The Sacred River Ganges

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Although the mighty River Ganges is heavy with pollution, to Hindus it is the most holy water on the Earth, with the power to cleanse the devout pilgrim’s soul of its earthly sins and, at death, release it from the wearisome cycle of reincarnation.

To Hindus, the River Ganges is the personification of Ganga, the goddess of purification. Originally she flowed only in heaven but brought down to earth by King Bhagiratha to purify the ashes of his ancestors. In order to break her fall, which would have swept away the people on Earth, she dropped first on the head of the god Shiva and trickled down through his tangled locks. Now, each year, in the hope that by drinking its water and bathing in it their sins will be washed away, pilgrims, some sick and dying, make long. Arduous journeys to the Ganges. Their belief in the river’s purifying properties stems from the cooling power of its waters. Many Hindu customs are based on the conviction that power is heat and, if the power is evil, cooling it with water will render it ineffective. Hindus also believe that if they are cremated on the banks of the river, and their ashes scattered across it, their souls will be released from the cycle of rebirth and may attain Paradise, or Nirvana.

path-of-ganges
Path of Ganges

{This is a Series of Excerpts from the book Strange Worlds Amazing Places: A Tour of Earths Marvels and Mysteries, Get it Here}

The sparkling waters of the River Ganges first emerge into sunlight from the Gaumukh, or ‘Cow’s Mouth’, a remote glacier at the foot of the Himalayas. Here, India’s holiest river is known as Bhagirathi. This energetic stream flows through a ravine in the Garhwal Himalayas, past stately pines, scarlet rhododendrons and fragrant deodar cedars, and on to the town of Devaprayag.

Below towering cliffs, the Bhagirathi’s turbulent waters merge with those of the calm River Alaknanda to become the true Ganges, which flows more sedately o to the ancient pilgrim city of Haridwar, the first major center on its long course east across the northern plains. Haridwar is one of the river’s holiest sites, and every summer many thousands of Hindus visit to collect waters from the river here. It is also one of the four venues for the Kumbh Mela, an important Hindu religious festival.

From Haridwar, the Ganges continues its journey east to Allahabad, where it is joined for a short distance by the River Yamuna. Hindus also regard the point at which the river meet as sacred, honouring it every year with a colourful festival. Accompanied by pipers and buglers, sadhus, or wandering holy men, ride through the streets on camels and elephants lavishly adorned with feathers and ornate fabrics.

At Varanasi, formerly known as Benares, the holiest city on the Ganges and the oldest in India, the river sweeps on past the famous ghats (waterside steps leading down to bathing places) that line the bank for some 2 miles (3km). The sacred city exerts a magnetic pull on all Hindus, for to die and be cremated here is to be granted moksha, or liberation, so ending the cycle of reincarnation. Each morning as dawn breaks, thousands of Hindus flock to the river bank to perform their ritual ablutions in the river’s cleansing holy waters. Some pilgrims stand immersed to their shoulders on the ghats (steps leading down to the river), others allow the water to lap only at their feet. Hindu women, dressed in brightly coloured saris, make offerings of food and flowers, and throw marigolds and pink lotuses into the river. Cupping thir hands, they have a ritual drink, then take water in containers to the temple, where they perform their puja, or religious observances.

varanasi-ghats
Ghats of Varanasi are Situated Along the Banks of the River Ganges

Old and sick pilgrims hope to die at Varanasi, because it is here that Mother Ganges releases the Hindu soul from the weary wheel of life – the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. The bodies of the dead are burned at the famous Manikarnika burning ghat on pyres of neem, a type of mahogany, which are watched over day and night by the doms, the hereditary attendants of the cremation ground. Throughout the night, Hindu holy men chant ancient epics on the river bank.

Doms are a community of 400 officials who watch over the sacred fire with which the funeral pyres are lit. Relatives who wish the bodies of their loved ones to be cremated must pay the doms and buy the necessary firewood and incense. Many people cannot afford firewood, for as it becomes more and more scarce in India it becomes increasingly expensive. In 1989, an electric crematorium was installed at one of the city’s cremation ghats so that the poor could cremate their dead without using firewood. The doms, no doubt mindful that their lucrative monopoly was being eroded and concerned that strict observance of Hindu scripture was threatened, fought this introduction. In spite of the new technology, the bodies of the Hindu dead continue to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges on one of the world’s most time-honoured and moving ceremonies. The bodies are dipped into the Ganges before being hoisted onto the pyre – at any one time there might be as many as half a dozen cremation pyres aflame. The following clip from the movie Baraka beautifully captures the essence of life and death and reminds us the certainty of death.

Just below Patna, the river turn southwards again and, near the Farakka Barrage at the apex of the delta, reverts to the name of Bhagirathi. The eastern branch, still called the Ganges, flows on through Bangladesh, but the name of the western branch of the river changes again, to the Hooghly River; this stretch is renowned for the difficulties it presents to mariners and many sailors and boatmen have drowned in its waters. Stretching for about 50 miles (80km) on either side of the Hooghly, which is also regarded as holy, lie Kolkata (Calcutta) India’s largest city, and its satellite towns. Finally, this mighty waterway reaches the Bay of Bengal, where it disperses into the many mouths of the delta and the swampy Sunderbarns.

howrah-bridge-kolkata
The Famous Howrah Bridge is Built Over the Hooghly River

At 1560 miles (2500km), the Ganges is not one of the world’s longest rivers – both the Nile and the Amazon are more than twice the length – but no river has been more revered or proved more inspirational. It excited the imagination of the Roman poets Vigil and Ovid and of the medieval Florentine poet Dante, while the warrior and leader Alexander the Great believed the river to be the boundary of the universe. The Englishman Sir John Mandeville, who was regarded in medieval times as a great traveler (although many of his tales were about legendary places), said in his Travels of Sir John Mandeville, published about 1356, that the Ganges flowed out of Paradise and that there was gold in its gravel. Certainly, to Hindus, the waters of the river offer the chance to attain eternal bliss.

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