Mother Ganga, The River Ganges

“…the Ganga is more than a river. She is the Holy Mother. She is Ganga Ma.”
Ronald Barrett

“River Ganga” by Snatam Kaur, Todd Boston and Ramesh Kannan, performed by various world-renowned musicians, which premiered at the River Ganga celebration today, the sacred day of Dev Diwali when divine beings come and bathe in the waters of Mother Ganga (courtesy of Snatam Kaur):

 

“If Ganges is the mother, Himalayas is the father.
One nurtures and nourishes, the other provides and protects.”
Vinita Kinra

The story behind the creation of this tribute (courtesy of Snatam Kaur):

 

RiverGangesShivalikRangesRishikesh

“Ganga” by Ricky Kej featuring Shankar Mahadevan (courtesy of Zee Music Company):

 

The River Ganges has held a powerful grip on ancient and modern generations from the Hindu faithful to celebrated writers and poets such as Virgil, Ovid, and Dante. Alexander the Great thought of her as a boundary of the universe. When Columbus reached Panama, he believed it to be a day’s march from her banks. With the exception of the monsoon, the Ganges is not one of the mightiest rivers, for there are twenty-eight rivers longer than this, with the Amazon, the Nile, and the Mississippi-Missouri each running more than twice as far. Even on Indian subcontinent reckoning, both the Brahmaputra and the Indus come off better for sheer size. What makes the Ganges unique in her run of 1,678 miles from the source to the sea is the intensity of devotion and the scale of devout humanity to be found.

A mini explanation of the River Ganges (courtesy of FactSpark):

 

From Snow to Sea (courtesy of National Geographic):

 

The use of the feminine is not just a sentimental fad. According to the myth, the female Ganga was brought down from heaven with the connivance of Lord Shiva in order to purify the ashes of King Sagara’s 60,000 sons who had been incinerated by the wrath of a sage for overweening pride. A subsequent king, Bhagirathi, did penance for their offence high in the mountains. When his propitiation was complete, and he began to descend, Lord Shiva caught the falling Ganga in his matted hair, releasing her gently to follow Bhagirathi out of the Himalayas, through its foothills, across the northern plains, into the jungles of the east. Eventually, at the delta on the Bay of Bengal, the ashes of Sagara’s sons were cleansed and those 60,000 souls attained paradise at last.

The source of the Ganges (courtesy of BBC Studios):

 

Below is a statue of Lord Shiva at Shiva Temple in Bangalore

 

This story is the one constant that makes the Ganges second only to that which propels a Muslim to Mecca before he dies. The Ganges is the place where people come, who have great veneration of Kali, who was a murderous lady, while others are frantic in their submission to Durga, who is Kali’s benevolent other self. They bring a personal addiction to Lord Vishnu the Preserver, to Hanuman the monkey god, to jolly Ganesh in his guise of elephant, and to hundreds more deities besides.

Below are shown carvings of the Hindu goddesses Durga, Chamunda, and Kali in the Kailasa Temple in the Ellora Caves near Aurangabad.

The modern day depictions of Kali and Durga are much more colourful. Below is Durga:

Durga

“Rishikesh” (courtesy of Jaime Armengol):

 

At the source, the young Ganges tumbles boisterously down a ravine, whose sides are littered with boulders that from the mountain track above look deceptively small, but which are as huge as the Albert Hall’s dome. The alpine peaks in the background are quite breathtaking. The pines are enlivened by flaring masses of scarlet rhododendrons, growing from the trunks of full-sized trees. The first villages appear where the ravine-bearing Ganges broadens enough to sustain terraces on which wheat is grown in strips no more than a few feet wide, held in place on the steep hills by drystone walls.

The Valley of Flowers (courtesy of BBC Studios):

 

“Placid Ganges” by Mihir Chandan:

 

An immense variety of birds flourishes down the whole length of Ganges. Apart from vultures, green parakeets flash by, and storks stand watching the jumping fish before taking their pick. Hoopoes potter for grubs, tern dive, and drongos somersault everywhere.

Below are Green Parakeets.

Below are Painted Storks.

Below is a Hoopoe.

Below are migratory birds.

Below is a Black Drongo.

The Ganges is idyllic high up in those Garhwal hills. At Devprayag, where the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers join to form the Ganges proper, monkeys patrol the cliffs and heavy chains hang from the riverside ghats for bathers to cling to. The racing current might otherwise sweep them away.

The bathing ghat at Devprayag

The confluence of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers at Devprayag

Monkeys patrolling the cliffs at Devprayag

“Down to the River to Pray” (courtesy of The Hound + The Fox):

 

At Allahabad,Β  the Ganges briefly meets and merges with the Jumna, another holy river. A little lower down there are two miles of ghats, or steps, lining the Varanasi waterfront. Each day thousands come here to bathe and pray. Buddha preached his first sermon on the town’s outskirts. The dhobi wallahs, or laundrymen, are a commonplace sight along the river. The authorities have provided in some places wooden platforms against which to beat their clothes.

Dhobi Wallahs at work below.

For the best part of a thousand miles now, the Ganges makes her way across ground that is nearly pancake flat and in summer suffocatingly hot which long ago caused some of those not native to flee to the hills every year before May came round. It is here, too, that the Ganges begins to succour and endow the most attractive, repellent, exciting, and always marvellous conglomeration of people that is India. Anyone who visits Haridwar, Allahabad, and Varanasi, can see this phenomenon of contradictions, this extraordinary dependence on the river. Haridwar is where legend places Vishnu’s footprint on the bank, which has drawn millions of people at a time into a town with a relatively small population. That is on the occasion of a Kumbh Mela, an event which is astrologically scheduled for every twelfth year, but annually an event called the Ganga Dussehra occurs when more than one hundred thousand also turn up to celebrate Ganga’s birth in spring. The pilgrims creep down the ghats and launch upon the water small boats made of leaves, bearing marigold petals, which are saturated with ghee and then lit. Long after nightfall, these little craft are still despatched, their tiny flames bobbing and swaying down the Ganges, on towards rougher water, where the last twinkling is doused. Then the pilgrims return to the railway station and on to the Express train with their plastic stoppered bottles or containers that will take some of the sacred water to the extremities of the country.

The sea of people at the Kumbh Mela.

Below are leaf boats launched during the Ganga Dussehra, the annual celebration of Ganga’s birth.

Below are crowds lining the river during Ganga Dussehra.

At Haridwar there is fervour, but Allahabad can offer religious hysteria to defeat the imagination. Many hold this to be the most holy of all places along the Ganges, where it merges with the Jumna before they part and go their separate ways. People are regularly killed here by the sheer weight of numbers when a Mela is celebrated, and in 1954 there was a disaster that shook even this country, which has always accepted human casualty as the luck of the draw. Five million people turned up on the sand-banks at the confluence of the rivers for the famous procession of sadhus down to the water’s edge. These holy men normally flaunt the austerities of their vocation by walking naked, their bodies smeared with mud and ash, but when they advance en masse at a Kumbh Mela they transform themselves into a column the like of which nowhere else has seen for centuries. They are mounted on elephants and camels and horse-drawn chariots, each animal richly decorated with feathers, cloth, and metal. Buglers and pipers march with them in bands, while the sadhus- who are truculent as well as holy – brandish tridents and swords in the air.

Below are images from the sadhus procession at a Kumbh Mela.

It was this habit that started the 1954 catastrophe, when the procession found its way blocked by the congestion of the pilgrim crowds. The holy sadhus laid about them viciously with their ironwork, people panicked, animals began to run amok, and anyone who fell that day was a dead man. When the horror had subsided, the sand-banks were littered with trampled bodies and more corpses were floating in the two rivers. An official inquiry later estimated 800 dead and 2,000 hurt – no one believed those figures told a quarter of the truth. What the Ganges really means, above all else, is best described in the words of a witness during the inquiry into the disaster at Allahabad. ‘People said beforehand,”If we are killed we shall attain salvation. If we escape death, we shall be gainers in any case. Those who die at such a sacred spot, at such an auspicious moment, would be very lucky. We wish to have good fortune.”Β  Perhaps for that reason, stampedes are very common here.

The Ganges at Varanasi (courtesy of prsw100):

 

The seething piety of Varanasi has a longer history than that of anywhere else; indeed, there is some evidence for the claim that this is the oldest city in the world, where faith flourished at least two thousand years before Christ. Buddha preached his first sermon here, Islam still has a careful foothold here, but it is the myriad deities of the Hindus that make Varanasi feel like the most jam-packed city in India outside Kolkata, formerly Calcutta.

“Varanasi” (courtesy of Ben Mikha):

 

Courtesy of BBC:

 

“Varanasi” (courtesy of Kalki):

 

The waterfront at Varanasi is one of the most romantic of all apart from those at Venice and Istanbul. The Ganges runs here in a long crescent curve and Varanasi descends to the river down fifty-two separate ghats, each of which is a full cascade of steps. At the head of every ghat is a temple or a crumbling old palace, or some access to the city behind, where beggars stay. The most important aspect of the ritual bath in the Ganges is the belief of each of the pilgrims that all their sins are instantly wiped away; and if only death can happen here, with cremation on the banks and ashes cast upon the water, it will be the most blessed gift of all, the absolute assurance of entry into heaven. Around the Manikarnika burning ghat, relatives pray around stretchers bearing swaddled corpses awaiting their turn. A neat pile of logs stands crisscrossed ready for use. Workmen are splitting tree trunks with axes – sandalwood for the rich, neem for the poor, 440 kilograms for large people, 360 kilograms for smaller ones, and three hours for anyone to burn. The men who run the burning ghat belong to the distinctive caste of Doams, whose chief has enriched himself enough to live in the grandest building along the river.

Varanasi and the bank of the Ganges

Death along the Ganges River (courtesy of National Geographic):

 

Some potential clients are too poor to pay for the wood, in which case the body is simply placed in the river, weighted with stones. It does not always decompose on the bottom: a long cloth-bound object floats in midstream, two vultures trying not to overbalance on top, while they peck through the bindings to get at the flesh. Rather a lot of disgusting things bob about in the river within inches of bathers who will assure you that some chemical property in this holy water does not allow germs to survive. And it is a fact that although all the great cholera epidemics of India have started in Bengal and have been borne up the Ganges by pilgrims, no form of sickness has yet been known to travel any distance downstream.

Below is a depiction “Vulture on a corpse in the Ganges”, creator unknown, taken from Basel Mission Archives in Switzerland.

Magical sunrise of Varanasi (courtesy of Ethereal):

 

It is possible to rationalize the veneration of this river and conclude that anything might be regarded with awe that is as much a matter of life and death to so many people as is the Ganges. In flowing through the three states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Bengal, the Ganges has a material bearing on one-third of India’s entire population, many of whom would perish inside twelve months were it not for the moisture it provides. Those northern plains may be dreadful during the summer but at least they are greatly important because of the rich crops they provide in spring, over thousands of square miles that would be desert without the irrigation ditches and canals.

 

Captain Proby Cautley, of the Bengal Engineers, began to cut the main Ganges canal at Haridwar in 1842 and within half a century it had reached Allahabad, over 400 miles away. An unmitigated blessing in every sense, it had nonetheless an effect on the Ganges’ natural course by drawing off the water for controlled use. The monsoon breaks about the beginning of June, and four months after, the Cow That Gives Much Milk is transformed into a raging monster that sweeps everything out of its way.Β  Villages are smashed in the tumult of brown water, crops are destroyed, and the loss of life and animals is often very high. The Ganges is turned into gigantic inland seas several miles wide. The rise in water-level during the rains is as devastating as the torrential flow. At Varanasi, the watermark that the Ganges had reached in 1978 was fifty feet above the norm, submerged ghats and temples and flowing into the city itself, at a point where for several weeks she had become some ten miles wide.

Courtesy of Vishal Gendle Flute:

 

The Ganges has an excellent claim that over most of her journey from the source to the sea she is the least navigable river of all. Not long afterward, the Ganges moves to the south at last, as she passes into Bengal close to India’s border with Bangladesh. The flatness of her surroundings doesn’t alter much, but now the growth becomes lusher, palms screening the villages.

A beautiful village in West Bengal (courtesy of Prabal Bhaumik):

The Ganges has been all things to all men since she came of Himalaya – highway and sewer, irrigator and drinking fountain, burial ground and source of food, washtub, and bath. But never for one moment has she been anything less than an inspiration to millions pouring her sacred waters over themselves; a promise of better things to come.

A classic song where a river is viewed as a symbol for the dreams of the future is “The River” by Bruce Springsteen (courtesy of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert). Coincidentally, a film of his “The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts” was also released for the first time today.

 

Some thoughts from His Holiness Radhanath Swami:

 

Save Our Planet Earth (courtesy of Ankit Bhatia):

 

“Water of Your Love” by Snatam Kaur:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

81 thoughts on “Mother Ganga, The River Ganges

  1. Such an interesting post, Joanna. Love the videos. Wonderful.πŸ’•β€οΈπŸ’•

    Like

  2. Thank you, Grace, for your most kind comments. Nature is always interesting to write about!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you again, Grace. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My pleasure.πŸ’•

    Like

  5. Very welcome.πŸ’•

    Like

  6. Thank you Joanna for this amazing post. Beautiful photos. I’m homesick now and would really love to fly back.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you, Joyce, for your lively, heart-felt comments!! I am moved that you feel this way after reading about this unique river!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you again, Joyce. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It was my pleasure.😊

    Like

  10. Dear Joanna, thank you for writing about Ma Ganga. I was genuinely surprised to see a post dedicated to her this week.

    Even though I have read it once I am going to read it again, before I write anything more.

    Thank you, Narayan

    Like

  11. I can’t tell you how happy I felt to see this post of yours. Though I’m familiar with the Varanasi (Kashi), Allahabad (Prayagraj) and Haridwar linked to the Mother Ganges, I was mesmerised with the selection of your videos and pics and the related stories. The first video by Snatam Kaur Khalsa for example has been officially released yesterday only on the occasion of Dev Diwali or Kartik Purnima. The video featuring Shankar Mahadevan, my favourite singer and musician is amazing.

    This post took a trip down memory lane and I felt nostalgic for Ganges and my childhood. As a child, I used to drink the Ganges water which was supplied then by municipal authorities to households. I used to collect water from the tap for drinking. There was no need to store as the supply continued for 24 hours. I can’t imagine the same thing now. Clean-up drives are on. I hope the things will improve, as the PM Modi himself, being MP of Varanasi, is keeping an eye.

    Incidentally, Prayagraj is believed to be the holiest confluence of Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. That’s why it is also called Triveni. As regards Manikarnika, one of the holiest cremation grounds, is known as 24 hours burning ghat, as pyres will be seen burning all the time. There are so many things I would like to talk about. Anyway I’m so glad that you know much much about Ganges and Kashi. Thank you so much, Joanna for such a wonderful tribute to Ma Gange, Har Har Gange!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Thank you, Kaushal, for your wonderful comments! Firstly, I have to thank you for the inspiration when you wrote last week about
    the Ganges. What a shame that I am not in India because we could talk, and I would learn from you a lot. I am not sure how it could be possible to clean the river, but as people don’t get infected this miracle will continue well to the end of the world!
    Har Har Gange!!!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you again, Kaushal. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you, Joanna, for this fascinating post including all the wonderful music. I shall have to read it again as there is so much to take in. Enjoy what’s left of your weekend πŸ™πŸŒΉπŸ’–πŸ’πŸ™‹β€β™‚οΈ

    Like

  15. Nature is truly marvelous! And you reiterate that in every post of yours! Lovely!! ❀️❀️❀️❀️

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Thank you, Ashley, for your lovely comments! I am delighted with the reader’s response as this is a very special, unique place, and I would love to see it one day.

    Joanna

    Like

  17. Thank you, Ashley, again. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Like

  18. Thank you, Diana, for your generous comments. Indeed, writing about nature is my greatest pleasure!

    Joanna

    Like

  19. Thank you again, Diana. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Like

  20. Wow! You put a lot of effort into this post! So many great videos. Great write-up, also! Hope you’re doing well! I’ll come back to this post again. Very interesting and educational!

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Thank you, Benjamin, for your “Wow!” comment. It is astonishing the power of this river!! You disappeared for a good few months, but the Ganges has brought you back. I take it you are doing well, and I am glad.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Thank you again, Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  23. You’re most welcome, Joanna! I’m not an authority, I know what I have experienced there as a child. But yes, I always like to interact. Whenever you get an opportunity, do visit India.

    Like

  24. It’s my pleasure, Joanna!

    Like

  25. Thank you, Kaushal, perhaps in my next life!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Thank you, the pleasure is mine!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Oh, no, I won’t be there!!

    Like

  28. Thank you, Kaushal, you make me smile! I might try in this life then!!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  29. That’s better, a true spirit! Thank you, Joanna!

    Like

  30. Thank you, Kaushal, I will do my best!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  31. A country/area whose cultures are mind-boggingly deep and diverse. They also have big problems, which are fueled by the enormous human population (over one billion).

    Like

  32. Thank you for your comments, but I think that you have missed the point of my post. It was about the beauty of nature and the uniqueness
    of this fascinating river. The USA has bigger diversity and many problems, the latest on the news showing a teenager running with a semi-automatic rifle and murdering two people, and getting away with it. When I write about the nature of the USA I leave those aspects of your country without any comments.

    Joanna

    Liked by 2 people

  33. What a fascinating post with incredible photos, videos, and music, Joanna. Those painted storks are amazing, but there is so much to take away here. Thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

  34. Thank you, Lauren, for your wonderful comments! Indeed, nature around this incredible river is out of this world! I am so happy that you enjoyed the whole post.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Thank you, Lauren, again. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  36. Yeah, I was writing a few novels so got too much caught up with it but I’m mostly fine. I have some more of your posts to go and read. Always love reading you work. How are you?

    Like

  37. Yes, the world is full of problems.

    Like

  38. By the way, in my original comment I should have mentioned that your essay is very fine. It’s informative and heartfelt. See ya.

    Like

  39. Beautiful Ganga Ma. And the Music Video, a perfect inspiration to the World. When Mother Nature Lives,We all Live. πŸ™

    Liked by 1 person

  40. Thank you, kind of you to mention.

    Joanna

    Like

  41. That is why I concentrate on nature in my posts!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  42. Thank you for your wonderful comment! Couldn’t agree more!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  43. Thank you again. Greatly appreciated/

    Joanna

    Like

  44. Thank you for this jewel of a tribute to the mother. Mother Ganga, she who represents all the stages of a woman, from a little playful girl child in higher rocky mountains, to the roaring one in the Himalayas little downstream as an adult, slowly becoming stable, mature, becoming herself be the time she reaches Rishikesh, to finally becoming a strong woman entering the mega Indian mainland nourishing a whole subcontinent. Thank you.

    Kali, another mother form, cannot be written as a murderous lady, i would request you to read and correct rather re-write that insight. She herself is mahakaal shiva, in a feminine form.

    In my mere three decade of living life, how i felt about the mother river, and seeing the brethren, saints and each soul who has been touched by her, she is a festival in herself. Not that other rivers are not. Every river is beautiful, grand, mystical but Ganga is not only a river, she is time, she is the nectar of the Himalayas. And each, town, village; one amongst so many i was blessed to born in, have become her organs. Most notably Kashi, as you pointed out.

    Its absolutely delightful to see a post which tried to cover everything that this river stands for. Just to add i was even looking for a mention of the most loved Ganga Dolphins here with so many chirpers who were so aptly written about by the author.

    I thank Joanna, for diving and making us remember the wealth we have here, also it can only be the talent and love that the author has for India that is Bharat, when astonishingly she has never been here, but she will someday, sitting in the Himalayas or her and her followers favourite Kashi, Varanasi.

    A beautiful, heartfelt, a pure nectar dip of a post. Thank you.
    Narayan x

    Liked by 1 person

  45. Thank you, Narayan, for your wonderfully worded comments! You are right about the Ganga Dolphins, apologies to the dolphins!
    As an Indian reader, you are an authority on Indian deities, and I would not argue. I previously included, but then removed after deliberation, a picture of Kali holding a blood-dripping head as not to terrify or even offend the non- Indian readers, as it scared the wits out of me too! Seeing the Himalayas, to my mind the most beautiful place on earth is a dream.

    Joanna x

    Liked by 1 person

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