The Ganges River flows for 1,560 miles from the Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south. It drains an area of 450,000 square miles and directly affects the lives of 300 million people. The Ganges Plain which was covered by a shallow sea as recently as 10,000 years ago. A third of India's people (200 million) live in the Ganges Plain, where the population averages over 1,000 people per square mile, one of the highest in the world.

Cruising the Ganges are bluff-board bufa boats with high stern and triangular rudders. The bamboo rudders are hardly ever used; boats float through the current, often, stern first or sideways. On the banks of the Ganges and other river you will see dhoti-clad men doing yogic push ups, wrestling or swing huge stone-headed clubs over their head. At Hindu temples along the Ganges pilgrims bathe in the water, make offerings, touch the temple walls, ask advice of sadhus, receive blessing from priest and gather water in jugs to take home.

Hindus call the Ganges the Ganga, the name of goddess it is named after. Greek Mariners may have sailed to the Ganges delta. Ptolemy placed river correctly on his A.D. 150 map. The Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, Prussians, Flemish, and Danes all built outposts on the lower sections of Ganges. The first settlement was established by the Portuguese in 1537; the French didn't leave until 1951.

Hindu Holy Rivers

Hindus regard India as the Holy Land. There are seven holy rivers in India, of which the Ganges is the holiest and most well known. They are all associated with Shiva. According to one legend, Shiva leaped in the water of the Ganges as it fell from heaven to the earth. The water matted his hair and divided into the seven holy rivers.

Rivers are regarded as sacred and treated with deep reverence because of their purifying effect. Bathing in a sacred river and/or drinking its waters can wash away a lifetime's worth of sins and being cremated on the shores of holy river and having your ashes thrown in the river can allow you to escape the cycle or reincarnation of be delivered directly to heaven.

For many Indians the Narmada River is just as sacred as the Ganges. Lepers have claimed to be cured after taking a dip in it. Every year thousand of Hindu pilgrims perform a pradakshina of the Narmanda and walk every inch of both banks. The Brahmaputra in Hindu cosmology is the only male river.

See Separate Articles on VARANASI and RISHIKESH

Ganges and Hinduism

For Hindus the Ganges is the sacred river known as Gangaji, or Mother Ganges. It is comprised of amrita (“the nectar of immortality”) that flows to earth from heaven. Hindus believe that bathing and/ or drinking it waters can wash away a lifetime's worth of sins. Being cremated on its shores and having one’s ashes thrown in the river can allow one to escape the cycle or reincarnation of be delivered directly to heaven.

The Ganges is named after Ganga, a river goddess who descended from heaven and had her fall broken by Shiva’s hair. She is the second wife of Shiva. Her sisters are Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri. Prayers honoring all these holy relatives are recited in the holy river when the bathers submerge themselves to be purified. The Ganges is sometimes referred to as "the liquified from of God." Religious people used to offer "scientific proof that no bacteria or microbe could survive more than a few moments in the holy river.

Ganga represents fertility because she provides water for land and is considered a second wife of Shiva. She is often depicted with a bowl of water in one hand and lotus flower in another, sitting on a makara, a legendary sea monster.

The Ganges is regarded as the link between heaven and earth. In one Hindu story, the Ganges fell from the foot of Vishnu, the preserver, and traveled across the Milky Way before getting lodged in the foot of Shiva, the destroyer and restorer. On top of mythical Mount Meru in the Himalayas, Shiva calmed the river and let it fall to earth.

In another story, the Ganges River was created by the goddess Ganga to wash away the condemned souls of King Sagar's 60,000 sons who had been burned to a crisp by the gaze of the sage Kapali. The sons had cursed Kapali of stealing their father's horse (which had placed in the sage’s ashram by the mischievous thunderstorm god Indra). Ganga was summoned by King Sagar and the god Shiva was called in to catch Ganga, lest she wash away the entire earth. Shiva ensnared her in his hair — the Himalayas — and she remained their until she managed to escape near Gangotri, where upon she dropped from the mountains and flowed to the sea redeeming the souls of the Sagar's 60,000 sons.

Faxian on the Ganges

Between A.D. 399 and 414, the Chinese monk Faxian (Fa-Hsien, Fa Hien) undertook a trip via Central Asia to India to study Buddhism, locate sutras and relics and obtain copies of Buddhist books that were unavailable in China at the time. He traveled from Xian in central China to the west overland on the southern Silk Road into Central Asia and described monasteries, monks and pagodas there. He then crossed over Himalayan passes into India and ventured as far south as Sri Lanka before sailing back to China on a route that took him through present-day Indonesia. His entire journey took 15 years.

According to “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”: “Fa-Hsien stayed at the Dragon vihara till after the summer retreat, and then, travelling to the south-east for seven yojanas, he arrived at the city of Kanyakubja (Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh, India), lying along the Ganges. There are two monasteries in it, the inmates of which are students of the hinayana. At a distance from the city of six or seven le, on the west, on the northern bank of the Ganges, is a place where Buddha preached the Law to his disciples. It has been handed down that his subjects of discourse were such as "The bitterness and vanity (of life) as impermanent and uncertain," and that "The body is as a bubble or foam on the water." At this spot a stupa was erected, and still exists. Having crossed the Ganges, and gone south for three yojanas, (the travellers) arrived at a village named A-le, containing places where Buddha preached the Law, where he sat, and where he walked, at all of which stupas have been built. [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, */*]

“Going on from this to the south-east for three yojanas, they came to the great kingdom of Sha-che. As you go out of the city of Sha-che by the southern gate, on the east of the road (is the place) where Buddha, after he had chewed his willow branch, stuck it in the ground, when it forthwith grew up seven cubits, (at which height it remained) neither increasing nor diminishing. The Brahmans with their contrary doctrines became angry and jealous. Sometimes they cut the tree down, sometimes they plucked it up, and cast it to a distance, but it grew again on the same spot as at first. Here also is the place where the four Buddhas walked and sat, and at which a stupa was built that is still existing." */*

Bathing in the Ganges

Hindus bath in, drink and throw the cremated ashes of the dead in the Ganges. Sprinkling holy water from the Ganges over one's head is believed to wash away sins, purify unclean souls and heal the sick. Bathing in the Ganges even once is supposed to ensure salvation. If a person dies in the Ganges or a has a few drops of Ganges placed on his tongue as he breaths his last breath it is believed he will achieve absolute salvation, escape the toil of reincarnation and be transported to Shiva's Himalayan version of heaven.

Every morning Hindus gather on the shores of the Ganges to bathe and pray for liberation from the world. The pouring of marigolds into the Ganges is a traditional peace offering. The river carries the petals to the oceans and the far corners of the world, carrying the promise of peace with them. Many people collect water from the Ganges in bottles. Some devoted Hindu take Ganges water to drink when they travel abroad.

According to the maharajah of Varanasi. "It is only after my ritual bath and while Iam eating that I cannot touch anyone other than members of my household who have performed the same purification rituals. To do so would make me ritually impure. But goodness does not come only by touching and eating with people; it comes from much more.” [Source: John Putman, National Geographic October 1971]

Route of the Ganges

The source of the Ganges is near the Himalayan town of Gangotori. Amaranth in Kashmir, regarded as the source of the Ganges, is a major pilgramage site. The river formally begins at 13,000-foot-high junction of two glacier-fed mountain streams. From here the river plummets about 11,000 feet in 200 miles to the Ganges Plain near the city of Hardwar.

The Ganges Plain is an alluvial pain between 10 and 100 miles wide. The Ganges often floods here and changes it courses but provided rich alluvial soil for farmers. After coming down out the mountains the Ganges drops 1000 feet in its final 1,160 mile journey to the Bay of Bengal.

The Ganges Canal begins in Hardwar and flows into the Yamuna River, irrigating the land in a region known as the Doab. The Ganges Plain is crisscrossed by hundreds of other canals and irrigation channels used mainly to raise crops during the winter. During the monsoon season the river and plains flood after heavy rains and the silt left behind helps fertilize the winter wheat grown during the next dry season.

Near the border of Bangladesh and India, the Ganges splits in two. Part of it (the Padma) flows into the Brahmapputra which forms a massive delta that empties in the Bay of Bengal. The other part becomes the Bhagirathi River, which travels through Kolkata, where it is renamed the Hooghly River.

Ganges Hydrology

The Ganges is at its lowest in February, when water in the Himalayas is locked up in snow and ice. The river is at its highest in June when it is swollen from snow melt and early monsoons rains and September after the monsoons. During the monsoon the river runs dark brown with silt. During the dry season the earth cracks open around the river in 115 degrees heat.A lot of water is removed for irrigation. So much water from the Ganges is used it sometimes dries out before reaching the sea. So much is removed from the Ganges that the unique ecosystem of the Sundarband wetlands is seriously threatened.

The discharge of the Ganges differs by source. Frequently, discharge is described for the mouth of the Meghna River, thus combining the Ganges with the Brahmaputra and Meghna. This results in a total average annual discharge of about 38,000 cubic meters per second (1,300,000 cubic feet per second). In other cases the average annual discharges of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna are given separately, at about 16,650 cubic meters per second (588,000 cubic feet per second) for the Ganges, about 19,820 cubic meters per second (700,000 cubic feet per second) for the Brahmaputra, and about 5,100 cubic meters per second (180,000 cubic feet per second) for the Meghna. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Hardinge Bridge, Bangladesh, crosses the Ganges-Padma River. It is one of the key sites for measuring streamflow and discharge on the lower Ganges.The maximum peak discharge of the Ganges, as recorded at Hardinge Bridge in Bangladesh, exceeded 70,000 cubic meters per second (2,500,000 cubic feet per second). The minimum recorded at the same place was about 180 cubic meters per second (6,400 cubic feet per second) in 1997. +

The hydrologic cycle in the Ganges basin is governed by the Southwest Monsoon. About 84 percent of the total rainfall occurs in the monsoon from June to September. Consequently, streamflow in the Ganges is highly seasonal. The average dry season to monsoon discharge ratio is about 1:6, as measured at Hardinge Bridge. This strong seasonal variation underlies many problems of land and water resource development in the region. The seasonality of flow is so acute it can cause both drought and floods. Bangladesh, in particular, frequently experiences drought during the dry season and regularly suffers extreme floods during the monsoon. +

In the Ganges Delta many large rivers come together, both merging and bifurcating in a complicated network of channels. The two largest rivers, the Ganges and Brahmaputra, both split into distributary channels, the largest of which merge with other large rivers before themselves joining. This current channel pattern was not always the case. Over time the rivers in Ganges Delta have changed course, sometimes altering the network of channels in significant ways. +

Pollution in the Ganges

Some 345 million gallons of raw sewage and 70 million gallons of industrial waste flows into the Ganges everyday. Dead goats, monkeys and occasion dead beggars can be seen floating in it. Diseases that have been caught bathing in the river include hepatitis amoebic dysentery, jaundice and cholera. It has been said that there are so many toxins in the Ganges that even bacteria won’t grow in it. Even so, Indians drink water from the river, bathe in it and irrigate their crops with it. In Varanasi people who bathe in the Ganges say it is a question mind over matter. Hindus believe the Ganges can not be contaminated. Hindus don't like the term "polluted" attached to the Ganges. Environmentalists now favor milder language to infer that the sacred river is "suffering."

"I will not stop my taking my daily bath in the Ganges," one man told journalist Geoffrey Ward of Smithsonian magazine, "but the struggle inside me every morning is terrible, inexpressible." The centuries-old sewer in Varanasi is overtaxed and the water treatment facility doesn't work, partly because the local power stations can't supply it with enough electricity. Raw sewage plummets into the river from half a dozen places at a rate of 3,500 gallons a minute. On the northern edge of the city, near where the Aryans built their first camp, the water is so foul that bubbles from chemical reactions form. The smell of the toxic brew is so horrible that even seasoned boatmen hold their nose as they paddle. [Source: Geoffrey Ward, Smithsonian magazine, September 1985]

Much of the pollution in the Ganges if from untreated sewage. Hindus refuse to believe that the river is polluted and scoff at accusations that this is the case. Environmentalists try to get Hindus to take an interest in the fate of the river by asking them first if the believe the Ganges is their mother. When they say yes the environmentalist ask: "Would you show such disrespect to your mother? Pour filth over her?" When they say No, they gain more converts. [Source: Santha Rama Rau, National Geographic February 1986]

Cleaning Up the Ganges

Efforts to clean up the Ganges have included introducing electric crematories, more efficient than wooden pyres; and releasing turtles that eat decaying matter into the river. Most of the turtles were killed by poachers for their meat. Sadhus have demonstrated in Allahabad demanding that the Ganges be cleaned up.

"In my grandfather time," a Varanasi environmental activist told Ward, "not even soap was allowed near the river; no one was permitted to wear shoes. The maharajahs paid for keeping up the ghats, and the pandas and boatmen policed the waterfront. Anyone who dared dirty the riverbank would have been lynched. Now everyone is exercising his democratic right to ruin the city...Benares was once a quiet center of religion and contemplation. It has become a city of shopkeepers and ruffians." [Source: Geoffrey Ward, Smithsonian magazine, September 1985]

In an attempt to save the sacred river a citizen movement called Swatcha Ganges (Cleanse the Ganges) was hatched. The slogan for the group is: "The Ganges is our Mother...If the Ganges is your Mother how can you allow this harsh treatment to be meted out to her?" To remove the garbage boys use mesh-boxes to scrape up green scum and dancers and singers are sent into bazaars to raise awareness. The World Bank has provided the Varanasi government with millions of dollars to build seven modern sewage treatment plants and electric crematoriums. [Source: Geoffrey Ward, Smithsonian magazine, September 1985]

Melas and Kumbh Melas

The world largest gatherings are a series of melas (festivals) held on the Ganges attended by millions of Hindu pilgrims who enter the river in hopes of washing away their sins. There are four major melas: in Allahabad (Prayag), in Haridwar, in Nasik, and in Ujjain. Each one is held every 12 years, with one of four held every three years. The one in Allahabad is by far the largest. It attracts over 50 to 100 million people. The others attract about 10 million each.

The melas takes place on dates set by astrology when one day of the gods’ time corresponds to a year of human time. the largest crowds occur at the 12- and 144-year marks, when it's believed that good karma is strongest. The melas are held at confluences of the Ganges with other rivers and last for about 40 or 60 days. Pilgrims come and go, with the greatest numbers arriving and entering the water at the sangam (confluence points) at auspicious times and dates set by Hindu astrologers in accordance with a correct alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, earth and the moon. Because the event is usually held in January and February the water is icy cold.

Kumbh means pot or pitcher. Mela means festival or fair. According to Hindu mythology, the churning of the primordial ocean (‘Samudra Manthan’) threw up Amrit or the nectar of immortality. Both gods and demons were part of the churning process and it was decided that nectar would be shared equally between the two groups. However, a battle broke out between gods and demons for control of the kumbha. During the battle, according to one version of the stor, the celestial bird Garuda flew away with the pot of nectar and spilled drops on the four places the melas are held — Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik — and eight places in heaven. In another version, one god, Vishnu in many stories, spilled the nectar in the four places as he circled the earth with the pitcher for 12 days (12 years in human time. )

Melas are said to wash away sins, cleans the soul and bring good luck in marriages, business and other things. Hindus believe that at the precise moment of the mela, the Ganges turns to heavenly nectar and anyone who bathes in it is freed from the cycle or death, reincarnation and rebirth and is guaranteed eternal salvation. According to Hindu beliefs bathing in the Ganges during one these melas is worth 10 million bathes in the Ganges at a less propitious times.

It is said that the melas date back to the second millennium B.C. If that is true that would make them the oldest continuously-held festivals. According to historical records, including an account in the 7th century by the Chinese traveler Hsuang Tang, the melas were huge gatherings for sadhus, gurus, swamis, and yogis. Mark Twain was among the first Americans to attend a mela. On a gthering he saw in 1896, he wrote: “It is wonderful," a marvel to "our kind of people, the cold whites...The power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining."

Ardh Kumbha Melas

Ard Kumbh Melas (Half Grand Pitcher gatherings) are smaller Kumbha Melas, attracting millions rather than tens of millions. During the 45-day long Ard Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, Naga Sadhuus, or naked Hindu holymen, walk in a religious procession on the confluence of the Gamges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati River during the auspicious day of Mauni Amawasya. Timed to take place during a new moon, millions of devout Hindus immerse themselves in one of the most important events of the weekslong pilgrimage aimed at cleansing believers of their sins. When asked to describe the feeling at mela, one pilgrim said, “People are concerned about you. They treat you in a polite manner: ‘Come, mother, [they say," and go comfortably."”

In January 2007, millions of pilgrims endured bitter cold and tough security, to attend the mela in Sangham, Allahabad, 400 kilometers from Delhi. About 50 million people, with 10 million on the most important day, showed up. The 62,000 tents used, many with pennants identifying different Hindu sects, could accommodate 2 million people. More than 50,000 police officers were on hand. The festival grounds were divided into 28 sectors, each under the command of different unit. reported: “This year's festival is the Ardh (half) Kumbha Mela, but despite of its name it still drew millions of spiritual seekers to the confluence of Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers. Hindu belief has it that one's sins are purified by a dip in these holy waters, thereby liberating him. This is a time of special astrological constellations and the most auspicious bathing times are known as shahi snans or "royal baths" (January 14 - Makar Sankranti, January 19 - Mouni Amavasya, January 23 - Vasant Panchami and February 15 – Mahashivaratri). [Source:]

“The privilege of leading such baths goes to Akharas (Hindu monastic orders) and their Mahamandaleshwars (akhara leaders). The Maha Nirvani Akhara to which His Holiness Mahamandaleshwar Paramhans Swami Maheshwaranandaji belongs as one of its leaders led the first of the royal baths and His Holiness Swamiji took a holy dip accompanied by his western devotees. As over 90 million pilgrims are expected to visit Mela during January 3 until February 16, the event is also a huge logistic and security challenge and organizers along with Indian government have made tremendous efforts to provide adequate transportation, lodging, food and safety."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website (, India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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