The holy city of Benares in India sits on the banks of the sacred river Ganga. The 2525 km long river (If you took a journey from Delhi, in the north of India to Kochi in the southern state of Kerala, it will give you an idea of how long the Ganga is.) Geographically, the Ganga begins at the confluence of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers. These rivers are formed due to the glaciers melting in the mighty Himalayas.
The many rivers that make Ganga
The rivers of Dhauliganga, Nandakini,Pindar, Mandakini join the Alaknanda river. Alaknanda and Bhagirathi merge to form the river Ganga. She flows from the mountains to the plains of India, named The Gangetic Plain after her. Here she brings life and prosperity before moving on further to Allahabad where she merges with the river Yamuna. She turns East to merge with the river Tamsa. She is joined by the river Gomti from the Southern Himalayas and later by the Ghagara river. The Son, the Gandaki and Kosi all join Ganga. A part of her diverges to become the Hoogly river that flows through the city of Kolkata and later empties into The Bay of Bengal.
The Ganga enters the country of Bangladesh, where her name changes to the Padma. Two tributaries of the Brahmaputra (son of the lord Brahma), Meghna and Jamuna join the Padma. Padma’s name changes to Meghna as it enters the Meghna estuary and she finally meets the sea, the Bay of Bengal. It would not be incorrect to say that the river Ganga is a lifeline of the Indian sub-continent.
The holy city of Benares
We are going to make a stop at Benares, which is also known as Kasi or Varanasi. Considered the holiest city in India, Benares has an enduring relationship with the Ganga. Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon after enlightenment at Benares. It is the birthplace of India’s spiritual gurus Kabir and Ravidas. Emperor Akbar, a Muslim ruler built two large temples dedicated to Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction) and Vishnu (the Hindu god of preservation). Such is the charm of Benares.
Life on the banks of the Ganga
The city of Benares is dotted with ghats (a flight of steps leading down to the river Ganga), all 87 of them.Ted Lewin captures the beauty of the Ganga as it flows through Benares in his Caldecott honour winning book Sacred River: The Ganges of India. He uses watercolour paper and watercolours to create beautiful, life-like illustrations that capture the relationship between the city and the river.
The priests at the ghat offer prayers to Shiva, Agni- the god of fire and Surya -the sun-god. The day starts with priests and devotees offering prayers to the sun-god. They do this by standing in the river and praying with folded palms, facing the rising sun.
The ghats are dotted with small hotels, astrologers and tourists. For a small fee, you can take a boat ride to all the different ghats along the river, in Benares.
Many Hindu Indians consider Benares, the holiest of holy places, and often visit it at least once before their death. The holy months in the Hindu calendar see hundreds upon thousands of people descending on Benares to take a dip in the river Ganga, which will wash away their sins.
The river plays an important role in death too. Relatives burn the bodies of their loved ones on the banks of the river Ganga and immerse their ashes in the river. They believe their loved ones will seek moksha or freedom from the cycle of birth and death by doing so.
The importance of keeping Ganga clean
The large influx of people, the wanton dumping of wastes and pollutants make the river Ganga the fifth most polluted river in the world. The people of Benares, as well as the thousands of tourists, need to be mindful if they wish to see the Ganga flow purely. Indiscriminate littering and dumping of industrial wastes into the river is killing the marine life in it. The beautiful Ganges river dolphin, fish and amphibians and not to mention the birds that thrive in the Ganga are dying slowly if the river is not cleaned up.
This beautiful, majestic river which is an integral part of the life of the people who live on her banks deserves more respect and love surely.