" Action expresses priorities"
~ Mahatma Gandhi

Sacred Ganga

Rajiv Butalia traces the journey of the most worshipped river Ganga, as it gathers pollutants through its journey to the ocean, and says,"True worship will happen when we learn to preserve its sanctity. In the Kali Yuga when mans greed and ignorance knows no bounds, it is possible that this might never happen."

"The Ganges, above all is the river of India, which has held India's heart captive and drawn uncounted millions to her banks since the dawn of history. The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India's civilization and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of adventures of man".

~ Jawaharlal Nehru in Discovery of India

Groves of Konkan
The Adventurers
Wild Magic
Last of Asiatic Lions


Book Reviews
The Tiger is a Gent

Gaumukh Never in the history of mankind has a river been worshipped by more people than has the Ganga. Descending from the Himalayas to merge with the ocean, the Ganges is one of the mightiest rivers of the world. It is also the holiest river in India.

Development of the Indian civilisation is closely linked to the Yamuna and the Ganges rivers. It is here that the ancient cities came up. It is on the banks of these rivers that the sages meditated. It is from these rivers that the people of this ancient civilisation drew so much of their philosophical and spiritual sustenance.

Beginning its journey from Gangotri glacier in Uttarakhand, the Ganges rushes down to the foothills at Rishikesh and then a little further on to the plains at Haridwar. Thereafter, it winds its way down through the states of Uttar Pradesh; Bihar; through the Sundarbans, a wild area of swamps, dense forests, small islands, and tidal creeks in West Bengal; and then on to Bangladesh where it completes its 1557 mile (2,510 km) journey to merge with the ocean in the Bay of Bengal.

It is not without reason that she is referred to as Ganga Ma (Mother Ganges) or the Holy River. Approximately a quarter of India's cultivable area is covered by the drainage basin of the Ganga and about a quarter of our population is dependant on agriculture, along the river.

On its banks are established the major cities of Rishikesh and Haridwar (in Uttarakhand), Moradabad, Rampur, Kanpur, Allahabad and Varanasi (in Uttar Pradesh) and Patna (in Bihar) . Four of these, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Allahabad,and Varanasi, are among the holiest cities in India. At Allahabad the Ganges is joined by another mighty river, the Yamuna, and it is here that it gathers volume.

The Ganges is a perennial river. During the hot summers the melting of the Himalayan waters feed the Ganges. During the Indian monsoons (mid July to mid September) the rains add to its flow.

In the Himalayas
River Ganga at Gangotri The Gangotri (once referred to as Gangavtari) glacier at a height of 14,000 feet is a large glacier five miles by fifteen and has been the source of the river Ganges for thousands of years. When it springs from the mouth of the glacier at Goumukh the river is called the Bhagirathi. It then meets the Alaknanda at Devprayag. The Alaknanda is believed to have split off from the celestial Ganga when it descended from heaven. The Goddess Ganga descended to earth at Goumukh.

The Alaknanda is the main tributary of the Ganges. The Alaknanda rises at the foot of the Satopanth and Bhagirath Kharak glaciers in Uttarakhand. On its way down, before it merges with the Bhagirathi it joins up with other rivers at the various prayags or confluences, revered as the Panch Prayag:

  • Vishnuprayag - Alaknanda meets Dhauli Ganga

  • Nandprayag - Alaknanda meets Mandakini

  • Karnaprayag - Alaknanda meets Pindar

  • Rudraprayag - Alaknanda meets Mandakini

  • Devprayag - Alaknanda meets Bhagirathi
  • Links with Indian Civilisation
    The Ganga is one of the fountainheads of Indian civilisation. References to the Ganga can be found in Indian epics as far back as 4000 and 2000 BC. It finds mention in the Vedas, the Puranas as well as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The river hymn in the Rig Veda refers to the Ganga as the first of the rivers.

    (Source: David Frawley - Gods , Sages and Kings)

    The Upper and Lower Ganges Canals were developed in the British period and are useful to agriculture in the dry season. They cover the area between the Ganges and Yamuna. Despite these and other attempts at irrigation three-quarters of the Ganges' waters still flow into the Bay of Bengal.

    In the upper plains of the Ganges, in North India the main grain is wheat. Rice cultivation takes over lower down and in the delta region.

    Reduced flow in the Ganges due to diversion for irrigation purposes has affected the level of the Ganges. The river once used to be navigable from Allahabad till the Bay of Bengal but this is no longer the case.

    The slow destruction of the Ganges

    Deforestation in the upper reaches of the Ganges has reduced water retention abilities of the soil. Rain waters quickly run off and the river floods in many parts during the monsoons. Reduced water retention also reduces flows of the water during the summer months.

    The pollution of the waters ia a major threat. An estimated 2,000,000 persons ritually bathe daily in the river. It must be noted that in earlier times, soaps and oils were never used near the river to maintain its sanctity. The river was the sacred mother that purified us. With the passage of time, most bathers are blissfully unaware that ritual bathing is to take a dip in the sacred waters of the Ganga, and never to use soaps etc in it.

    Varanasi Unchecked flow of chemical wastes and sewage has been polluting the river. Other major health hazards are posed by human and animal corpses that are thrown in. Despite posturing, the Indian Government has done next to nothing to stop the pollution of the river. As it enters Varanasi, the river contains 120 times the safe limit for bathing because of faecal coliform bacteria. As it exits, the sewers, and pollution from this city, increase this to 3,000 times the safety limit. Here the Holy River turns to a horrible black, an apt reflection of the age we live in.

    Climate change
    It is now feared that the flow of these waters will substantially diminish because of the slow disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers. Apart from the rising temperatures, climate change is also affecting rain patterns and evaporation. Scientists continue to debate whether global warming has led to climate change or whether other factors are at play. But there is no denying that temperatures in the area have increased and that snowfall has decreased and the Gangotri glacier is retreating. Between the two times I trekked to the glacier in 1993 and later in 2006, it had retreated visibly by at least 500 metres. Reportedly Himalayan glaciers have been retreating at a rate of 10 to 15 metres each year.

    Aquatic animals
    Discharging waste and water flow control by Farakka barrage have almost devastated the habitat of aquatic animals like Gangetic dolphin and Ghorial. Once present in tens of thousands, the Ganges river dolphins have dwindled abysmally to less than 2000 during the last century. Some of the pronounced reasons for reduction are habitat fragmentation by dams and barrages, indiscriminate fishing and pollution of the river (WWF India, 2008).

    Somewhere along the way with the advent of Kali Yuga (the dark ages predicted in the scriptures) we, the millions of devotees who worship this sacred river, seem to have forgotten that it is not enough to worship in form. True worship will happen when we learn to preserve its sanctity. In the Kali Yuga when mans greed and ignorance knows no bounds, it is possible that this might never happen.

    Photo Credit: Ganga near Gaumukh and at Gangotri: Rajiv Butalia
    Photo Credit: Ganga at Varanasi: Alok Johri

    Home | Back | Top | Feedback

    Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.