The Ganges is a major river in the Indian subcontinent passing
though most of northern India and Bangladesh. The 2,510 km (1,557
mi) long river begins at the Gangotri Glacier in the state of
Uttarakhand in the Central Himalayas, passes though the plains in
northern India before draining into the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh.
After entering Bangladesh, the main branch of the Ganges is known as
Padma River till it is joined by the Jamuna River the largest
distributary of the Brahmaputra. Further downstream, the Ganges is fed
by the Meghna River, the second largest distributary of the Brahmaputra
and takes on its name. Fanning out into the 350 km (220 mi) wide Ganges
Delta, it empties out into the Bay of Bengal. Only two rivers, the
Amazon and Congo have a higher discharge.
Origin of Ganges
The Ganges originates in the Himalayas at the confluence of five
headstreams the Bhagirathi, Mandakini, Alaknanda, Dhauliganga, and
Pindar at Devaprayag in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. At the
foothills of the Himalayas (14000 ft) in North Uttar Pradesh, the
Gangotri Glacier, a vast expanse of ice five miles by fifteen, is the
source of Bhagirathi, which joins with Alaknanda (origins nearby) to
form Ganga at the craggy canyon-carved town of Devprayag. From Devprayag
to the Bay of Bengal and the vast Sunderbans delta, the Ganga flows some
1550 miles, passing (and giving life to) some of the most populous
cities of India, including Kanpur (2 million), Allahabad, Varanasi,
Patna, and Calcutta (14 million).
The Yamuna, which originates less than a hundred miles east of the
Bhagirathi, flows parallel to the Ganga and a little to the south for
most of its course before merging with the Ganga at the holy city of
Allahabad, also known as Triveni Sangam (literally, Three-way Junction,
the third river being the mythical Saraswati which is also supposed to
be an underground river). New Delhi, capital of India, and Agra, site of
the Taj Mahal, are two of the major cities on the Yamuna.
Course Taken by River Ganges
Follow the river from its origin in the Himalayas all the way to
its confluence with the ocean, through ancient pilgrimage towns and
Rishikesh : Gateway to the Himalayas. Experience the might of the
Ganges and the serene
atmosphere of Rishikesh where all Himalayan
Haridwar : After travelling 200 km through the Himalayas, the Ganges
emerges at the pilgrimage town of Haridwar in the Shiwalik Hills. At
Haridwar, a dam diverts some of its waters into the Ganges Canal, which
links the Ganges with its main tributary, the Yamuna. The Ganges which
till this point flows in a south-western direction now begins to flow in
a south-eastern direction through the plains northern India. One can
visit Haridwar in the foothills of the Himalayas and experience the
Aarti to the Ganges, when the entire riverside is lit up with the glow
of hundreds of lamps.
Allahabad (Benares) : From Haridwar the river follows an 800 km (500
mi) winding course passing through the city of Kanpur, before being
joined by the Yamuna from the southwest at Allahabad. On the banks of
the Ganges, Benares is the most venerated of the pilgrimage sites in
Prayag : At Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, the Yamuna merges
with the Ganga at Prayag. Prayag is an ancient pilgrimage site
and also is the seat of the Kumbha Mela festival occurring once every 12
Tryambakeshwar in Maharashtra : Where the Godavari is venerated as
the Ganga Ganga Sagar - at the confluence of the Ganga with the ocean is
an ancient pilgrimage site associated with Kapilamuni.
Dams on the Ganga
There are two major dams on the Ganga. One at Haridwar and other
at Farakka close to the point where the main flow of the river enters
Haridwar dam : Haridwar dam diverts much of the Himalayan snowmelt
into the Upper Ganges
Canal. This dam was built by the British in 1854
to irrigate the surrounding land. This caused severe deterioration to
the wateflow in the Ganga, and is a major cause for the decay of Ganga
as an inland waterway.
Farakka dam : This dam is serious hydroelectric affair at Farakka,
close to the point where the main flow of the river enters Bangladesh,
and the tributary Hooghly (also known as Bhagirathi) continues in West
Bengal past Calcutta. This barrage, which feeds the Hooghly branch of
the river by a 26 mile long feeder canal, and its water flow management
has been a long-lingering source of dispute with Bangladesh, which
fortunately is likely to be resolved based on discussions held with the
new Hasina government in Bangladesh in 1996 when I.K. Gujral was the
Foreign Minister in India, Failure to resolve this has caused harm to
both sides of the border for nearly two decades now.
GANGA IN HINDU MYTH
According to Hindu mythology, the Ganges was once a river of
heaven that flowed across the sky. It is repeatedly invoked in the
Vedas, the Puranas, and the two Indian epics, the Ramayana and the
Ganga is a goddess, Ganga devi, one of two daughters of Meru (the
Himalayas), the other being Uma, consort of Shiva. In her youth, Indra
had asked for Ganga to be given to heaven to soothe the Gods with its
cool waters. The story of its descent to earth appears in slightly
different forms in Ramayana (Bala Kanda: Vishwamitra narrates it to the
child Rama), Mahabharata (Aranya Parba: Agastya narrates it to Rama),
and in the Puranas. These myths are variously dated between 2000 to 400
BC. Lord Vishnu himself bathed in its waters at Haridwar, which is so
holy that sins as great as the murder of Brahmins may be washed away by
bathing here. Many other tales are associated with the Ganga and points
In a country where practically everything in nature is venerated, the
Ganges is most holy. Water from the Ganga has the recursive property
that any water mixed with even the minutest quantity of Ganga water
becomes Ganga water, and inherits its healing and other holy properties.
Also, despite its many impurities, Ganga water does not rot or stink if
stored for several days.
Hindus may travel great distances to scatter the ashes of loved
ones in the Ganges. Hindus also believe that the Gangesí divine waters
purify those who immerse themselves in her. It is even said that a
single drop of Ganges water, carried by the wind over a great distance,
can cleanse a lifetime of sins. Hindus also believe life is incomplete
without bathing in the Ganga at least once in their lifetime. In most
Hindu families, a vial of water from the Ganga is kept in every house.
This is done because it is auspicious to have water of the Holy Ganga in
the house, and also if someone is dying, that person will be able to
drink its water.
Bathing in the Ganga is still the lifelong ambition of many of India's
believing masses, and they will congregate on its banks for the
tremendously overcrowded Sangam, Sagar Mela or Kumbh Mela which are held
on auspicious dates every few years. In 2001, some 20 million people
bathed in the Ganges at Allahbad at the most auspicious moment of this
Today, the greatest threat to Ganges is pollution. The majority
of the Gangesí pollution is organic waste, sewage, trash, food, and human
and animal remains. City populations along the Ganges have grown at a
tremendous rate, while waste-control infrastructure has remained
relatively unchanged, over the past century.
Leather industries are the major polluting industries on the Ganga,
which use large amounts of Chromium and other chemicals, and much of it
finds its way into the meager flow of the Ganga. Unfortunately, this is
a boom time for leather processing in India, which many view as a form
of eco-environmental dumping on the third world, and with the lax and
lubricable implementation systems of the U.P. Government, it does not
seem likely that this will go down. The world bank report 1992, which
focussed on the environmental issues, mentions the dissolved-oxygen and
riverborne decomposing material at two points on the Ganga.
However, industry is not the only source of pollution. Some 300 million
gallons of waste go into the Ganges each day due to which recent water
samples collected in Varanasi revealed fecal-coliform counts of about
50,000 bacteria per 100 milliliters of water, 10,000% higher than the
government standard for safe river bathing. An estimated 80% of all
health problems and one-third of deaths in India are attributable to
water-borne diseases. In Varanasi, some 40,000 cremations are performed
each year, most on wood pyres that do not completely consume the body.
Along with the remains of these traditional funerals, there are
thousands more who cannot afford cremation and whose bodies are simply
thrown into the Ganges.
In 1985, the Ganga Action Plan has been set up under the Indian
Government bureaucracy, and is attempting to build a number of waste
treatment facilities, under Dutch and British support, and to
collaborate with a number of voluntary organizations. The Plan was
devised to clean up the river in selected areas by installing sewage
treatment plants and threatening fines and litigation against industries
Almost 20 years later, the plan has been largely unsuccessful. The
Western-style treatment plants simply did not meet the needs of the
region. Such treatment facilities are designed for use in countries
where the supply of electricity is stable, thereís no season of
overwhelming monsoon rains, and the population doesnít drink directly
from the water source.
Surprisingly, the Hindu political parties in India are not very active
in the efforts to clean up the Ganga, and it is not very high in the
general religious agenda. Many Indians blame the planís failure on
mismanagement, corruption and technological mistakes. A key criticism is
that local communities, those most invested in the health of the river,
were not included in the planning process.
In contrast to the shortcomings of the governmentís Ganga Action Plan,
the citizen-based Sankat Mochan Foundation, started in Varanasi in 1982,
has made great strides toward a lasting clean-up of the Ganges. With a
dual identity as Hindu priest and civil engineer, the organizationís
founder, Veer Bhadra Mishra, has approached the problem from both a
scientific and a spiritual perspective. In collaboration with engineers
at the University of California, Berkeley, Mishra has proposed an
alternative sewage-treatment plan for Varanasi that is compatible with
the climate and conditions of India.
The advanced integrated wastewater oxidation pond system would store
sewage in a series of ponds and use bacteria and algae to break down
waste and purify the water, so it wouldnít need electricity. Sankat
Mochan is currently trying to persuade Indiaís central government to
adopt the plan.
Sankat Mochanís cleanup program, called Campaign for a Clean Ganga, has
achieved tangible results. For example, workers in Varanasi now pick up
litter along the riverfront and remove corpses and animal carcasses from
the river. Despite the achievements in Varanasi, the clean-up campaign
must be a national effort, touching all parts of the river, if it is to
To raise national awareness, Campaign for a Clean Ganga launched a
program in 2002 to raise national awareness, empower local communities
to take charge of environmental issues, and build national coalitions of
NGOs, industries and local governments.
The program organized the first national Clean Ganga Day in Calcutta,
the first in a series of workshops for civic leaders and the general
public, in March 2003.