The Myth, Rites and Traditions of the Ganges

by - June 15, 2017

The Ganges is surely the most sacred river in the world. Her journey from the Himalayan summits to Calcutta includes cities such as Haridwar, Allahabad, and Varanasi from a remote grotto of ice in the Himalayas to its mouth in the Bay of Bengal.

Historically, it has also been a testament to many of the ancient provincial or imperial capitals such as Pataliputra, Kannauj, Allahabad, Murshidabad, and Calcutta on its shores. From Haridwar, the Ganges leaves the buttresses of the Himalayas to begin her quiet flow through the plains of Uttar Pradesh in northern India.

Up to Haridwar, the Ganges runs cold and wild like a torrent. There you can breathe a spirituality that is very different from the exuberance of Benares. Its temples, ashrams and Dharamsala's serve as a claim for neo-hippies and yoga scholars.

Sumptuous and terrible, Benares or Varanasi is not a place for delicate spirits. In the oldest inhabited city on the planet or one of the oldest, being a contemporary of Thebes (Egypt) and Babylon, light and darkness mix with the eschatological and sublime.

The most distant source of the river, called Bhagirathi is born in the Western Himalayas in a place called Gomukh, on the Gangotri glacier and joins, 210 km from the source, with the Alakananda (which descends from the Nanda Devi mountain, at 7800 mt near Deoprayag, from whose confluence happens is called the Ganges that ends after dividing into smaller rivers such as the Hugli and the Padma.

Its length varies according to the sources, between 2500 and 3000 km. One of the largest concentrations of population in the world is established along the banks of the Ganges. The Ganges basin is very fertile. In its basin live more than 150 million people.

But where does such devotion come from, and what is the basis of these beliefs of this mystic river that is full of mystery and spirituality? To begin with, we must understand that, the River Ganges is personified in the form of a goddess as Maa Ganga or Deví Ganga, the daughter of King Himavat and the nymph Mena. The name comes from the Sanskrit word, which means that moves fast.

The myth of Ganga and Shiva is similar to the one of Arethusa, a character in Greek mythology, who was the daughter of Nereus and Doris. Alpheus, son of the Ocean, spied on her while she was bathing naked. But Arethusa fled from his attentions to the island of Ortigia, in Syracuse, where the goddess Artemis turned her into a fountain.

Zeus, moved by the pain of Alpheus, changed him also to a river itself, allowing him, the Peloponnese, in Greece, to travel across the Ionian Sea to join his beloved source. Even today, the myth lives on the island of Ortigia thanks to the so-called Fountain of Arethusa, a mirror of water that flows into the Great Harbor of Syracuse.

It is said that by depositing the ashes of a corpse among its waters allows a human being to avoid the cycle of reincarnations. And on her banks are repeated the rituals of life and death. On her shores, millions of people daily wash in the trust of atoning their sins or simply meditate and purify themselves. For 800 million people, the Ganges is a sacred place, the most revered of the Earth. Dying and being cremated on its shores is the aspiration of most of the traditional Indians. To drink the water is to have communion with the absolute.

To wander the alleys that lead to the Ganges is to enter a suffocating and dreamlike atmosphere. In the niches of the temples lurk the gods and demons of the Hindu pantheon from the elephant-headed Ganesh to Kali, the dark one, to Siva, the destroyer, dancing to the sound of the music of the cosmos. Especially unique is the Hindu branch of the Aghori who practice necro-cannibalism with the dead people who appear floating in the river.

In a magical place 150 kilometers west of Varanasi, in Allahabad, the two great rivers of northern India, the Ganges, and the Yamuna meet along with the lost Sarasvati. In this enclave gathers at the beginning of the year thousands of pilgrims camp in their dunes to bathe every day for a month in the Sangam, the precise point where the three streams meet.

The faith that the pilgrims have in the purifying power of their waters makes them travel sometimes exhausting and extremely long distances until they reach the Ganges. Indians, by their faith, have the conviction that if a body dies and is burned on the banks of the Ganges and its ashes scattered by it, their soul will enter directly into Nirvana or paradise.

Every spring it is estimated that over 100,000 Indians come to the Mother Ganges in the city of Haridwar, where they float small boats made of leaves and filled with marigold petals dipped in clarified butter or ghee. The most surprising fact quoted in almost all the texts on the river is the supposed and mysterious antiseptic quality of its waters. The Ganges purifies.

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