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Ganga: The Majestic River that Shapes a Nation’s Heritage

Our rivers are the biggest assets of our nations. They are truly our cultural heritage as they built a lively civilisation and rich bio-diversity around them. There was nothing wrong in the idea when people of India termed Ganga as ‘mother’ but the issue is whether we really respect that heritage in terms of protecting it from all kinds of ‘assault’ or have reduced our love to mere rituals which sometimes create more crisis for these rivers than not doing so. Ganga needs to survive if our civilisation has flourished and feel proud of the rich heritage

Ganga is India’s most revered river which flows from the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand through different streams and rivers with extraordinary natural beauty travelling through deeply difficult terrain, overcoming hurdles, big gorges and curves. It not only satiates the spiritual life of Hindus who call it Ganga Maa or ‘Maa Gange’ but also builds a civilisation around it. Cities flourished on the bank of Ganges all over the country though the Ganga river valley system is powerful and unique yet in Uttarakhand region, it is enchanting and can fulfil your spiritual needs too. Trekking to Gangetic valley and its different tributaries in Uttarakhand gives you an understanding of the Ecosystem of the state and how people are closely associated with it. Ganga is not merely a river system but the surroundings of rich biodiversity. Hence, you cannot really understand the Gangetic valley civilisation without studying the ecology of the Alpine Meadows, which are locally known as Bugyal and the rich food culture of Uttarakhand. 

Uttarakhand is the source of three river systems that emerge from Himalaya. They are Kali in the East, Bhagirathi-Alaknanda in the Centre and Yamuna Tons in the Western part of the state. Broadly, Ganga emerge from the confluence of river Bhagirathi and Alaknanda at Devprayag, one of the five main prayags of the Hiamalayas and then move through a deeply fascinating landscape, passing through beautiful curves at the Vyasghat where river Nayar flows into it and then move towards the plains and Muni Ki Reti in Rishikesh is the first town to welcome it. 

However, it is important to look at all the major confluences in the Alakananda which ultimately make it more powerful and bigger than Bhagirathi when both of them merge in each other to make Ganga at Devprayag. Alaknanda is said to be flowing from the Satopanth glaciers and immersing various other Himalayan rivers into it such as Dhauli Ganga at Vishnu Prayag, Nandakini at Nand Prayag, Pindar at Karnprayag and Mandakini at Rudra Prayag, at Devprayag and move towards Rishikesh in the plains as Ganga. Travelling through various parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal, Ganga enters Bangladesh as Padma when crossing from Murshidabad. The total length of Ganga is 2,510 kilometres[1] when it finally culminates in the Bay of Bengal. 

 After emerging from Uttarakhand, Ganges become mightier as numerous other powerful rivers merge in it throughout its journey towards its culmination at Ganga Sagar in Bengal on one side and Bangladesh on the other side as the river bifurcate with one part moving towards West Bengal while other moving towards Bangladesh. 

The making of Ganga is fascinating and the subject of the current work is confined to Uttarakhand yet in this introduction, we would like to provide a glimpse of the magnificent journey of Ganges and its major tributaries of Ganga till it empty itself in the Bay of Bengal.

The first state after Uttarakhand where Ganga flows in is Uttar Pradesh where it enters into district Bijnaur adjacent to Haridwar district of Uttarakhand. The river travels more than 1140 kilometers[2] in the state of Uttar Pradesh and pass through 25 districts such as Bulandshahar, Hapur, Meerut, Mujaffarnagar, Aligarh, Kasganj, Sambhal, Amorha, Badayun, Shahjahanpur, Hardoi, RaiBareilly, Unnao, Farukhabad, Kanpur, Prayagraj, Varanasi, Ghazipur, and Balia. Two most important pilgrim Centres of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi and Prayagraj are situated on the bank of Ganga and attract millions of visitors from around the world. Interestingly, Ganga has its biggest confluences with river Yamuna at the Prayagraj. Let us look at the important tributaries and confluence of Ganges in Uttar Pradesh. There are 49 other districts through which various tributaries of Ganges pass through.

world environment day understanding the making of ganga
River Alaknanda at Srinagar Garhwal | Credit: Author


The first big confluence of Ganga in Uttar Pradesh is river Yamuna at Allahabad. Yamuna too flows from Uttarakhand’s Yamunotri region at the peak known as Yamunotri Glacier in the Uttarkashi district at the altitude of 6387 meters, pass through a beautiful Yamuna valley in the district of Tehri Garhwal as well as Dehradun. At the Dakpathar border the river enter into Paunta Saheb in Himachal Pradesh and move towards Yamuna Nagar in Haryana and then to Delhi. Mathura and Agra are two most famous cities on the bank of Yamuna, the former known for the Lord Krishna while the latter for the extraordinary and immortal buildings, forts and of course, Taj Mahal. 

Yamuna finally merges in Ganga at the Allahabad, now known as Prayag Raj and moves towards another mythologically one of the ancient cities of the world, named as Kashi or Varanasi. Before its immersion in Ganga at Prayagraj, Yamuna travels about 1,376 kilometers[3] from its source at Yamunotri and has more than 40% of the catchment area in the Gangetic valley. The major tributaries of Yamuna are Tons, Hindon, Ken and Chambal.

Sharda or Kali: Sharda River is also known as Mahakali or Kali river in the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand as well as Nepal. Actually, it flows from the Kalapani mountain range in the Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand bordering Nepal. While in Uttarakhand, it is more known as Kali nadi or Sharda nadi, crossing the border in Nepal, it is known as Mahakali nadi. While the river has its origin in the numerous Himalayan streams, the border villages of Lipulekh and Kalapani in Uttarakhand are considered the source of this river. It moves towards the downside in Tanakpur and Banbasa opposite Mahendranagar district of Nepal. A big reservoir divides the river between India and Nepal. From Banbasa, Tanakapur it moves in the Tarai region of Uttar Pradesh through Lakhimpur Khiri and moves towards Baharaich district where it merges into river Ghaghara. Sharda or Kali river is known for its ferocity during the monsoon and has caused heavy devastation in the Tarai region. There are two big barrages which become the dividing lines between India and Nepal at the Tanakpur barrage and Sharda Barrage at Banbasa in Uttarakhand. Pancheswar dam is being built over it now.

Chambal: Chambal is one of the most important and known rivers emerging from Mhow district in Madhya Pradesh. It is famous for its ravines in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh border. It travels 965 kilometers including about 360 kilometers in Rajasthan and flows into river Yamuna near Etava. It enters Uttar Pradesh through Dhaulpur and covers a journey of 32 kilometers before it flows into Yamuna at Bhareh town in Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh. In Rajasthan, Chambal passes through some of the most exciting and extraordinary routes.

world environment day River Bhagirati the making of ganga
River Bhagirati at Harsil near Gangotri | Credit: Author


After Uttar Pradesh, Ganga flows through Bihar State and covers 12 Ganga districts and 33 districts where various tributaries of Ganges pass through. The total length of the Ganga river in Bihar is 260 kilometer. A number of rivers that originate from Nepal are ultimately empty at the Ganges which include Baghmati, Boodhigandak, Sone, Mahananda, Ghaghara, Kosi and Gandak.

Ghaghara: Ghaghara is one of the biggest tributaries of Ganges after Yamuna. Ghagara too is the Himalayan river and is called Karnali in Nepal. The total length of river Karnali in Nepal is 507 kilometres. River Sharda merges into it. Ghaghara is also an extremely powerful river and ferocious during the Monsoon season. From Nepal to Revalganj, in district Chhapra, Bihar where Ghaghara merges in the Ganges, the total length of the river is said to be 1080 kilometres. 

Gandak: Another powerful river which flows through mountains on the Nepal Tibet border in the Mustang valley and is known as Gandaki or Kali and becomes Narayani river after meeting Trishuli in Nepal. becomes Gandak or Gandaki in India.  It finally merges in Ganga in Hajipur near Patna but before that it passes through Champaran, Saran and Mujaffarpur district of Bihar. In total, it travels about 630 kilometres from Nepal to India including 330 kilometres journey in Nepal.

Kosi: River Kosi is known as the curse of Bihar because of massive destruction and devastation due to floods in Monsoon. The river emerges from the Nepal-Tibet border and passes through various districts of Bihar and flows into Ganga at Kursela town in district Katihar.

Jharkhand: Ganga enters in Jharkhand from Sahebganj district and Dhanbad, Bokaro and Ramgarh are districts from where the most powerful tributary of the region, Damodar flows into it.

River Damodar: Damodar river originates from Chhotanagpur plateau in Latehar, Lohardaga district of Jharkhand state. It passes through Hazaribagh, Ramgarh, Kodarma, Giridih and Dhanbad before entering Bardhaman and Hooghaly district of West Bengal. Damodar river too is considered to be a ‘curse’ in many places of Bengal because of the massive flooding and devastation it causes during the monsoons. It is considered to be the biggest river of Jharkhand and travels to 592 kilometers including 302 kilometers in West Bengal before flowing into river Howrah or locally termed as Ganga in Shyampur, West Bengal.

world environment day gangotri the making of ganga
A beautiful wodden house in village mukhba near Gangotri | Credit: Author

West Bengal

In West Bengal the one Ganga district where Ganga passes through is MaldaAfter passing through Katihar, Munger, Bhagalpur, Ganga enters Jharkhand’s Sahebganj district before entering into West Bengal where it flows into Berhampur city, the administrative headquarters of district Murshidabad. An artificial canal takes 50% of Ganges water towards Kolkata in the river Hooghly which too is locally known as Ganga and then ultimately goes to Haldia and Gangasagar which is the most famous pilgrimage for Hindus. The Ganga Sagar Delta is the place where Ganga finally flowed into Bay of Bengal, is about 100 kilometers from Kolkata city. Thousands of pilgrims come to this place every year during the Gangasagar mela during Makar Sakranti in the month of January. 

Mahandanda river, One of the Monsoon fed rivers emerging from the hills of Darjeeling district, passes through a certain portion of Bihar and enters into Bengal again. It enters into Bangladesh from Uttar Dinajpur district and ultimately merges into Ganges at Godagari Ghat after completing 360 kilometers. 


A large number of people in India consider Gangasagar as the ‘ultimate’ journey of Ganga but the fact is Ganga is bifurcated and one part goes towards Hooghly while the lower part moves towards Bangladesh. Interestingly, Ganga in Bangladesh is known as river Padma and joined by many other tributaries including Jamuna river, which is actually the lower stream of Brahmputra. Near Chandpur, the lower channel of Brahmputra named as Meghna meets Padma and moves towards the Bay of Bengal. After a journey of 264 kilometre they culminate through four ‘mouths’ in the massive Bay of Bengal via Tetulia, Shahbazpur, Hatia and Bamni.

A heritage of Indian culture

Theimpact of Ganga on human life in India is unprecedented. Its journey from Himalayas to Bay of Bengal is exciting and fascinating which need to be explored further to make people aware of the fact that Ganga is not merely the spiritual life of Indians but culture flourished on its banks and farmers grew varieties of crops which fed India. The Upper Gangetic belt in Uttar Pradesh is one of the most fertile regions of Paddy, Rice, Sugarcanes and numerous varieties of pulses and vegetables. City blossomed on the bank of Ganges and became not merely pilgrimage Centres but industrial hubs. Rishikesh, Haridwar, Mujaffarnagar, Meerut, Bareilly, Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Ara, Patna, Bhagalpur, Behrampur, Barddhaman, Kolkata, and Haldia are some of the most important cities near Ganga. If we count the cities on the tributaries of Ganges, then it will be a very large part of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Though many of the tributaries of Ganga have been termed as ‘Curse’ in various states because they brought enormous devastation in monsoons such as Sharda, Kosi and Chambal yet after their ‘merger’ yet they have strengthened the magnitude of the Ganges. 

Though in terms of length Brahmputra is 916 kilometers in India which covers Arunchal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Sikkim and Indus rivers are bigger than Ganges but their stretch in India is too short comparatively to Gangas and it remained the biggest river of India. The Indus river arises in the Kailash mansarovar and enters India through Ladakh and flows into Pakistan through Gilgit and Baltistan. All the five rivers of Punjab namely, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Satlej ultimately merge in Indus in Pakistan.

Ganga, Brahmputra and Indus are actually having their origin in Himalayas and pass through Tibet and India. While Ganga and Brahmputra empty at the Bay of Bengal, Indus goes to Pakistan and finally flows into Arabian Sea near Karachi. Hence, a careful study in terms of contribution to India’s water supply as well as agricultural sector, Ganga remains the most powerful and unparalleled. 

Our rivers are the biggest assets of our nations. They are truly our cultural heritage as they built a lively civilisation and rich bio-diversity around them. There was nothing wrong in the idea when people of India termed Ganga as ‘mother’ but the issue is whether we really respect that heritage in terms of protecting it from all kinds of ‘assault’ or have reduced our love to mere rituals which sometimes create more crisis for these rivers than not doing so. Ganga needs to survive if our civilisation has flourished and feel proud of the rich heritage.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat

The author is an activist and is currently working on Impact of Ganga and its tributaries in the Himalayas and the plains of India

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