Ganga River

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Author:Laxman Burdak, IFS (Retd.)

Ganga River and tributaries

Ganga River (गङ्गा) or the Ganges is a trans-boundary river of Asia which flows through the nations of India and Bangladesh. The 2,525 km river rises at Gangotri in the western Himalayas in Uttarakhand, and flows south and east through the Gangetic Plain of North India into Bangladesh, where it empties into the Bay of Bengal.



The Ganges begins at the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers at Devprayag. The Bhagirathi is considered to be the true source in Hindu culture and theology, although the Alaknanda is longer. The headwaters of the Alakananda are formed by snowmelt from such peaks as Nanda Devi, Trisul, and Kamet. The Bhagirathi rises at the foot of Gangotri Glacier, at Gaumukh, at an elevation of 3,892 m.[1]

Although many small streams comprise the headwaters of the Ganges, the six longest and their five confluences are considered sacred. The six headstreams are the Alaknanda, Dhauliganga, Nandakini, Pindar, Mandakini, and Bhagirathi rivers.[2]

Panch Prayag: The five confluences, known as the Panch Prayag, are all along the Alaknanda. They are, in downstream order:

After flowing 250 kilometres through its narrow Himalayan valley, the Ganges emerges from the mountains at Rishikesh, then debouches onto the Gangetic Plain at the pilgrimage town of Haridwar.[4] At Haridwar, a dam diverts some of its waters into the Ganges Canal, which irrigates the Doab region of Uttar Pradesh, whereas the river, whose course has been roughly southwest until this point, now begins to flow southeast through the plains of northern India.

The Ganga follows an 800-kilometre arching course passing through the cities of Kannauj, Farukhabad, and Kanpur.

Along the way it is joined by the Ramganga. The Ganges joins the Yamuna at the Triveni Sangam at Allahabad, a holy confluence in Hinduism. At their confluence the Yamuna is larger than the Ganges.

Now flowing east, the river meets the Tamsa River (also called Tons River), which flows north from the Kaimur Range. After the Tamsa the Gomti River joins, flowing south from the Himalayas.

Then the Ghaghara River (Karnali River), also flowing south from the Himalayas of Nepal, joins. The Ghaghara (Karnali) is the largest tributary of the Ganges.

After the Ghaghara (Karnali) confluence the Ganges is joined from the south by the Son River.

The Gandaki River, then the Koshi River, join from the north flowing from Nepal. The Kosi is the third largest tributary of the Ganges, after the Ghaghara (Karnali) and Yamuna.[5]

Ganges passes the towns: Along the way between Allahabad and Malda, West Bengal, the Ganges passes the towns of Chunar, Mirzapur, Varanasi, Ghazipur, Buxar, Ballia, Patna, Hajipur, Munger, Sultanganj, Bhagalpur, Simaria, and Saidpur.

At Bhagalpur, the river begins to flow south-southeast and at [[Pakur], it begins its attrition with the branching away of its first distributary, the Bhāgirathi-Hooghly, which goes on to become the Hooghly River.

Just before the border with Bangladesh the Farakka Barrage controls the flow of the Ganges, diverting some of the water into a feeder canal linked to the Hooghly for the purpose of keeping it relatively silt-free. The Hooghly River is formed by the confluence of the Bhagirathi River and Jalangi River at Nabadwip, and Hooghly has a number of tributaries of its own. The largest is the Damodar River, which is 541 kmlong. The Hooghly River empties into the Bay of Bengal near Sagar Island.[6]

Between Malda and the Bay of Bengal, the Hooghly river passes the towns and cities of Murshidabad, Nabadwip, Kolkata and Howrah.

After entering Bangladesh, the main branch of the Ganges is known as the Padma River. The Padma is joined by the Jamuna River, the largest distributary of the Brahmaputra. Further downstream, the Padma joins the Meghna River, the second largest distributary of the Brahmaputra, and takes on the Meghna's name as it enters the Meghna Estuary, which empties into the Bay of Bengal.


The Late Harappan period, about 1900–1300 BCE, saw the spread of Harappan settlement eastward from the Indus River basin to the Ganges-Yamuna doab, although none crossed the Ganges to settle its eastern bank. The disintegration of the Harappan civilization, in the early 2nd millennium BC, mark the point when the center of Indian civilization shifted from the Indus basin to the Ganges basin.[7]

There may be links between the Late Harappan settlement of the Ganges basin and the archaeological culture known as "Cemetery H", the Indo-Aryan people, and the Vedic period.

This river is the longest in India. During the early Vedic Age of the Rigveda, the Indus and the Sarasvati River were the major sacred rivers, not the Ganges. But the later three Vedas give much more importance to the Ganges.[8]

The Gangetic Plain became the centre of successive powerful states, from the Maurya Empire to the Mughal Empire.[9][10]

The first European traveler to mention the Ganges was Megasthenes (c. 350–290 BC). He did so several times in his work Indica:

"India, again, possesses many rivers both large and navigable, which, having their sources in the mountains which stretch along the northern frontier, traverse the level country, and not a few of these, after uniting with each other, fall into the river called the Ganges. Now this river, which at its source is 30 stadia broad, flows from north to south, and empties its waters into the ocean forming the eastern boundary of the Gangaridai, a nation which possesses a vast force of the largest-sized elephants." (Diodorus II.37)[11]

Places of historical importance

The birth of Ganga

The birth of Ganga by Khitindra Nath Mazumdar

Sister Nivedita and Anand K. Coomaraswamy[12] tell us the following story of the birth of Ganga story.

It is Shiva among the major deities of the Hindu pantheon, who appears in the most widely known version of the birth of Ganga story. Told and retold in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and several Puranas, the story begins with a sage, Kapila, whose intense meditation has been disturbed by the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara. Livid at being disturbed, Kapila sears them with his angry gaze, reduces them to ashes, and dispatches them to the netherworld. Only the waters of the Ganges (Ganga), then in heaven, can bring the dead sons their salvation. A descendant of these sons, King Bhagiratha, anxious to restore his ancestors, undertakes rigorous penance and is eventually granted the prize of Ganga's descent from heaven. However, since her turbulent force would also shatter the earth, Bhagiratha persuades Shiva in his abode on Mount Kailash to receive Ganga in the coils of his tangled hair and break her fall. Ganga descends, is tamed in Shiva's locks, and arrives in the Himalayas. She is then led by the waiting Bhagiratha down into the plains at Haridwar, across the plains first to the confluence with the Yamuna at Prayag and then to Varanasi, and eventually to Ganga Sagar, where she meets the ocean, sinks to the netherworld, and saves the sons of Sagara. In honour of Bhagirath's pivotal role in the avatarana, the source stream of the Ganges in the Himalayas is named Bhagirathi, (Sanskrit, "of Bhagiratha").[13]

In Mahabharata

Vana Parva, Mahabharata/Book III Chapter 85 mentions the sacred asylums, tirthas. mountans and regions of eastern country:

"In that quarter, is the sacred confluence of Ganga and Yamuna which is celebrated over the world. Holy and sin-destroying, that tirtha is much regarded by the Rishis. It is there that the soul of all things, the Grandsire, had, in olden days, performed his sacrifice, and it is for this, that the place hath come to be called Prayaga (प्रयाग) (III.85.14)."

पवित्रम ऋषिभिर जुष्टं पुण्यं पावनम उत्तमम
गङ्गायमुनयॊर वीर संगमं लॊकविश्रुतम (III.85.13)
यत्रायजत भूतात्मा पूर्वम एव पिता महः
प्रयागम इति विख्यातं तस्माद भरतसत्तम (III.85.14)

Udyoga Parva/Mahabharata Book V Chapter 19 mentions Kings and tribes Who joined Yudhishthira for war:

And for this reason the land of the five rivers, and the whole of the region called Kuru-jangala, and the forest of Rohitaka which was uniformly wild, and Ahichhatra and Kalakuta, and the banks of the Ganga River, and Varana River, and Vatadhana, and the hill tracts on the border of the Yamuna--the whole of this extensive tract--full of abundant corn and wealth, was entirely overspread with the army of the Kauravas.

ततः पञ्चनदं चैव कृत्स्नं च कुरुजाङ्गलम
तदा रॊहित कारण्यं मरु भूमिश च केवला (V.19.29)
अहिच छत्रं कालकूटं गङ्गाकूलं च भारत
वारणा वाटधानंयामुनश चैव पर्वतः (V.19.30)
एष थेशः सुविस्तीर्णः परभूतधनधान्यवान
बभूव कौरवेयाणां बलेन सुसमाकुलः (V.19.31)

Bhisma Parva, Mahabharata/Book VI Chapter 10 Describes geography and provinces of Bharatavarsha. Rivers are mentioned in Mahabharata (VI.10.13,14).

नदीः पिबन्ति बहुला गङ्गां सिन्धुं सरस्वतीम
गॊदावरीं नर्मदांबाहुदांमहानदीम Mahabharata (VI.10.13)
शतद्रुं चन्द्रभागांयमुनांमहानदीम
दृषद्वतीं विपाशांविपापां सदूलवालुकाम Mahabharata (VI.10.14)


  1. C. R. Krishna Murti; Gaṅgā Pariyojanā Nideśālaya; India Environment Research Committee (1991). The Ganga, a scientific study. Northern Book Centre. p. 19. ISBN 978-81-7211-021-5.
  2. Kala, C.P. 2014. Deluge, disaster and development in Uttarakhand Himalayan region of India: Challenges and lessons for disaster management. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 8: 143-152
  3. "Ganges River". Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library ed.). 2011.
  4. "Ganges River". Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library ed.). 2011.
  5. Jain, Sharad K.; Agarwal, Pushpendra K.; Singh, Vijay P. (2007). Hydrology and water resources of India. Springer. p. 341. ISBN 978-1-4020-5179-1.
  6. Chakrabarti, Dilip K. (2001). Archaeological geography of the Ganga Plain: the lower and the middle Ganga. Orient Blackswan. pp. 126–127. ISBN 978-81-7824-016-9.
  7. McIntosh, Jane (2008). The ancient Indus Valley: new perspectives. ABC-CLIO. pp. 99–101. ISBN 978-1-57607-907-2
  8. Romila Thapar (October 1971). "The Image of the Barbarian in Early India". Comparative Studies in Society and History (Cambridge University Press) 13 (4): 408–436. doi:10.1017/s0010417500006393. JSTOR 178208.
  9. "Ganges River". Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library ed.). 2011.
  10. André Wink (July 2002). "From the Mediterraneanto the Indian Ocean: Medieval History in Geographic Perspective". Comparative Studies in Society and History 44 (3): 423. doi:10.1017/s001041750200021x.
  11. W. W. Tarn (1923). "Alexander and the Ganges". The Journal of Hellenic Studies 43 (2): 93–101. JSTOR 625798
  12. Myths and Legends of the Hindus & Buddhists/CHAPTER VII, by Sister Nivedita and Anand K. Coomaraswamy, pp. 316-321
  13. Eck, Diana (1998), "Gangā: The Goddess Ganges in Hindu Sacred Geography", in Hawley, John Stratton; Wulff, Donna Marie, Devī: Goddesses of India, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; Delhi: Motilal Banarasi Das Publishers. ISBN 81-208-1491-6,p.145

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