THE HOLY RIVER – GANGES
Words: Madhuri. Y
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.
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.
‘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: