Cultural and Mythological
The Ganga River has been considered as the most sacred river of India in Puranas.It is called as Ganga Maa (or mother Ganga) or Ganga ji (or reverend Ganga). People of India believe that a bath in the holy waters of Ganga washes all the past sins of a person. Numerous pilgrimages such as Allahabad, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Varanasi and Patna are present all along the river. Water from the Ganga is used to cleanse any place or object for ritual purposes. Bathing in the river is believed to wash away one’s all sins. The word Ganga is considered as a synonym of pure and holy water. That is why the word is attached with the names of many other rivers in Central and South India. According to a mythological legend, Lord Brahma collected the sweat of Lord Vishnu’s feet and created Ganga. Being touched by two members of the Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh), Ganga became very holy. The other synonyms of Ganga are Vishnu Padee (as the river is said to have originated from the feet of Lord Vishnu), Mandakini, Devnadi, Sursari, Tripathga, Jahanvi, Bhagirathi, etc. As mentioned in Mahabharat, when Bhishm was about to die, Arjuna was said to have extracted groundwater, namely, Patalganga, by shooting an arrow which made a hole in the ground and created a fountain.
The description of Ganga is available in Rigveda also. Several legends are famous about the origin of Ganga. It is said that the Ganga has originated from foots of Lord Vishnu. According to the second legend, Ganga was the daughter of mountain king Himalaya. As per Devi Bhagwat, Ganga has been called the wife of Lord Vishnu. According to Mahabharat, Ganga was the wife of King Shantanu as well as the mother of Bhishm.
According to a legend in the Ramayana, Sagara, the king of Ayodhya who had sixty thousand sons, once performed Ashvamegh yagya (a ritual for the good of his kingdom and to demonstrate his supremacy). During the rituals, the horse which is an integral parts of the ritual, was stolen by the jealous Indra and placed in the ashram (hermitage) of saint Kapila. Sagara sent all his sons all over the earth to search for the horse. They found it in the nether world, in the ashram of saint Kapila. Assuming that the sage had stolen the horse, they hurled insults at him and interrupted his meditation. The saint became very angry and burnt all sixty thousand boys to death by the fire from his eyes. Since the final rites of these boys could not be performed, their souls continued to wander as ghosts. After many generations, Bhagiratha a descendant of Sagara, learnt about the fate of his ancestors and he vowed to bring Ganga to Earth so that her holy water could be used to liberate the souls of his ancestors and release them to heaven.
King Bhagirath left his kingdom to meditate and prey the Ganga River who was residing in the heavens to descends to the earth. Ganga could come down to the earth only after Lord Brahma (the Supreme God) permitted her to do so. Accordingly, Bhagirath prayed at a place in Uttarkashi where the Gangotri temple is situated these days. He prayed to Lord Brahma for a thousand years, requesting him to permit Goddess Ganga to come down to earth from heaven because only Ganga could release his ancestors’ souls and allow them to go to heaven. On account of deep devotion of Bhagirath, ultimately Lord Brahma was pleased with him and granted his wish. But He told Bhagirath to pray to Lord Shiva, who alone could sustain the huge force of descent of Ganga. Accordingly, King Bhagirath prayed to Lord Shiva who, after some time, agreed to hold Ganga in his hair.
Accordingly, Ganga descended from heavens on Lord Shiva’s head and was soon trapped in his thick locks. In the process, the river water got further purified. One the request of King Bhagirath, Lord Shiva opened one of the locks and the river reached the Earth. It is said that Ganga followed the chariot of Bhagirath to the place where the ashes of his ancestors were lying and released them from the curse. Alert reader will notice that this legend is a simple description of the hydrologic cycle. Perhaps King Bhagirath was an ancient civil engineer or a hydrologist!
Since Bhagirath brought Ganga to Earth, one headwater stream of Ganga is known as Bhagirathi. Further, the Hindi term Bhagirath prayas describes valiant efforts or difficult achievements of a person.
Ganga is also known by another name: Jahnavi. According to a different mythological story, when Ganga came down to earth long time ago, her fast moving waters created turbulence and destroyed crops in the fields. She also disturbed the meditation of a saint named Jahnu. Now, Jahnu was so much angry that he drank up all the water Ganga. This made the Devtas (semi-Gods) very sad and they prayed to Jahnu to release Ganga so that she could proceed on her mission. After their persistent prayers, Jahnu was pleased and he released Ganga water through his ears. On account of this, Ganga came to known by the name “Jahnavi” (daughter of Jahnu) also.
Kumbh Mela which is the largest religious gathering on Earth (attended by more than 80 lakh devotees) takes place after every 12 years at two places on the banks of Ganga River