The Ganges

The Ganges River, also known as the Ganga River, is a transboundary river that flows through India and Bangladesh. The river emerges in the western Himalayas in Uttarakhand and flows down across Northern India into Bangladesh, where it empties itself into the Bay of Bengal. It is the longest river in India and flows for around 2,525 km, and has the second greatest water discharge in the world. Its basin is heavily populated, with 400 million people living in it. Nearly 80% of the Ganges river basin is in India, and the rest is in Nepal, China and Bangladesh.

Humans have inhabited The Ganges river basin since ancient times. The first people in the region were of the Harappan civilization. They moved into the Ganges River basin from the Indus River basin around the 2nd millennium BCE. Later, the Gangetic Plain became the center of the Maurya Empire and then the Mughal Empire. The first European traveler to mention the Ganges was the Greek envoy Megasthenes in his work ‘Indica’. 


The headwaters of the Ganges River begin high in the Himalayan Mountains, where the Bhagirathi River flows out of the Gangotri Glacier in India’s Uttarakhand state. The glacier sits at an elevation of 12,769 feet (3,892 m). The Ganges River proper begins farther downstream, where the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers join. 

The Ganges River emerges from the Himalayas at Rishikesh and begins to flow onto the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Also known as the North Indian River Plain, it makes up most of the northern and eastern parts of India, parts of Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. In addition to entering the Indo-Gangetic Plain, part of the Ganges River is diverted towards the Ganges Canal for irrigation in the Uttar Pradesh state.

As the Ganges River then flows farther downstream, it changes direction several times, joined by many other tributary rivers such as the Ramganga, Tamsa, and Gandaki Rivers, to name a few. There are also several cities and towns that the Ganges River passes through on its way downstream. Some of these include Chunar, Kolkata, Mirzapur, and Varanasi. Many Hindus visit the Ganges River in Varanasi as that city is considered the holiest of cities. 

Once the Ganges River flows out of India into Bangladesh, its main branch is the Padma River. The Padma River is joined downstream by large rivers like the Jamuna and Meghna rivers. After joining the Meghna, it takes on that name before flowing into the Bay of Bengal. Before entering the Bay of Bengal, the river creates the world’s largest delta, Ganges Delta. This region is a highly fertile sediment-laden area that covers 23,000 square miles (59,000 sq km).

The course of the Ganges River described above is a general description of the river’s route from its source where the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers join to its outlet at the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges has very complicated hydrology, and there are several different descriptions of its overall length and the size of its drainage basin based on the included tributary rivers.


The Ganges is a sacred river to the Hindus and worshipped as goddess Ganga Ma or “Mother Ganges.” According to Hindu mythology, 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. Hindus visit the river daily to offer flowers and food to Ganga. They also drink the water and bathe in the river to cleanse and purify their sins. Hindus consider the waters of the Ganges to be pure and purifying. Regardless of scientific understanding of its waters, the river is ritually and symbolically vital in Hindu culture.

In Hindu tradition, the Ganges flows in heaven, earth, and the netherworld, and thus is a ‘tirtha’, a crossing point between heaven and earth. At a ‘tirtha’, prayers and offerings are thought most likely to reach the gods and, in the other direction, blessings can descend most readily from heaven. Hindus believe that upon death, the waters of the Ganges River will help them reach the World of the Ancestors. 


The Ganges River provides water to about 40% of India’s population across 11 states. The fertile soil of the Ganges Basin is instrumental to the agricultural economies of India and Bangladesh. The Ganges and its tributaries provide a perennial source of irrigation to a large area. Chief crops cultivated include rice, sugarcane, lentils, oilseeds, potatoes, and wheat. The swamps and lakes along the riverbank provide a rich growing area for crops such as legumes, chillies, mustard, sesame, sugarcane, and jute. There are also many fishing opportunities along the river, though it remains highly polluted.

The three towns holy to Hinduism — Haridwar, Allahabad (Prayagraj), and Varanasi attract millions of pilgrims to its waters to take a dip in the Ganges. Varanasi, Haridwar, Gangotri, Allahabad, and Rishikesh are the prime destinations that have great religious significance for Hindu devotees. Allahabad and Haridwar are renowned for organizing Kumbh Mela, a grand religious fair, and Haridwar is known as the “Gateway to Heaven.”


The Ganges suffers from extreme pollution and is the fifth most polluted river in the world. Industrial and human activities of the 400 million people living near the river contribute majorly to the state of the river. Sewage dumped from cities along the river’s course, industrial waste, and religious offerings wrapped in non-degradable plastics add large amounts of pollutants to the river as it flows through densely populated areas.  There are many tanneries, chemical plants, textile mills, distilleries and slaughterhouses along the river and many of them dump their untreated and often toxic waste into the river. Furthermore, people who rely on the river daily for bathing, cooking, and washing their laundry have worsened the situation. Varanasi, where many pilgrims visit to take a “holy dip” in the Ganges, releases around 200 million liters of untreated human sewage into the river each day. It has led to large concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria, at least 3,000 times higher than what is established by the World Health Organization as safe. The water of the Ganges has been tested to contain high levels of things like chromium sulfate, arsenic, cadmium, mercury and sulfuric acid. 

Clean-Up Efforts:

The Ganga Action Plan: (GAP)

In 1985, the government of India launched an environmental initiative, the Ganga Action Plan to clean up the river in selected areas by installing sewage treatment plants and threatening fines and litigation against industries that pollute. It was “the largest single attempt to clean up a polluted river anywhere in the world.” The initiative was a failure, owing to corruption, a lack of will in the government, poor technical expertise, environmental planning, and lack of support from religious authorities. 

National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA)

National Ganga River Basin Authority is the financing, planning, implementing, monitoring and coordinating authority for the Ganges River, established by the Central Government of India. It declared the Ganges as the “National River” of India.

Namami Gange Programme:

In the budget tabled in Parliament on 10 July 2014, the Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced an integrated Ganges development project titled ‘Namami Gange’. As a part of the program, the government of India ordered the shut down of 48 industrial units around the Ganges. Significantly the approach is underpinned by socio-economic benefits that the program is expected to deliver in terms of job creation, improved livelihoods and health benefits to the vast population that is dependent on the river.