the air. The serene east bank of the Ganga is home to a string of ashrams, centers of Vedic and yogic learning, meditation and herbal medicine. The mighty Lakshman Jhula spans the river, dwarfing the habitation on either side.
Bursting from beneath steep, heavily forested spurs of the Shivaliks, the Ganga finally reaches Haridwar, 24 km downstream and only 63 meters lower. It is believed that Haridwar stands at the very place where the legendary king Sweta performed severe penance and where Brahma granted him ‘darshan’. Strange though it sounds, Haridwar does not stand on the Ganga but on a canal fed with waters from the Ganga, diverted by the Bhimgoda barrage upstream. The British constructed the bathing ghats at Har-Ki-Pairi and the barrage itself in the 19th century to beat the problem of recurring floods. The canal, 50 yards wide, runs straight and swift between concrete banks squeezing the main township and waterfront up against the hill, while bridges arch across from one side to the other.
Haridwar has an impressive tally of temples, both ancient and modern. It is a place where the piety of some becomes a money spinner for others, for holy ceremonies are constantly being performed by the pandas (priests) on behalf of the people-head shaves, thread ceremonies and rites connected with a death in the family. However, the evening aarti at Haridwar is not to be missed for the sheer beauty of the lighted diyas afloat on the River and the melodious devotional music that rises to the sky.
From Haridwar to Allahabad, the Ganga flows parallel to the Yamuna, each describing a huge arc. It flows past Garhmukteshwar, the very place where the goddess Ganga is said to have appeared to Shantanu (ancestor of the Pandavas), and Bithur, a city close to but much older than Kanpur, the site of an ancient Shiva temple, before reaching Allahabad.
Allahabad is a sacred place with soul cleansing powers, particularly so because the mythical, subterranean river Saraswati is said to join the Ganga and Yamuna at this point-a speck of white sand known as the Sangam. In Vedic times, there was a settlement at this confluence, known as Prayag, where the Vedas were written. Brahma himself is said to have performed a sacrifice here. Huen Tsang visited Prayag in AD 634. It was under Mughal Emperor Akbar that Prayag was renamed Illahabas, later to be changed to Allahabad. Overlooking the confluence is a massive, historic, red stone fort built by Akbar.
The Ganga has many tributaries that join here beyond Allahabad. Draining the Nepal Himalayas, the Ghaghra, Gandak, and Gomti flow in from the north and the Yamuna and Sone from the west. Ganga is now a river of majestic proportions, but slow moving, save when torrential rains in the catchments areas upstream lash her into a fury. Then she tears down her banks, ravaging fields and groves and grazing lands, leveling all habitation, wrecking the very lives that she had helped to nurture.
Mirzapur, the carpet town, stands on the Ganga beyond Allahabad. Further down the river, one comes across the high walls and battlements of the great fort of Chunar. Built on a hump of rock 200 feet high, it protrudes into the swirling brown waters of the river. A long while later, the river takes a giant curve to flow along the rim of the eternal city, Varanasi.
It is difficult to describe Varanasi. As Shri Ramakrishna once said, “One may as well try to draw a map of the universe as attempt to describe Varanasi in words.” As old as any currently inhabited city on earth, it was already well known in the days of Buddha, 2,500 years ago. It finds constant mention in ancient literature and has all along been a pilgrimage center, sacred to Shiva. Hindus consider it an auspicious place to die, for then one goes straight to heaven. Surprisingly, Varanasi does not mark one of Ganga’s great confluences but is named after two small rivers that join here, the Varuna and Asi. The oldest habitation site, Kashi, lies north of the Varuna.
Like Haridwar, Varanasi is also a temple town, the most famous being the Kashi-Vishwanath temple. Come eventide and hauntingly beautiful music echoes along the river-temple bells and sacred chants intoned to the throbbing of drums. Stretching back from the bustling river ghats, the city is a winding collection of narrow and narrower alleys. The city is a celebrated center of learning, home to several prestigious schools of music and the gorgeous saris, to say nothing of the connoisseur’s choice-Banarsi paan. The Maharaja’s palace, on the other side of the river, faces the city.
Crossing the vast Gangetic plain, the Ganga flows past Patna, the famous Pataliputra of history. She flows past Mokamah, under an impressive two-tier, rail-cum-road bridge. Mokamah itself is famous as the place where the great hunter-conservationist Jim Corbett worked for several years. It flows past Farakka Barrage, built to divert more water from Ganga to Hooghly to prevent the latter from silting. Soon thereafter, the Ganga splits into the numerous tributaries that form the Gangetic delta. The Hooghly, regarded as the true Ganga, is one of these tributaries. The main channel proceeds to Bangladesh as the river Padma, so dearly loved by Rabindranath Tagore.
The Hooghly sweeps past vast tracts of land inevitably linked with the days of the East India Company. Past Murshidabad, well known for its silk and the Hazardwari Palace, seat of the Nawabs of Bengal for some 300 years. Past Berhampur and the historic battlefield of Plassey where Robert Clive laid the foundations of British rule in India.
Along the banks of the Hooghly, the West Bengal countryside is picture perfect. Clusters of palm and feathery bamboo mark the village sites. Paddy fields, greenest of the green, stretch as far as the eye can see, while little pools dot the land, with children swimming, fishing, or grazing herds of cattle. The Hooghly is alive with country boats, even though the sails are torn and roughly patched with different colored canvas or sacking. Some of these boats carry local farm produce or passengers. Others are fishing boats, festooned with nets, out for a day’s catch.
Nevertheless, deep within the Hooghly lurks danger. The river is heavily silted; its bottom is like a vertical wall of clay where ocean-going vessels may easily run aground. Navigating this length of river is a highly specialized job and pilots attached to the Calcutta Port Trust are specially trained for the purpose.
Further downstream, the sylvan banks give way to factories. From Hooghly, one can see the crowds and congestion of Calcutta and the soot and grime that mark its twin city of Howrah on the opposite bank. Nevertheless, the massive old Howrah Bridge remains one of the most impressive manmade structures anywhere.
Before we reach Haldia, the comparatively new dock some 96 km downstream from Calcutta, one must see the James and Mary sands, so called because a ship named James and Mary ran aground at this spot. These sands were created during one particular monsoon long ago when the Damodar, tributary to the Hooghly, jumped its banks and chose a westerly course. It takes all the expertise of highly trained river pilots to avoid these treacherous sands.
At Haldia, the river looks as if it narrowly missed being the sea. The waterfront is wide and clean but utterly lonely, if you discount the sprinkling of anglers engaged in netting baby tiger prawns. These are raised to adulthood and exported to feed an eager international market.
Sagar Island, placed in the Bay of Bengal at the mouth of the Hooghly, is considered the point where the Ganga joins the sea. It is also a place of great sanctity. Every year, on Makar Sankranti day (mid-January), the Ganga Sagar mela is held on this island. A holy dip at this time ensures divine forgiveness for all wrongdoing. The mela is a mammoth religious gathering that throbs with life, even as the Ganga, having traveled some 2,525 km from her mountain home, surges forward to lose herself in the depths of the sea.
FAIRS AND FESTIVALS
The journey of the Ganga is a journey through the most of fairs and festivals of north India, be it Kumbh Mela or Makar Sankranti or Magh Mela or the bathing festivals on the eclipses, all find their glory on the sacred banks of this river.