The river Ganga, or Ganges, is part of a vast river system that drains the southern Himalayas and flows through the plains of North India into the Bay of Bengal. Its alluvial deposits have created a fertile valley, rich in agriculture and teeming cities.
Urban development along the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.
From the alpine forests of its upper reaches to the mangroves of its delta, the Ganges covers a variety of ecosystems. The diversity of terrain has resulted in a variety of fauna and flora; the northern reaches are home to bear, leopards and deer. The plains harbour deer, gharial, turtles, storks and cranes among other creatures; and the Sunderbans shelter the enigmatic tiger. The Ganga and its tributaries are the habitat of the Indian river dolphin or the gangetic dolphin, a highly endangered species.
The main channel, or river Ganga has its source in a glacial cave in the Western Himalayas, in the modern Indian state of Uttaranchal. The sources of the Indus, the Yamuna and the Brahmaputra, the three other great rivers of the sub-continent, are all located close by, rising from meltwaters of glaciers, springs and lakes of the Himalayas.
The Ganga flows south to the plains and thence eastwards to Bengal, where it joins with the Brahmaputra about 200 miles from the Bay of Bengal, where it again turns south to empty into the Bay of Bengal through the largest estuary system in the world. The total length of the Ganga is 1557 miles.
Cities along the Ganges, like Varanasi, are major pilgrimage centres for millions of Hindus who want to come and bathe in the river c. 1877.
Some of India's most sacred Hindu sites are located along the length of the Ganga, of which perhaps Hardwar and Varanasi (Benares) are best known. However there are literally hundreds of pilgrimage and sacred sites along the river, and the water of the Ganga, taken from any point, is supposed to be pure.
A dying river?
Two major dams divert water from the Ganga, reducing its navigability as an inland water way. The first is a dam at Hardwar, which feeds an enormous irrigation system covering much of Western Uttar Pradesh that was built by the British in 1854. And the second is a barrage at Farakka in India's West Bengal, which diverts a major part of the flow down through the river Hooghly and through Calcutta to the port of Haldia. This barrage was meant to reduce silting in the ports of West Bengal, and to generate power, but has seriously depleted the lean seasonal flow of water into western Bangladesh.
In spite of its ritual significance and its legendary purity, the Ganga is now highly polluted. The river system for the whole of North India supports a population that runs into the hundreds of millions, and estimates of the volume of untreated sewage that are poured into the Ganga exceed 1 billion litres a day. Additionally, toxic industrial waste and the widespread practice of cremation, not always complete, compound the problem.
Efforts to reduce the number and variety of pollutants that feed into the Ganga are limited by the pressures of population and the huge sums of money that are needed. And yet this river, which symbolises so much of India, is evidently dying.
Contemporary Indian debates speak of the coming water crisis in the subcontinent - a reference to the problems of the entire region's natural water and river systems succumbing to pollution and overuse.