Besides being one of the longest rivers in the world, the Ganges is also the holiest river to Hindus. Its waters are considered to be pure and purifying, and its importance is so great that every night, when the sun sets, people gather along its banks to honor the River Goddess, with chants, prayers, and lights.
For every traveler, the Ganges represents something unique and fascinating, and no trip to India would be complete without a deep understanding and appreciation of this unique stream of water. Visit one of the many fascinating cities along its banks, like Varanasi; or take a cruise to enjoy it from a unique point of view: you will never forget it.
Keep reading to learn more about the Ganges River!
- The Ganges (also called Ganga) is 1,569 miles (2,525 km) long and it is the most sacred river to Hindus
- It flows through India and Pakistan, rising in the Himalayas and emptying into the Bay of Bengal
- Its waters are pure, can purify one's sins and help the dead ascend to heaven
- Every day, at the sunset, people gather along the banks of the river to perform the Ganga Aarti, a fascinating ceremony aimed to honor the River Goddess
- Cruising the Ganges will give you a unique experience of the river
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The most sacred river in Hindu: The Ganges
The Ganges begins where the Bhagirathi and the Alaknand rivers meet, in the state of Uttarkhand. The Ganges is a lifeline to millions who live along its course. It is a most sacred river to the Hindus and worshiped as the goddess Ganga Ma (Mother Ganges) in Hinduism.
The interweaving network of streams that make up the Ganges Delta in South Asia is formed by the joining of three rivers – the Padma, Jamuna, and Meghna rivers. The Ganga Delta is the world's largest delta: it is 220 miles (355 km) wide.
History of the Ganges
During the late Harappan period (1900-1300 BCE), saw many settlements spread on the western bank of the Ganges, and only with the ending of the Harappan civilization, the Ganges basin became the center of the Indian civilization.
When the Rigveda was composed, the most sacred rivers to Hindu people were the Indus and the Sarasvati River; however, the later three Vedas gave much more importance to the Ganges, which later became the center of powerful states such as the Mughal Empire.
The Ganges is the embodiment of sacredness
The Ganges is the most sacred river to Hindus. Believers swim in its waters, cup waters in their hands to pay homage to the ancestors and the gods, offer petals and float shallow clay dishes filled with oil and lit with wicks. On the journey back home from the Ganges, they carry small quantities of river water with them for use in rituals.
In Hindu mythology, the Ganges, the Goddess Ganga descended from heaven to dwell in the waters of the Ganges River to protect, purify, and bring to heaven those who touch it. Devout Hindus visit the river daily to offer flowers and food to Ganga. They drink the water and bathe in the river to cleanse and purify their sins.
This explains why dipping in its waters is so important to Hindus: it is a way to remit one's sins. Its religious importance is one of the few things that all the Hindus are in agreement.
A dip in the Ganges to rid the sins
In late May or early June every year, Hindus celebrate the karunasiri and rise of the Ganges from earth to heaven. On this day, thousands of Hindus gather on the banks of the river to take a bath and get rid of the so-called "ten sins" or ten lifetimes of sins.
For those who cannot go to the river, bathing in any body of water, which, for the true believer, in the Hindu tradition, takes on all the attributes of the Ganges.
The story behind the karunasiri (even if there many different versions of the same story) sees Indra, the Lord of Heaven, slaying Vritra, a celestial serpent, and thus releasing the nectar of the gods that plunges to the earth.
Cremation on the banks of the Ganges
Ganga has descended from heaven to earth, and she is also the vehicle of ascent, from earth to heaven. The river is considered to be a crossing point of all beings, living or dead.
For this reason, ceremonies for the deceased in Hinduism, Ganges water is used in rituals after death. Of all places, Varanasi is the most longed of all to be cremated as it is considered to be the Great Cremation Ground, and all the Hindus that die there are granted instant salvation.
Another rite is pinda pradana: Hindus will offer balls of sesame seed and rice to the Ganges while reciting the names of the dead. Every seed will offer a thousand years of heavenly salvation.
To Hindus, the waters of the Ganges are pure and purifying, the perfect way to put things in order. Its water can absorb impurities, and the stronger the current, the stronger the purifying effect. Of course, Hindus think that the river can remove symbolic dirt, the sins of the bather.
The Ganga Aarti: the very powerful spiritual ritual
Ganga Aarti is an extremely fascinating ceremony to honor the River Goddess Ganga. It is performed every day at dusk, when hundreds of people gather to play music, pray, and burn incense, creating a unique atmosphere that you will never forget.
The ceremony is extremely important to Hindus, and its main purpose is to show gratitude to the Ganga River. People will light fires and lamps, while thousands of flowers float down the stream. The brass lamps lit by the Hindus priest are believed to acquire some divine power.
You will see Hindus placing the palms over the flames and then bring them to their foreheads, to receive the blessing of the Goddess.
Ganga Aarti means prayer for River Ganga. This is performed along the Ganges River, every night, regardless of the weather. The most popular ceremonies are held in Varanasi, Haridwar, and Rishikesh, and it is different in every place.
Varanasi Ganga Aarti: Varanasi
The Ganga Aarti held in Varanasi is one of the most beautiful religious performances you will get to witness in your entire life. Every sunset, near Kashi Vishwanath Temple, people gather to bring to life this highly choreographed ceremony that sees Hindus priest raising brass lamps to honor the River Goddess.
The blowing of a conch shell starts the ceremony – doing this will remove all the negative energy and will contribute to intensifying one's senses. Then believers start to wave incense sticks and circle the large lamps, and all these movements are synchronized with the hymns and the music played on the cymbals, while the air is pervaded by a strong smell of sandalwood.
People also provide fire offering to the river in the form of floating lamps made with candles and flowers. Thousands of such lamps will float on the river.
To attend Ganga Aarti in Varanasi, be sure to arrive early. You can also admire the ceremony while on a boat or standing on one of the many balconies offered by the shops along the river.
Hardiwar Ganga Aarti: Haridwar
In Haridwar, the Ganga Aarti is performed at Har-Ki-Pauri, one of the holiest places of the whole country. It is a ritual of light and sound where the priests perform prayers with bowls of fire and the ringing of the temple bells.
Visitors float small candles and flowers, surrounded by the chanting of the mantras and the reflection of the lights off the surface of the flowing river, is said to be blessed by the Goddess Ganga.
If you wish to attend the ceremony, get there as early as possible and get as close to the water as you can.
Rishikesh Ganga Aarti: Rishikesh
In Rishikesh, the ceremony is held on the banks of the holy river. The celebration starts with people singing some devotional songs and praying.
Then they will perform a purifying ritual, and, finally, the lamps will be lit by the devotees and floated on the waters, veiling it in a glittering golden hue. During the final part, the spiritual head will sing followed by everyone else.
As this ceremony is more aimed to gain a personal spiritual connection, try to stay even after it has ended and enjoy the beautiful sight of the river overlooked by the enormous statue of Shiva.
If you want to seat near the action, try to arrive early (and remember to remove your shoes).
Cruising the Ganges
Maybe one of the best ways to enjoy the Ganges is to go for a cruise. This, you will get to see dozens of amazing sites, and from a unique perspective.
Itineraries offer you the opportunity to see, for example, the Buddhist monasteries in Vikramshila, the ruins of the Mughal palaces and fort, the rock carving in Bateshwar, or the silk markets in Bhagalpur. And, if you are lucky, even dolphins!
You can cruise the Ganges only in August and September, during the end of the monsoon season, when the level of the water is high enough. There are many different kinds of cruises to choose from: usually, they last from 6 to 8 days.
A sample itinerary
An 8-day itinerary would start from Kolkata to Barrackpore, where you will be able to admire monuments such as the Semaphor Tower and the Government House.
The second day is at Kalna, where you can take a rickshaw and visit some famous terracotta temples. The following day you will arrive at Matiari, a small town. The town's main attraction is the village where brass utensils are made. You can experience their life and appreciate the town's history and workmanship.
From there you will travel to Murshidabad, and enjoy the beautiful "White Mughal" architecture, and then onto Baranagar, where you can visit the three stunning terracotta temples and get a glimpse of rural Indian. Day 6 will be spent in Mayapur and its huge temple that functions as the headquarter of the ISKCON movement.
The last two days will be in Chandernagore, Hoogly – with its enormous Imambara – and then, finally, on the 8th day, you will return to Kolkata.
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