It is almost impossible to separate the idea of India from the river Ganges. The longest river in India is also the most revered and ironically, the most polluted. The 2,525km long river travels through most of Northern India running in parallel to the curve of the Himalayas. Many major rivers are tributaries and distributaries of the Ganges. Some of India’s historically significant towns lie on its banks. The Ganges then crosses from India to Bangladesh, meeting with another great river – the Brahmaputra. Together, they form the world’s largest delta spanning areas of both countries.
Along its length, the lives of more than 200 million people depend, directly or indirectly, on the Ganges. The Gangetic basin is very fertile and most of the cereal in India – wheat and rice – comes from this region. As civilizations and empires have grown, sites near a major water source were generally preferred. The Ganges being a perennial river, flowed by many historically important towns. The tributaries and distributaries of the Ganges have played their part too. The river system plays host to some of the most historic and densely populated towns in India. Considering all that the river provides, it has been prayed and revered to. It plays home to many religious and pilgrimage sites.
The Ganges officially starts when the Alakananda and the Bhagirathi rivers meet at Devprayag in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand. In Hinduism, Bhagirathi is the river that bears the religion and the source of the Ganga is often considered to the be the glacier that feeds the Bhagirathi – the Gangotri glacier. The mouth of the glacier is called the Gomukh – or the cow’s mouth – and the Ganga is said to start from there. Spanning 32km, the Gangotri is one of the largest glaciers in the Himalayas. Ascetics and adventurers trek up to the Gangotri glacier for the excellent view of the Bhagirathi peaks beyond and to pay their respects. While the hike to the glacier is fairly easy, the hike further up to the meadows of Tapovan is said to be more difficult.
From Devprayag, the river then flows down the Himalayas with great force and cuts deep gorges through. The force of the river reduces naturally as it starts entering the Northern plains via Haridwar and Rishikesh. Both are pilgrimage sites and famous for millions of Hindus visiting to take a holy dip. The places are also known for adventure sports and rafting on the mild rapids is a favoured activity. The towns are also close to the Rajaji National Park – a great place to see the Asian Elephant.
Along the plains
The Ganges then flows through the smaller but mythologically important town of Hastinapur. The closest it comes to New Delhi is about 50km away in the town of Garhmukteshwar. A small town, Garhmukteshwar is a great place to see crocodiles, visit markets, and stay in an erstwhile small palace of the local king. The Ganga then passes through the town of Kannauj. Being a key town from the 8th Century onwards, Kannauj has witnessed many changes in rulers though there aren’t many relics to tell you the story. Kannauj is known as the perfume capital of India and the famed ittr is made in Kannauj and exported worldwide. You will see small distilleries making the perfume and a variety of scents are available. They range from heavy musk to the light monsoon perfume that has been made famous by Hermes’ un jardin apres la mousson.
60km away from the Gangotri, another major glacier gives rise to another major river. The Yamuna then flows by Delhi and Agra and meets the Ganga at Prayag near the city of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. The Yamuna is a significant river in Indian mythology. The river, by nature, is black and it stands testament that black was considered beautiful since ancient times. As it flows, it is fed by some major rivers including Chambal, Ken and Betwa rivers.
Prayag is known to be the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna and a third river. Texts of the 2nd millenium BCE speak of a Sarasvati river on whose banks tribes resided and lived a pastorial life. Many largely unsuccessful attempts have been made to discover this ancient river. Those who believe say that the Sarasvati is a sleeping river – flowing under the ground and meeting the Ganga and the Yamuna at Prayag. Prayag thus becomes and important place in Hinduism and the worlds largest religious festival – the Kumbh Mela – is held there.
The river then flows lazily along to Varanasi – rumoured to be the oldest continually inhabited city. The city was a major junction of the trade routes. Trade flowing from North and the Silk Route passed through Varanasi before going further South. The routes are today known as the Uttara Path (Nothern Route) and the Dakshin Path (Southern Route). Varanasi along the banks of the river boasts of centuries’ old temples and has been a major center for Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. The town of Sarnath near Varanasi houses one of the oldest Buddhist stupas and is visited by Buddhists from around the world.
The Ganges is possibly the most important river in India. More than 200 million people depend on the river and it is a source of food for the entire nation. Many great towns were built along the river and stand today as testament of what the river provides to its people. The river attracts tributaries from all around including the Alaknanda earlier on and the Yamuna later.
This article speaks of the Northern half of the river. As we explore further, we will be looking at the Southern Half of the river. On the way, we will discover some major Buddhist sites, a grey market for animal trade, colonial British history and small Danish and French colonies. We will also see some excellent terracotta and weaving work, and the largest delta in the world. We will also explore Bangladesh – a country dependent and tormented by this river system. The river, its tributaries and distributaries provide for some of the most interesting travel. Apart from humans, the river has been home to numerous river animals including crocodiles, fish, dolphins. Numerous land animals depend on its water as well. Stay tuned.