Words: Madhuri. Y


VistaarHaiApaar, PrajaDonoPaar
O Ganga Tum
O Ganga BehtiHoKyun?
– Sung by BhupenHazarika

(Spread is boundless, people on both sides shouting in misery, O Ganga you are always silent, O Ganga why do you flow?)

The holy river that washes away all sins, its pure waters flowing down from the Himalayas, yet turning into one of the world’s most polluted rivers when it flows through the Gangetic plains, the Ganga proves the fact that a river is as good as the people of the land.

King Sagara, the Suryavanshi king during Satya Yuga, was an ancestor of Lord Ram. Once he was performing the Ashwamedhayagna (to establish a king’s supremacy, a horse is allowed to go across to other kingdoms and any other king who stops the horse must fight the rival king’s army).

Fearing king Sagara’s power, Lord Indra steals the horse and hides it in the netherworld (patal) next to a meditating sage Kapila. The king’s 60,000 sons go in search of the horse.

When they find it, they believe that sage Kapila had stolen the horse and prepare to attack him. The sage opens his eyes, burning them to ashes and their souls wander the netherworld without salvation.

Their nephew Anshuman is told that if river Ganga flows over their ashes, it will bring them salvation. But neither he nor his son Dilip is able to undertake the task.

Dilip’s son Bhagirath goes to the Himalayas and after years of rigorous penance, he gains Lord Brahma’s boon that Ganga will flow down to earth.

On Brahma’s advice, he prays to Lord Shiva who agrees to break Ganga’s fall on earth to prevent her power from destroying the land.


When Ganga comes rushing down to earth, the power is such that everyone is terrified, but Lord Shiva holds her prisoner in his matted locks.

Bhagirath once again prays to him and the Lord releases Ganga to earth; it then flows to the netherworld and over Bhagirath’s ancestors, bringing salvation to them.

Since Ganga is brought down to earth by Bhagirath, she is also known as Bhagirathi.



Ganga is said to be the only river that flows through the three worlds – heaven, earth and the netherworld – becoming the tilokapathagamini. Hence, the Ganga is considered a tirtha, the crossing point between heaven and earth. Because she has descended from heaven to earth, she is also believed to be the one who can take a person from earth to heaven. Hence, being cremated on the banks of the Ganga is considered holy. In fact, wherever a person may be cremated, the ashes are mixed with the Ganga for the soul’s salvation.


The five holy confluences of rivers – the PanchPrayag – are on the Alaknanda. These are the points where different rivers join the Alaknanda and are in the descending order of the river flow:

• Vishnu Prayag: Dhauliganga
• Nanda Prayag: Nandakini
• KarnaPrayag: Pindar
• RudraPrayag: Mandakini
• DevPrayag: Bhagirathi joins the Alaknanda to form the river Ganga.

Flow of the Ganga

India’s national river, the Ganga emerges in the Garhwal region of the Himalayas and drops over 14,000 feet from the Gangotri glacier and flows about 2,550 km before reaching the Bay of Bengal.

Among the many streams that form the headwaters of the Ganga, the important ones are Alaknanda, Dhauliganga, Nandakini, Pindar, Mandakini and the Bhagirathi.

The Ganga emerges from the Himalayas at Rishikesh and flows into the Gangetic plain at Hardwar.

The Gangotri glacier has been receding since the late 18th century with a faster retreat since the 1970s.

The glacial flow may completely stop by 2030, according to the UN 2007 Climate Change Report. This would reduce the Ganga to a seasonal river.

History of the Ganga

During the late Harappan period, the Harappans spread their settlements from the banks of the Indus to the land between the Ganga and the Yamuna. They had not yet moved to the eastern banks of the Ganga. It was not until 2nd BCE that the settlements moved from the Indus basin to the Gangetic.

It is believed that the Vedic period is a confluence of the Indo-Aryan and the Harappan civilisations. Although the Rigveda mentions the Ganga, it is the other three Vedas that give importance to the river. Many kingdoms, including Kosala of Lord Ram, Pataliputra of the Mauryan Empire, Kannauj of king Harshavardhana, Kashi, Kampilya and more have thrived on its banks.

Today, it flows through the states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and even Bangladesh. On its banks, particularly at Rishikesh, Hardwar and Varanasi, people pray and perform rituals. The evening arti in Varanasi is a daily ritual on the banks of the Ganga.

Shiva- ganga


As late as the 17th century, the land surrounding the Ganga was a dense forestland with wild elephants, buffalo, bison, rhinoceros, lions and tigers. Today, they have been hunted out of the land. Vegetation has disappeared giving way to agricultural land. The Sunderbans is the only region in which the Bengal tigers and crocodiles can be found even today.

The Ganges River Dolphin, or susu as it is called is essentially blind and carries high sonar capabilities. It is India’s national aquatic animal and is today endangered. Many varieties of birds are found here, some like ducks and snipes migrate from the Himalayas during winter.

The Polluted River

The river that is believed to cleanse humans can cleanse itself just so much and no more. The burden of population is showing and the main causes of Ganga’s pollution include:

• The many hydro-electric dams on the river lead to habitat and wildlife destruction and mass scale relocation of humans.
• But the larger concern is of the poor quality of water. Industrial sewage, particularly the tanneries in Agra and Kanpur are the biggest culprits, according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).
• Agricultural sewage with chemicals and fertilisers flowing into the river is another cause for concern.
• The river’s holy stature turns its banks into the burning ghats and half-burned and unburned bodies and dead animals too are thrown into the river.

Toxic substances and high levels of disease-causing bacteria are commonplace in the Ganga. It takes concerted action on many fronts to cleanse the river and to take it back to its holy status.

The Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1986, focusing primarily on sewage treatment plants.

Disinterested state governments and lack of maintenance by municipal authorities kept much of the treatment capacity on paper. The plan also aimed at building gas or electric crematoriums on the banks in cities like Varanasi and Allahabad, but it was not achieved.

The current government has launched the NamamiGange programme with an outlay of `2037 crore. The programme will work in the public-private partnership mode and this includes the building and maintenance of sewage treatment plants. Notices have been served on industries discharging untreated effluents.

Surface cleaning work related to clothes, religious offerings and polythene on the river surface has begun. Crematoriums are set to be built. Public awareness programmes, riverfront development and more have been initiated. Learning from the past, the programme takes into account the entire Gangetic basin and plans for a mix of short-term and long-term measures..

A land’s prosperity rests in its rivers. Bringing the Ganga back to its pristine state will mark the day of prosperity for this ancient land.

‘Madhuri is a writer of Children’s fiction and a ghost writer of nonfiction books. She is an alumna of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and can be reached at: