The Ganges River, also known as the Ganga, is a river situated in northern India that flows towards the border with Bangladesh. It holds the distinction of being the longest river in India, spanning approximately 1,569 miles (2,525 km) from its source in the Himalayan Mountains to its mouth at the Bay of Bengal. Globally, it ranks second in terms of water discharge, and its basin is the most densely populated in the world, with over 400 million people residing within its vicinity.
The Ganges River holds immense significance for the people of India, serving as a vital resource for daily necessities such as bathing and fishing for those living along its banks. Additionally, it holds profound religious importance for Hindus, who consider it their most sacred river.
Course of the Ganges River
The headwaters of the Ganges River originate high in the Himalayan Mountains, where the Bhagirathi River emerges from the Gangotri Glacier in India’s Uttarakhand state. This glacier is situated at an elevation of 12,769 feet (3,892 m). Further downstream, the Ganges River proper takes shape as the Bhagirathi River converges with the Alaknanda River. As the Ganges flows out of the Himalayas, it carves a narrow, rugged canyon.
North Indian River Plain
Exiting the Himalayas at the town of Rishikesh, the Ganges River enters the Indo-Gangetic Plain, also known as the North Indian River Plain. This vast, relatively flat, and fertile plain dominates the northern and eastern regions of India, as well as portions of Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. In this area, a portion of the Ganges River is diverted into the Ganges Canal to facilitate irrigation in the Uttar Pradesh state.
Continuing its journey downstream, the Ganges River undergoes several course changes and receives numerous tributaries, including the Ramganga, Tamsa, and Gandaki Rivers, among others. Along its route, it passes through various cities and towns, including Chunar, Kolkata, Mirzapur, and Varanasi. Varanasi, in particular, holds immense religious significance, as it is considered the holiest of cities due to its association with the Ganges River.
Flowing into the Bay of Bengal
Upon crossing the border into Bangladesh, the Ganges River’s primary branch is known as the Padma River. Further downstream, it merges with significant rivers such as the Jamuna and Meghna before adopting the name Meghna River and eventually flowing into the Bay of Bengal. Before reaching the Bay, the river forms the sprawling Ganges Delta, recognized as the world’s largest delta, covering an area of 23,000 square miles (59,000 sq km).
It’s worth noting that the description of the Ganges River’s course provided above offers a general overview, as the river’s hydrology is intricate. Various descriptions exist regarding its length and drainage basin size, contingent on the inclusion of different tributaries. Generally, the Ganges River is acknowledged to be approximately 1,569 miles (2,525 km) long, with an estimated drainage basin covering about 416,990 square miles (1,080,000 sq km).
The Population of the Ganges River
The Ganges River basin has been inhabited by humans since ancient times. The earliest inhabitants were part of the Harappan civilization, who migrated to the Ganges River basin from the Indus River basin around the 2nd millennium BCE. Subsequently, the Gangetic Plain became the heart of the Maurya Empire and later the Mughal Empire. The first European to document the Ganges River was Megasthenes in his work “Indica.”
In modern times, the Ganges River has evolved into a lifeline for nearly 400 million people residing in its basin. They rely on the river for essential needs like drinking water, food, irrigation, and industrial processes. Presently, the Ganges River basin boasts the world’s highest population density, with around 1,000 people per square mile (390 per sq km).
The Significance of the Ganges River
Beyond its utilitarian role in providing water and supporting agriculture, the Ganges River holds profound religious significance for India’s Hindu population. It is revered as their holiest river and is worshipped as the goddess Ganga Ma or “Mother Ganges.”
According to Hindu mythology, the goddess Ganga descended from heaven to inhabit the waters of the Ganges River, purifying and facilitating the journey to heaven for those who come into contact with it. Devout Hindus visit the river daily to offer flowers and food to Ganga, partake in its cleansing waters, and perform rituals to purify themselves of sins.
‘Pitriloka,’ the World of the Ancestors
Hindus believe that upon death, the Ganges River’s waters are essential for reaching the World of the Ancestors, Pitriloka. Consequently, Hindus bring the deceased to the riverbanks for cremation, after which their ashes are scattered in the river. In some instances, corpses are directly immersed in the river. Varanasi stands out as the most sacred city along the Ganges River, drawing many Hindus who wish to consign the ashes of their loved ones to its waters.
In addition to daily bathing and religious offerings, the Ganges River hosts large-scale religious festivals throughout the year, attracting millions of pilgrims seeking purification from their sins.
Pollution of the Ganges River
Despite its religious and practical significance, the Ganges River faces severe pollution and is among the world’s most contaminated rivers. Pollution arises from both human activities and industrial processes, driven by India’s rapid population growth and religious practices.
India’s current population exceeds 1 billion people, with 400 million residing in the Ganges River basin. Consequently, a significant amount of waste, including untreated sewage, is discharged into the river. Additionally, many individuals use the river for bathing and laundry, further exacerbating contamination. Fecal coliform bacteria levels near Varanasi surpass safe limits established by the World Health Organization by at least 3,000 times.
Lack of Regulation
Industrial practices in India operate with limited regulation, and as the population grows, these industries expand as well. Numerous tanneries, chemical plants, textile mills, distilleries, and slaughterhouses along the river dispose of untreated and often toxic waste into the water. Tests have revealed high levels of pollutants such as chromium sulfate, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and sulfuric acid in the Ganges River.
In addition to industrial and human waste, certain religious practices contribute to river pollution. For example, offerings of food and other items are routinely thrown into the river, especially during religious events, and human remains are frequently deposited in its waters.
Ganga Action Plan
In the late 1980s, India initiated the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) under the leadership of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to address the pollution of the Ganges River. The plan involved shutting down highly polluting industrial facilities along the river and allocating funds for wastewater treatment facilities. However, these efforts fell short, as the treatment plants proved insufficient to handle the waste generated by the densely populated region. Moreover, many industrial units continue to discharge hazardous waste into the river.
Despite the pollution, the Ganges River remains of great importance to the Indian population and the unique ecosystems within its basin, including the Ganges River dolphin, a rare freshwater dolphin species native to the region. The river’s cultural, religious, and ecological significance underscores the need for continued efforts to restore and protect this vital waterway. For further insights into the Ganges River, you can explore “A Prayer for the Ganges” on Smithsonian.com.
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