The rivers of India play an important role in the lives of the Indian people. The river systems provide irrigation, potable water, cheap transportation, electricity, as well as provide livelihoods for a large number of people all over the country.
Seven major rivers (Indus, Brahmaputra, Narmada, Tapi, Godavari, Krishna and Mahanadi) along with their numerous tributaries make up the river system of India.
All major rivers of India originate from one of the three main watersheds;
- The Himalaya and the Karakoram ranges
- Vindhya and Satpura ranges and Chotanagpur plateau in central India
- Sahyadri or Western Ghats in western India
Based on the topography, the river systems of India can be classified into four groups.
- Himalayan Rivers
- Deccan Rivers
- Coastal Rivers
- Rivers of the Inland Drainage Basin
The Himalayan Rivers – The Himalayan Rivers receive input from rain as well as snowmelt and glacier melt and, therefore, have continuous flow throughout the year. The main river systems in Himalayas are those of the Indus and the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna. The Indus rises near Mansarovar in Tibet. Flowing through Kashmir, it enters Pakistan and finally falls in the Arabian Sea near Karachi. Bhagirathi and Alakhnanda are two important rivers that originate in Garhwal Himalayas. . These join at Devprayag to form Ganga which is the most sacred river of India. This river traverses through Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal and thereafter enters Bangladesh. Yamuna River is an important tributary of Ganga and its own important tributaries are Chambal and Betwa. The Brahmaputra rises in Tibet where it is known by the name Tsangpo. It enters India in Arunachal Pradesh and after traversing through Assam, enters Bangladesh. The combined Ganga-Brahmaputra River meets Meghna in Bangladesh and their huge volume of water flows into the Bay of Bengal.
The Deccan Rivers – The Rivers of Deccan can be further classified in two groups: west flowing rivers and east flowing rivers. The Narmada and the Tapi rivers flow westwards into Arabian Sea. The important east flowing rivers are the Brahmani, the Mahanadi, the Godavari, the Krishna, the Pennar, and the Cauvery. These rivers fall into the Bay of Bengal. The Mahanadi, rising in the state of Madhya Pradesh, is an important river in the state of Orissa. The Krishna rises in the Western Ghats and flows east into the Bay of Bengal. The Krishna is the third longest river in India. The source of the Cauvery is in the state of Karnataka and the river flows south eastward. The Narmada and the Tapi are the only major rivers that flow eastward into the Arabian Sea.
The Narmada rises in Madhya Pradesh and crosses the state, passing swiftly through a narrow valley between the Vindhya Range and spurs of the Satpura Range. It flows into the Gulf of Khambhat (or Cambay).
The Coastal Rivers – There are numerous coastal rivers which are comparatively small. While only handful of such rivers drains into the sea near the deltas of east coast, there are as many as 600 such rivers on the west coast. The West Coast Rivers are important as they contain as much as 14% of the country’s water resources while draining only 3% of the land.
Rivers of the Inland Drainage Basin – The Rivers of the inland system, centred in western Rajasthan state, are few and frequently disappear in years of scant rainfall. A few rivers in Rajasthan do not drain into the sea. They drain into salt lakes or get lost in sands with no outlet to sea.
The rivers of India can be classified on the basis of origin and on the type of basin that they form.
On the basis of Origin: Himalayan Rivers and Peninsular Rivers.
Himalayan Rivers -The main Himalayan river systems are the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra river systems. The Himalayan Rivers form large basins. Many rivers pass through the Himalayas. These deep valleys with steep rock sides were formed by the down – cutting of the river during the period of the Himalayan uplift. They perform intense erosional activity up the streams and carry huge load of sand and silt. In the plains, they form large meanders and a variety of depositional features like flood plains, river cliffs and levees. These rivers are perennial as they get water from the rainfall as well as the melting of ice. Nearly all of them create huge plains and are navigable over long distances of their course. These rivers are also harnessed in their upstream catchment area to generate hydroelectricity.
Peninsular Rivers – The main peninsular river systems include the Narmada, the Tapi, the Godavari, the Krishna, the Kaveri and the Mahanadi river systems. The Peninsular Rivers flow through shallow valleys. A large number of them are seasonal as their flow is dependent on rainfall. The intensity of erosional activities is also comparatively low because of the gentler slope. The hard rock bed and lack of silt and sand does not allow any significant meandering. Many rivers therefore have straight and linear courses. These rivers provide huge opportunities for hydro-electric power.
The Indus River System – The Indus originates in the northern slopes of the Kailas range in Tibet near Lake Mansarovar. It follows a north-westerly course through Tibet. It enters Indian Territory in Jammu and Kashmir.
The main tributaries of the Indus in India are Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej
- Jhelum – The Jhelum originates in the south-eastern part of Kashmir, in a spring at Verinag.. It follows the Indo-Pakistan border flowing into the plains of Punjab, finally joining the Chenab at Trimmu.
- Chenab – The Chenab originates from the confluence of two rivers, the Chandra and the Bhaga, which themselves originate from either side of the Bara Lacha Pass in Lahul. It is also known as the Chandrabhaga in Himachal Pradesh. It is further joined by the Ravi and the Sutlej in Pakistan.
- Ravi – The Ravi originates near the Rohtang pass in the Kangra Himalayas and follows a north-westerly course. It flows as a part of the Indo-Pakistan border for some distance before entering Pakistan and joining the Chenab River. The total length of the river is about 720 km.
- Beas – The Beas originates in Beas Kund, lying near the Rohtang pass. It runs past Manali and Kulu, where its beautiful valley is known as the Kulu valley. It joins the Sutlej river near Harika, after being joined by a few tributaries. The total length of the river is 615 km.
- Sutlej – The Sutlej originates from the Rakas Lake, which is connected to the Mansarovar Lake by a stream, in Tibet. Its flows in a north-westerly direction and enters Himachal Pradesh at the Shipki Pass, where it is joined by the Spiti river. It turns west below Rupar and is later joined by the Beas. It enters Pakistan near Sulemanki, and is later joined by the Chenab. It has a total length of almost 1500 km.
The Narmada River System – The Narmada or Nerbudda is a river in central India. It forms the traditional boundary between North India and South India, and is a total of 1,289 km long. Its total length through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat amounts to 1312 kilometres (815 miles), and it empties into the Arabian Sea in the Bharuch district of Gujarat.
The Tapi River System – The Tapi is a river of central India. It is one of the major rivers of peninsular India with the length of around 724 km, and only the Tapi River along with the Narmada River, and the Mahi River run from east to west. It rises in the eastern Satpura Range of southern Madhya Pradesh state emptying into the Gulf of Cambay of the Arabian Sea, in the State of Gujarat.
The Godavari River System – The river with second longest course within India, Godavari is often referred to as the Vriddh (Old) Ganga or the Dakshin (South) Ganga. The river is about 1,450 km (900 miles) long. It rises at Trimbakeshwar, near Nasik and Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in Maharashtra around 380 km distance from the Arabian Sea and empties into the Bay of Bengal. It is a seasonal river, widened during the monsoons and dried during the summers
The Krishna River System – The Krishna is one of the longest rivers of India (about 1300 km in length). It originates at Mahabaleswar in Maharashtra, passes through Sangli and meets the sea in the Bay of Bengal at Hamasaladeevi in Andhra Pradesh. The Krishna River flows through the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Its most important tributary is the Tungabhadra River, which itself is formed by the Tunga and Bhadra rivers that originate in the Western Ghats.
The Kaveri River System – The Kaveri (also spelled Cauvery or Kaveri) is one of the great rivers of India and is considered sacred by the Hindus. This river is also called Dakshin Ganga. It flows generally south and east for around 765 km, emptying into the Bay of Bengal through two principal mouths. Its basin is estimated to be 27,700 square miles (71,700 km²), and it has many tributaries including Shimsha, Hemavati, Arkavathy, Kapila, Honnuhole, Lakshmana Tirtha, Kabini, Lokapavani, Bhavani, Noyyal and famous Amaravati.
The Mahanadi River System – The Mahanadi is a river of eastern India. The Mahanadi rises in the Satpura Range of central India, and flows east to the Bay of Bengal. The Mahanadi drains most of the state of Chhattisgarh and much of Orissa and also Jharkhand and Maharashtra. It has a length of about 860 km. Near the city of Sambalpur; a large dam – the Hirakud Dam – is built on the river.