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The Ganga is the river of India, which has held India's heart captive and drawn uncounted millions to her banks since the dawn of history. The story of the Ganga, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India's civilization and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of the adventure of man and the quest of the mind which has so occupied India's thinkers..."
- Jawaharlal Nehru
The Discovery of India
The Ganga is considered to be the most holy, sacred and the purest of all Indian rivers. Starting her journey from the snow-clad Himalayan heights to Ganga Sagar in the Sunderbans, she transverses a distance of 2,523 kms. across the country.
According to legend, the ancestors of King Bhagiratha had been cursed by Kapila muni. The only way to remove the effect of the curse was to bring the Ganga down from the heavens. To achieve this object, Bhagiratha prayed to Lord Shiva who ordered Ganga to leave her heavenly abode and descent to earth. As Ganga descended with great fury, Lord Shiva trapped her in his matted hair and then after calming her, he released her waters. It is because of this that the Ganga is considered to be a very holy river. Since King Bhagiratha was responsible for bringing her to earth she is also known as Bhagirathi.
The mighty Ganga takes birth in an ice cave in the slow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. At the Gow Mukh (source) she is known as Bhagiratha. From then on she flows in a north-westerly direction until she reaches Gangotri, which is a place of pilgrimage for the Hindus. The river Ganga then begins her downward journey as she winds her way through the hilly regions of the Garhwal region of Uttar Pradesh. At the foothills of Garhwal, at Deva Prayag, she confluences with the Alakananda River and from here on she is known as the Ganga.
The Ganga gains healing powers at Rishikesh and also becomes a free mode of transport of cut timber. While she gushes along Kanpur and Allahabad, wheat, barley, and millet are grown on her banks. At Allahabad she confluences with Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati to form the auspicious Triveni Sangam. During the period of Megh (January-February) a dip here is considered holy and meritorious. Flowing through Bihar, skirting the Rajamahal hills, she enters Bengal. At Dhulian, she again becomes Bhagirathi. Snaking through Murshidabad and Calcutta she finally merges with the sea at Gangasagar.
The Ganga occupies a unique place among the river systems of India. The river with its tributaries and sub-tributaries and catchment area covers about nearly a third of the country's total geographical area. The Gangetic plain is the most prosperous tract of the country. The Ganga serves as a means of communication between important cities like Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna and Calcutta.
The banks of the Ganga at places like Hardwar, Allahabad and Varanasi and other places like Gangotri are great places of pilgrimage. Several festivals,both big and small, are held here on various occasions. Prime among these is the Purna Kumbha Mela, which is held once every twelve years either at Allahabad or Hardwar.
The gigantic scale of the Kumbha Mela is unmatched by any other fair in the world. Hundreds and thousands of people from all over the country attend to participate in the traditional ritual of bathing in the Ganga. The people take back with them pots filled with Ganga jal and other souvenirs of their visit to the mela.
There is no river in the world, which is so associated with a continuous history, myth and tradition, song and story and respect and reverence as the Ganga. The affection, veneration and godhood, which the Ganga receives, are revealed in its one thousand names chanted devotionally by all Indians.