Ganges River

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Geography of Asia

Ganges (Ganga)
Map of the Ganges River Basin
Map of the Ganges River Basin
Origin Gangotri Glacier
Mouth Bay of Bengal
Basin countries India, Bangladesh
Length 2,510 km (1,560 mi)
Source elevation 7,756 m (25,450 feet)
Avg. discharge 14,270 m³/s (275,496 ft³/s)
Basin area 907,000 km² (354,300 mi²)

The Ganges River (English: /ˈgænʤiz/; Gangā /ˈgəŋgaː/ in most Indian languages) ( Devanagari गंगा) is a river of northern India and Bangladesh. The river has a long history of reverence in India and is worshipped by Hindus as a goddess. It is often called the 'holy Ganga' or 'Ganga ma' (mother Ganga).

The total length of the river is about 2,510 km (1,557 mi). Along with another river Yamuna, it forms a large and fertile basin, known as the Gangetic plains, stretching across north India and Bangladesh, and supports one of the highest densities of human population in the world. Indeed, about one in every 12 people on earth (8.5% of world population) live in its catchment area. Due to this incredible concentration of population, pollution and the destruction of habitats are matters of serious concern.


The Gangotri Glacier in the Uttaranchal Himalayas is the origin of the Bhagirathi river, which joins the Alaknanda river at Devaprayag, also in the Uttaranchal Himalayas, to form the Ganga. The river then flows through the Himalayan valleys and emerges into the north Indian plain at the town of Haridwar. This section sees extensive whitewater rafting and kayaking from September to March.

Ganges river delta, Bangladesh and India
Ganges river delta, Bangladesh and India

The Ganga then flows across the broad plains of north India (called the Gangetic Plains) and forms the major river basin of that vast region. Its tributaries include the Kosi, the Gomti, the Sone, and above all, the Yamuna. The Yamuna River — a major river in its own right, and nearly as endowed with the sanctity of religious tradition and legend as the Ganga, is in fact a tributary of the Ganga; their confluence marks the site of the pilgrim town of Prayag, now known as Allahabad. Not only sites of religious significance, but also many of the most populous industrial cities of northern India, lie on the banks of the Ganga, including Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and Patna.

Early morning on the Ganges at the city of Varanasi
Early morning on the Ganges at the city of Varanasi

Swollen by the waters of a wide basin that draws from watersheds as diverse as the Himalayas and the Aravallis, the Ganga forms a formidable current in the stretch between Allahabad and Malda, and thereafter, a large delta. Near the town of Malda in West Bengal, it undergoes its first attrition with the branching away of the Hoogly, its first distributary. The city of Kolkata (previously Calcutta) stands on the banks of the Hoogly. The main stream of the river (known as the Padma River) then enters Bangladesh. Here, it unites with the Jamuna branch of the even larger Brahmaputra river. The combined stream then joins with the Meghna River before flowing out to sea. In the flat plains of Bangladesh, the Ganges splits almost immediately into a dense network of distributaries, all of which finally empty into the Bay of Bengal.

The region encompassing the delta near the Bay of Bengal coast is known as The Sundarbans (Beautiful Forests) — a region of thick mangrove forests and one of the major habitats of the Royal Bengal Tiger. Two species of dolphin can be found in the Ganges, the Ganges River Dolphin and the Irrawaddy Dolphin. The Ganges is also notable in that it contains a rare species of freshwater shark, Glyphis gangeticus, about which little is known.

The Ganga in Hinduism

In Hinduism, the river Ganga (feminine) is sacred. It is worshipped by Hindus and personified as a goddess, who holds an important place in the Hindu religion. Hindu belief holds that bathing in the river on certain occasions causes the forgiveness of sins and helps attain salvation. Many people believe that this will come from bathing in Ganga at any time. People travel from distant places to immerse the ashes of their kin in the waters of the Ganga; this immersion also is believed to send the ashes to heaven. Several places sacred to Hindus lie along the banks of the river Ganga, including Haridwar and Kashi. People carry sacred water from the Ganges that is sealed in copper pots after making the pilgrimage to Kashi. It is believed that drinking water from the Ganga with one's last breath will take the soul to heaven.

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.

Many Hindus believe that the water from the Ganga can cleanse a person's soul of all past sins, and that it can also cure the ill. The ancient scriptures mention that the water of Ganges carries the blessings of the Lord's feet. Hence mother Ganges is also known as Visnupadi [Emanating from the Lotus feet of Supreme Lord Sri Visnu].

Some of the most important Hindu festivals and religious congregations are celebrated on the banks of the river Ganga such as the Kumbh mela or the Kumbh fair and the chhat puja.

The largest religious gathering on Earth for Hindu peoples. [1][2] Around 70 million Hindus from around the world participated in Kumbh Mela at the Hindu Holy city Prayaga (also known as Allahabad) (India).
The largest religious gathering on Earth for Hindu peoples. Around 70 million Hindus from around the world participated in Kumbh Mela at the Hindu Holy city Prayaga (also known as Allahabad) (India).

The most important city sacred to Hinduism on the banks of the River Ganga is Varanasi or Banaras. It has hundreds of temples along the banks of the Ganga which often get flooded during the rains. This city, especially along the banks of the Ganga, is an important place of worship for the Hindus as well as a cremation ground.

Ganga in Vedas

The Ganga is mentioned in the Rig-Veda, the earliest of the Hindu scriptures. The Ganga is mentioned in the nadistuti (Rig Veda 10.75), which lists the rivers from east to west. In RV 6.45.31, the word Ganga is also mentioned, but it is not clear if the reference is to the river.

RV 3.58.6 says that "your ancient home, your auspicious friendship, O Heroes, your wealth is on the banks of the Jahnavi (JahnAvyAm)". This verse could possibly refer to the Ganga. In RV 1.116.18-19, the Jahnavi and the Gangetic dolphin occur in two adjacent verses.

During the early Indo-Aryan Ages, the Indus and the Saraswati were the major rivers, not the Ganga. But the later three Vedas seem to give much more importance to the Ganga, as shown by its numerous references.

According to the Hindu Purans, Goddess Ganga used to exist only in Heaven. Then prince Bhagirath worshipped Ganga to descend on earth. This is why Ganga is also known as Bhagirathi. In the Mahabharath this story is also mentioned. In fact, Ganga is a major character in the Mahabharath, where she's the mother of Bhisma.

River Ganges in Western culture

 The river-god Ganges as visualised by Bernini
The river-god Ganges as visualised by Bernini

In Rome's Piazza Navona, there is a famous sculpture Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (fountain of the four rivers), a marvelous sculptural and architectural creation by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, set up in 1651. It symbolises four of the world's great rivers (the Ganges, the Nile, the Danube and the Plata), representing the four continents known at the time. The picture alongside shows River Ganges as visualised by Bernini.


The Ganges collects large amounts of human pollutants as it flows through highly populous areas. These populous areas, and other people down stream, are then exposed to these potentially hazardous accumulations. While proposals have been made for remediating this condition so far no great progress has been achieved.

People performing Hindu ceremony in Varanasi.
People performing Hindu ceremony in Varanasi.

The major polluting industries on the Ganges are the leather industries, especially near Kanpur, 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 Uttar Pradesh government, it does not seem likely that this will go down. The World Bank report of 1992, which focused on the environmental issues, mentions the dissolved-oxygen and the river-borne decomposing material at two focal points on the Ganga.

However, industry is not the only source of pollution. The sheer volume of waste — estimated at nearly 1 billion litres per day - of mostly untreated raw sewage — is a significant factor. Also, inadequate cremation procedures contributes to a large number of partially burnt or unburnt corpses floating down the Ganga, in addition to livestock corpses.

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. 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 on the general religious agenda. India's government has already spent over $33 million to address the overwhelming sewage problem. However, things are looking better at the beginning of 2006, as satellite images show increased water clarity in the river.

Ganges Canal

The Ganges Canal was dug from Haridwar to Kanpur in the latter half of the 19th century, and a very wide network of small tributary canals were constructed from the main canal to act as source of irrigation in the fertile plains of Western Uttar Pradesh. The University of Roorkee was established at Roorkee to train Civil Engineers who could oversee the construction of this canal. This canal is still supplying water to thousands of villages in western Uttar Pradesh, and the water of Ganga, flowing in this canal, is in a true sense the life line of western Uttar Pradesh, an area which played a central role in the Green revolution of India, and played a vital role in this endeavor.

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