Ganges River

Ganges River

River, northern India and Bangladesh.

Held sacred by followers of Hinduism, it is formed from five headstreams rising in Uttaranchal state. On its 1,560-mi (2,510-km) course, it flows southeast through the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal. In central Bangladesh it is joined by the Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. Their combined waters (called the Padma River) empty into the Bay of Bengal and form a delta 220 mi (354 km) wide, which is shared by India and Bangladesh. Its plain is one of the most fertile and densely populated regions in the world. Millions of Hindus bathe in the river annually at special holy places (tirthas). Many cast the ashes of their dead into its waters, and cremation temples are found along its banks in numerous places.

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river, Asia
Hindi  Gaṅgā,  
 great river of the plains of northern India. Although officially as well as popularly called the Ganga, both in Hindi and in other Indian languages, internationally it is known by its Anglicized name, the Ganges. From time immemorial it has been the holy river of the Hindus. For most of its course it is a wide and sluggish stream, flowing through one of the most fertile and densely populated tracts of territory in the world. Despite its importance, its length of 1,560 miles (2,510 kilometres) makes it relatively short by both world and Asian standards.

      Rising in the Himalayas and emptying into the Bay of Bengal, it drains a quarter of the territory of India, while its basin supports an immense concentration of people. The Gangetic Plain, across which it flows, is the heartland of the region known as Hindustān and has been the cradle of successive civilizations from the kingdom of Aśoka in the 3rd century BC, down to the Mughal Empire, founded in the 16th century.

      For most of its course the Ganges flows through Indian territory, although its large delta in the Bengal area lies mostly in Bangladesh. The general direction of the river's flow is from north-northwest to southeast. At its delta, the flow is generally southward.

Physical features

      The Ganges rises in the southern Himalayas on the Indian side of the Tibet border. Its five headstreams—the Bhāgīrathi (Bhagirathi River), Alaknanda, Mandākini, Dhaulīganga, and Pindar—all rise in the Uttarakhand region (the northern mountainous districts), a division of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Of these, the two main headstreams are the Alaknanda (the longer of the two), which rises about 30 miles north of the Himalayan peak of Nanda Devi, and the Bhāgīrathi, which originates about 10,000 feet (3,050 metres) above sea level in an ice cave at the foot of the Himalayan glacier known as Gangotri. Gangotri itself is a sacred place for Hindu pilgrimage. The true source of the Ganges, however, is considered to be at Gaumukh, about 13 miles southeast of Gangotri.

      After the Alaknanda and Bhāgīrathi unite at Devaprayāg, they form a main stream known as the Ganga, which cuts through the outer (southern) Himalayas to emerge from the mountains at Rishikesh. It then flows onto the plain at Hardiwār, another place held sacred by the Hindus.

      Although there is a seasonal variation in the river's flow, its volume increases markedly as it receives more tributaries and enters a region of heavier rainfall. From April to June the melting Himalayan snows feed the river, while in the rainy season from July to September the rain-bearing monsoon winds cause floods. Within the state of Uttar Pradesh, the principal right bank tributaries are the Yamuna River that flows past Delhi, the capital of India, to join the Ganges near Allahābād and the Tons that flows north from the Vindhya Range in the state of Madhya Pradesh and joins it soon after. The main left-bank tributaries in Uttar Pradesh are the Rāmganga, the Gomati, and the Ghāghara.

      The Ganges next enters the state of Bihār, where its main tributaries from the Himalayan region to the north are the Gandak, the Burhi Gandak, the Ghugri, and the Kosi and its most important southern tributary is the Son. The river then skirts the Rājmahal Hills to the south and flows southeast to Farakka, at the apex of the delta. In West Bengal, the last Indian state that the Ganges enters, the Mahānanda joins it from the north. (Throughout West Bengal in India, as well as in Bangladesh, the Ganges is locally called the Padma.) The westernmost distributary of the delta is the Hooghly (Hugli (Hugli River)), on the east bank of which stands the city of Calcutta. The Hooghly itself is joined by two tributaries flowing in from the west, the Dāmodar and the Rūpnārāyan. In Bangladesh the Ganges is joined by the mighty Brahmaputra (which for about 150 miles before the junction is called the Yamuna (Brahmaputra River)) near Goalundo Ghāt. The combined stream, now called the Padma, joins with the Meghna River above Chāndpur. The waters then flow to the Bay of Bengal through innumerable channels, the largest of which is known as the Meghna estuary.

      Dhākā (Dacca), the capital of Bangladesh, stands on the Buriganga (Old Ganges), a tributary of the Dhaleswari. Apart from the Hooghly and the Meghna, the other distributary streams that form the Ganges delta are, in West Bengal, the Jalangi and, in Bangladesh, the Mātābhānga, the Bhairab, the Kabadak, the Garai-Madhumati, and the Ariāl Khān.

      The Ganges, as well as its tributaries and distributaries, is constantly vulnerable to changes in its course in the delta region. Such changes have occurred in comparatively recent times, especially since 1750. In 1785 the Brahmaputra flowed past the city of Mymensingh; it now flows more than 40 miles west of it before joining the Ganges.

      The delta, the seaward prolongation of silt deposits from the Ganges and Brahmaputra river valleys, covers an area of about 23,000 square miles (60,000 square kilometres) and is composed of repeated alternations of clays, sands, and marls, with recurring layers of peat, lignite, and beds of what were once forests. The new deposits of the delta, known in Hindi and Urdu as the khādar, naturally occur in the vicinity of the present channels.

      The southern surface of the Ganges delta has been formed by the rapid and comparatively recent deposition of enormous loads of silt. To the east the seaward side of the delta is being changed at a rapid rate by the formation of new lands, known as chārs, and new islands. The western coastline of the delta, however, has remained practically unchanged since the 18th century.

      The rivers in the West Bengal area are sluggish; little water passes down them to the sea. In the Bangladeshi delta region, the rivers are broad and active, carrying plentiful water and connected by innumerable creeks. During the rains (from June to October) the greater part of the region is flooded to a depth of several feet, leaving the villages and homesteads, which are built on artificially raised land, isolated above the floodwaters. Communication between settlements during this season can be accomplished only by boat.

      To the seaward side of the delta as a whole there is a vast stretch of tidal forests and swampland. The forests, called Sundarbans, are protected by India and Bangladesh for conservation purposes.

      In certain parts of the delta there occur layers of peat, composed of forest vegetation and rice plants. In many natural depressions, known as bīl, peat, still in the process of formation, has been used as a fertilizer by local farmers, and it also has been dried and used as a domestic and industrial fuel.

Climate and hydrology
      The Ganges basin contains the largest river system on the subcontinent. The water supply is dependent partly on the rains brought by the southwesterly monsoon winds from July to October, as well as on the flow from melting Himalayan snows, in the hot season from April to June. Precipitation in the river basin accompanies the southwest monsoon winds, but it also comes with tropical cyclones that originate in the Bay of Bengal between June and October. Only a small amount of rainfall occurs in December and January. The average annual rainfall varies from 30 inches (760 millimetres) at the western end of the basin to more than 90 inches at the eastern end. (In the upper Gangetic Plain in Uttar Pradesh rainfall averages about 30 to 40 inches, in the Middle Plain of Bihār from 40 to 60 inches, and in the delta region between 60 and 100 inches.) The delta region experiences strong cyclonic storms both before the commencement of the monsoon season, from March to May, and at the end of it, from September to October. Some of these storms result in much loss of life and the destruction of homes, crops, and livestock. One such storm, which occurred in November 1970, was of catastrophic proportions, resulting in deaths of at least 200,000 and possibly as many as 500,000 people.

      Since there is little variation in relief over the entire surface of the Gangetic Plain, the river's rate of flow is slow. Between the Yamuna River at Delhi and the Bay of Bengal, a distance of nearly 1,000 miles, the elevation drops only some 700 feet. Altogether the Ganges-Brahmaputra plains extend over an area of 300,000 square miles. The alluvial mantle of the plain, which in some places is more than 6,000 feet thick, is possibly not more than 10,000 years old.

Plant and animal life
      The Ganges-Yamuna area was once densely forested; historical writings indicate that in the 16th and 17th centuries wild elephants, buffalo, bison, rhinoceroses, lions, and tigers were hunted there. Most of the original natural vegetation has disappeared from the Ganges basin as a whole, and the land is now intensely cultivated to meet the needs of an ever-growing population. Wild animals are few, except for deer, boars, and wildcats, and some wolves, jackals, and foxes. Only in the Sundarbans area of the delta are some Bengal tigers, crocodiles, and marsh deer still found. Fish abound in all the rivers, especially in the delta area, where they form an important part of the inhabitants' diet. Many varieties of birds are found, such as mynah birds, parrots, crows, kites, partridges, and fowls. In winter, duck and snipe migrate south across the high Himalayas, settling in large numbers in water-covered areas. In the Bengal area common fish include featherbacks (Notopteridae), barbs (Cyprinidae), walking catfish, gouramis (Anabantidae), and milkfish (Chanidae).

The people
      Ethnically, the people of the Ganges basin are of mixed origin. In the west and centre of the basin they were originally descended from Aryan ancestors. Later, Turks, Mongols, Afghans, Persians, and Arabs came from the west and intermingled with them. To the east and south, largely in the Bengal area, an admixture of Tibetan, Burman, and miscellaneous hill people has also occurred. The Europeans, arriving still later, did not settle or intermarry to any extent.

      Historically the Gangetic Plain has constituted the heartland of Hindustān and has cradled its successive civilizations. The centre of the pre-Christian empire of Aśoka was Patna (Pāṭaliputra), standing on the banks of the Ganges in Bihār. The centres of the great Mughal Empire were at Delhi and Āgra, on the western peripheries of the Ganges basin. Kannauj on the Ganges, north of Kānpur, was the centre of the feudatory empire of Harṣa, which covered most of northern India in the middle of the 7th century. During the Muslim era, which began in the 12th century, Muslim rule extended not only over the plain, but over all Bengal as well. Dhākā (Dacca) and Murshidābād in the delta region were centres of Muslim power.

      The British, having founded Calcutta on the banks of the Hooghly in the late 17th century, gradually advanced up the valley of the Ganges, reaching Delhi in the mid-19th century.

      A great number of cities have been built on the Gangetic Plain. Among the most notable are Roorkee, Sahāranpur, Meerut, Āgra (the city of the famous Tāj Mahal mausoleum), Mathura (esteemed as the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna), Alīgarh, Kānpur, Bareilly, Lucknow, Allahābād, Vārānasi (Benares; the holy city of the Hindus), Patna, Bhāgalpur, Rājshāhi, Murshidābād, Burdwān, Calcutta, Howrah (Hāora), Dhākā, Khulna, and Barisāl.

      In the delta, Calcutta and its satellite towns stretch for about 50 miles along both banks of the Hooghly, forming one of India's most important concentrations of population, commerce, and industry.

      The religious importance of the Ganges may exceed that of any other river in the world. It has been revered from the earliest times and today is regarded as the holiest of rivers by Hindus. While places of Hindu pilgrimage, called tīrthas, are located throughout the subcontinent, those that are situated on the Ganges have particular significance. Among these are the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna near Allahābād, where a bathing festival, or melā, is held in January and February; during this ceremony, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims immerse themselves in the river. Other holy places for immersion are at Vārānasi (Benares), or Kāśī, and at Haridwār.

 The Hooghly River at Calcutta also is regarded as holy. The places of pilgrimage on the Ganges also include Gangotri and the junction of the Alaknanda and Bhāgīrathi headstreams. The Hindus cast the ashes of their dead upon the river, believing that they thus will go straight to heaven, and cremation ghats (temples at the summit of riverside steps) for burning the dead have been built in many places on the banks of the Ganges.

The economy

      Use of the Ganges water for irrigation, either when the river is in flood or by means of gravity canals, has been common since ancient times. Such irrigation is described in scriptures and mythological books written more than 2,000 years ago. Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador who was in India, recorded the use of irrigation in the 4th century BC. Irrigation was highly developed during the period of Muslim rule from the 12th century onward, and the Mughal kings later constructed several canals. The canal system was further extended by the British.

      The cultivated area of the Ganges valley in Uttar Pradesh and Bihār benefits from a system of irrigation canals that has increased the production of such cash crops as sugarcane, cotton, and oilseeds. The older canals are mainly in the Ganges-Yamuna Doab (doab meaning “land between two rivers”). The Upper Ganga Canal, with its distributaries, is 5,950 miles long; it begins at Hardiwār. The Lower Ganga Canal, which is 5,120 miles with distributaries, begins at Naraura. The Sārda Canal irrigates land in Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh. The land north of the Ganges, being higher, is difficult to irrigate by canal, and groundwater must be pumped to the surface. Large areas in Uttar Pradesh and in Bihār are also irrigated by channels running from hand-dug wells.

      The Ganges-Kabadak scheme in Bangladesh, largely an irrigation plan, covers parts of the districts of Khulna, Jessore, and Kushtia that lie within the moribund part of the delta where silt and overgrowth choke the rivers.

      Total annual rainfall in this region is generally below 60 inches, and winters are comparatively dry. The system of irrigation is based on both gravity canals and electrically powered lifting devices.

      In ancient times the Ganges and some of its tributaries, especially in the east, were navigable. According to Megasthenes, the Ganges and its main tributaries were being navigated in the 4th century BC. In the 14th century, inland-river navigation in the Ganges basin was still flourishing. By the 19th century, irrigation-cum-navigation canals formed the main arteries of the water-transport system. The advent of paddle steamers revolutionized inland transport, stimulating the growth of the indigo industry in Bihār and Bengal. Regular steamer services ran from Calcutta up the Ganges to Allahābād and far beyond, as well as to Āgra on the Yamuna and up the Brahmaputra River.

      The decline of large-scale water transport began with the construction of railways during the mid-19th century. The increasing withdrawal of water for irrigation also has affected navigation. River traffic now is insignificant beyond the middle Ganges basin around Allahābād, much of what there is consisting of various types of rural rivercraft.

      West Bengal and Bangladesh, however, continue to rely on the waterways to transport jute, tea, grain, and other agricultural and rural products. Principal river ports are Chālna, Khulna, Barisāl, Chāndpur, Nārāyanganj, Goalundo Ghāt, Sirājganj, Bhairab Bāzār, and Fenchuganj in Bangladesh and Calcutta, Goālpāra, Dhuburi, and Dibrugarh in India. The partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 produced far-reaching changes, virtually halting the large trade in tea and jute formerly carried to Calcutta from Assam by inland waterway.

      In Bangladesh, inland water transport is the responsibility of the Inland Water Transport Authority. In India, the Central Inland Water Transport Board formulates policy for inland waterways, while the Inland Waterways Authority develops and maintains an extensive system of national waterways. Approximately 1,000 miles of waterways in the Ganges basin from Allahābād to Haldia are included in the system.

      The construction of the Farakka Barrage at the head of the delta, just inside Indian territory in West Bengal, has been a source of contention between India and Bangladesh.

      According to the Indian view, the port of Calcutta had deteriorated because of the deposit of silt and the intrusion of saline seawater. In order to ameliorate the condition of Calcutta by flushing away the seawater and raising the water level, India sought to have quantities of fresh water diverted from the Ganges at the site of the Farakka Barrage. The water there is now carried by means of a large canal into the Bhāgirathi River, which joins the Hooghly River above Calcutta.

      According to Bangladesh, all riparian countries should exercise joint control over the waters of international rivers for the sake of mutual prosperity. The Ganges waters are also vital to irrigation, to navigation, and to the prevention of saline incursions in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has maintained that the Farakka Barrage has deprived it of a valuable source of water upon which its prosperity depends. India, on the other hand, has favoured a bilateral approach to the Ganges waters problem. A series of interim agreements on water sharing has been reached between the two countries, but a permanent settlement has not been achieved. An Indian proposal to divert water from the Brahmaputra in Assam to the Ganges through a canal passing through Bangladesh has been countered by a Bangladeshi proposal to construct a canal from eastern Nepal to Bangladesh through West Bengal; neither proposal has received a positive response. Catastrophic floods in Bangladesh in 1987 and 1988—the latter being among the most severe in the country's history—prompted the World Bank to prepare a long-term flood-control plan for the region.

      The hydroelectric potential of the Ganges has been estimated at 13 million kilowatts, of which about two-fifths lies within India and the rest in Nepal. Some of this potential has been exploited in India with such hydroelectric developments as those along the Chambal and Rihand rivers.

Nafis Ahmad Deryck O. Lodrick

Additional Reading
Descriptions of the Ganges are found in surveys of the corresponding regions, such as R.L. Singh (ed.), India: A Regional Geography (1971); S.D. Misra, Rivers of India (1970); B.C. Law (ed.), Mountains and Rivers of India (1968); and Satis Chandra Majumdar, Rivers of the Bengal Delta (1942). More focused subject studies are Development of Irrigation in India (1965), a publication of the Central Board of Irrigation and Power of the Indian government; K.L. Rao, India's Water Wealth, rev. ed. (1979); and G.K. Dutt and A.K. Kundu (eds.), Irrigation Atlas of India, 2nd rev. ed., 2 vol. (1987–89). The Ganges itself is examined in Khurshida Begum, Tension Over the Farakka Barrage: A Techno-Political Tangle in South Asia (1988), discussing the political repercussions in connection with the Farakka Dam; Eric Newby, Slowly Down the Ganges (1966, reissued 1986), an illustrated descriptive guide; Steven G. Darian, The Ganges in Myth and History (1978); and Raghubir Singh, Ganga: Sacred River of India (1974), a photographic essay.Deryck O. Lodrick

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Universalium. 2010.

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