An autobiography of the river Ganga | Geographically Explored
You know me! You’ve met me so many times. But, perhaps you won’t instantly recognise me anymore. Why? Because I have been morphed beyond recognition. Remember the times when the change in the pitch of a rolling train told you that you were atop an endless bridge. Peering down, all you could see was a mass of muddy swirls. You threw coins and fervently hoped that the train would hold fast! Yes, I know it all! You have so often sat by my side, gently plucking at the smattering of grass. l have felt your strong swimmers legs swishing my turbid waters, playfully adding a few tugs to my current. Your satiated sigh filled me with a warmth so profound that even my cool waters shivered with excitement.
I have been here for centuries but feel as young as ever. You are my people, my family. I belong here, around you, with you. I have from time immemorial been a giver, a life source for millions! Then why do you ignore me? Have I failed in my duties in some way to deserve this utter disregard that you daily spew into me? Listen to my cries before my choked gasps turn inaudible. Stop destroying me!
Who am I?
Ganga, that’s who I am! The ancient texts, such as the Vedas, Puranas, and Aryanakas talk of me, and nearly all Hindu scriptures mention me reverently at one place or the other. Little ones querulously interrupt their story-telling grandmothers, ‘who was Ganga’s daddy?’ Were you one such youngster? What answer did you get, Himalaya or was it the sage Jahnu, after whom I am called Jahnavi? Whatever may be the mythological derivations, the fact remains that I am the daughter of the snows.
Did you know that like other Hindu gods, I too have an official steed, Makar? And what does this Makar look like? It is a unique combination of a fish and a crocodile. That reminds me that I am sometimes called the Makar Vahini (one who rides the Makar). Thinking of names, I remember one Vedic sage’s text that fell into my waters bestowed a very pretty name to me! Shukla varma or the one that dresses in white. Yes, I used to be like that once upon a time! But now it feels like an insult.
Hindus have regarded me as a goddess and worship me with unmatched reverence. No puja is complete without my presence! In fact in the Hindu month of Jaishtha, hot Indian summer, they pray to me for prosperity! But what surprises me is, while on one end you love and cherish me, on the other throwing garbage, spewing effluents, dumping dead bodies have all become routine. I can’t but help receiving all of it, but it breaks my heart to see fish playing in my lap gasping for air. Before turning me into toxic sludge think of those who cannot cry out their pain. Even if that is put aside for a while why have you closed your eyes to your own well-being? Why, it is even dangerous for you to take a so called holy dip in my waters! It is harming you the most, for its poisoning your crops, making the fish you consume and water you bathe in lethal.
Where do I originate?
No, it’s not Mansarovar and Kailash, as many of you assume. It’s Gaumukh. Here I trickle down to from the mighty snows to form a frothy and bubbly stream. However, my mighty torrent only begins at the confluence of five mother rivers. Who are they? Well, there is Bhagirathi, Mandakini, Dhauli Ganga, Pindar Ganga and Alaknanda. All these rivers nurture me, but without Bhagirathi’s immense flow neither would I be invigorated and nor would I ever get my name, Ganga. Thus it is at the confluence in Devprayag that I as Ganga get my universal identity.
Frolicking in the mountains!
Ah, the delightful mountains! So crisp is the air, so rugged and tall are the snowy peaks, constantly amusing me by playing hide and seek from behind the clouds. I bubbling with energy, make a dash down, arms open and head thrown back with eyes as blue as the endless sky. You may think that the Himalayas were formed ages ago. But, I am older! I have cut continually through these sedimentary rocks, such that I am known as an antecedent river. These rocks that have sliced through are stout fellows made of sedimentary stuff, primarily sands, gravels and conglomerates. Shales, quartzites, sandstones, phyllites, boulder beds and other glacial deposits are problems I constantly deal with. Their ages may vary from the Cambrian geosynclinal sediments to Tertiary, but they are friends of mine who smile and wish me well as I bounce off boulders to debouch onto the plains.
In your language you perhaps call these complex mountainous rock structures folds and nappes, but to me it sounds so strange! To borrow your words, longitudinal valleys are common as are the small structural valleys locally called the ‘duns’. I too contribute to the myriad features that you see here.
My waters’ force is legendary! The mighty Ganga carves out millions of deep gorges and my waterfalls along the fault scarps are spectacular indeed! Besides, I sometimes indulge in headward erosion and river capture! Why? Well, I do turn impetuous at times, and want to feel like a triumphant king. Through river capture I can acquire more catchment area as well as more discharge. So much for mechanical details! In the end my eyes are bleary and invariably tear lined when I leave these wonderful glens.
Growing pains in the plains
On one hand I feel joyous at the hope of new experiences, on the other I am steeped in sadness, leaving my loving mountains. I quietly wipe the moisture off the corners of my eye and move on. My first feel of the plains is at beautiful Rishikesh. All this time I had been tumbling in constrained channels. I didn’t know what to expect when I splashed onto the plains. Unexpectedly my waters became calmer and I find myself relaxing. I languidly spread my cramped limbs, benignly looking at the people taking a reverend dip. The plains, filled with a soft easily erodable alluvium, felt like a soft bed although at times I do feel the resistant bed rock pushing through. My bed becomes wide, my width at least a kilometre, my volume immense and my current sharp. To put in your words. I have high ‘stream energy’. It is with the help of this energy that I still erode as I merrily play about. Thus my load, among other things, is also made of boulders which I transport by the famed traction action! My bed has treacherous little holes and lethal quicksands dot my banks. Be careful as you tread here!.
Homing-in on Haridwar
Past Rishikesh I come down to Haridwar. The first thing I do here is divide myself into seven mini Ganga streams and pay homage to each of the saptrishis (seven sages) residing in their respective ashrams. At Haridwar you might spot certain ponds of calmness. It is here that Lord Shiva once took a dip, while Lord Brahma meditated at another calm, now known as Brahma Kund. Each time I pass Haridwar I feel so honoured that deities had found solace in my waters. But I can’t linger on any longer! Like time, I too have to flow. So I wistfully bid farewell to our saffron attired rishis and carry on.
You may have noticed that I sometimes overstep my banks and build levees at the edges of my flood plain. What is flood plain? Well, it is only a natural outcome of what happens when I can hold on no longer! Or should I say, this is when I spread my wings. Blissful rains follow the hot summers and my waters swell, spilling over the banks and bringing floods. But flood is not all bad! It was never meant to be. It is you, who built settlements too close to my banks, and did not pay heed to my burgeoning breast. I only wanted to help you with a deposit of soft and fine alluvium. I rejuvenate the fertility of your land and help you produce better crops. But then nowadays you have found a solution for everything and don’t really need my help! You have so many newfangled contraptions that spray cloudy stuff on your green fields. Maybe one day, in your march of development, you can even do away with me!
Cruising past Allahabad to Amble at Varanasi
Last year I met so many of you during the Mahakumbh at Allahabad. Allahabad, also known as Prayag, is around 530 kms from Rishikesh. At Mahakumbh it is indeed colourful, with swarming masses paying obeisance to me. Here my basin fills up with waters flowing in from my cousins Yamuna and Saraswati, and my average annual flow at this holy trinity is 152,000 million cubic metres. What? You haven’t heard of Saraswati! I agree, she is a bit shy, and hardly comes out in the open, but believe me she exists, although most would define her as a mythical river. She is the only one who has managed to retain her mysterious presence. As for Yamuna, she is a close cousin of mine, originating from the Yamunotri glacier on the Bandarpunch Peak in Garhwal. Well, that is really close to my own birthplace. That is not the only thing in common! She is so much like me even in the curves she follows, through Musoorie, Delhi, Agra and Mathura. But then, she is less mischievous than me, and hardly troubles anyone with destructive floods.
Taking account of the different episodes that have happened on their banks we move on happy to be in each other’s company. The journey becomes immensely enjoyable prancing with my sisters. We go giggling like the schoolgirls up to Kannauj where another cousin, the Ramganga joins me. She is 596 kms long with an average annual flow of 15.620 million cubic meters.
Then I move on with my sisters, who are my part now, to meet Gomti further downstream. She is a quiet person and flows easily and silently with not a bone of malice in her. At times, poor girl, she too spills over her banks. But then, that’s natural, I try to console her guilt ridden soul! ‘That’s what excess water in our beds does, you silly girl!’ But she remains sullen and unconvinced.
Flowing past the holy city of Varanasi, residence of Annapurna, Goddess Parvati, and Vishweshwar, Lord Shiva, I cannot help but reflect on its rich historical and cultural past. It is situated on my left bank, high on a kankar-infested levee of the Ganga crescent. If you ever plan to visit the city, look out for its three cultural hotspots. One in the north is known as the Omkareshwara, with the Mandakini River separating it from the central nuclei, the Visweshwar. The southern unit is called the Kedareshwara with the Godavari nadi flowing as a dividing line between the central and the southern nuclei.
But what mesmerizes and sometimes even amuses me is the sheer conmanship of the famous pandas, making a living by cajoling innocent god-fearing humans into expensive pujas at my banks. You must have heard of them! The art is all about instilling fear of God and getting paid to lay off the ‘impending debacle’ that, of course, is never to come. Amidst the babble of my waters, an odd giggle escapes each time I see such a sight.
I feel gratified that people here treat me with utmost respect and love. But, as for washing your sins with a dip in my waters is a cause I’m not comfortable with. How can you wash away all the wicked things you have done by just taking a bath? Well, I can only forgive you if you have changed your ways and in the true spirit of repentance ask for condonement. After all, I’m your mother and cannot remain angry for long!
Perhaps because of this intense thoughtfulness, I form what you call `braided channels’, which in fact are the thought-borne-creases on my broad forehead. I become pensive and brood endlessly, meandering this way and that. I absentmindedly flow with such abandon that my channel gets cut off, forming what you call an ox-bow lake. I even build monadnocks on my endless stretch of flood plain to take the monotony out of my careless stroll.
Meandering to Reach Patna
Life goes on! I meet river Tons at around 311 kms downstream from the Ganga-Yamuna confluence. Its average annual flow may be only 5,910 million cubic meters, but its fresh waters invigorate me. I also meet Karmanasa, flowing in the same region, at Chanusa. He joins me before Patna.
My next cousin is Ghaghara, the recipient of all the drainage off Saryupar. She has a whole lot of friends! I can only remember a few, like the Kuwana, Rapti and Chhoti Gandak. Since the general slope of the plain is from north-west to south-east, poor Ghaghara receives almost no significant stream from the south. Rapti, the most precious friend of Ghaghara, is also a Himalayan streams while the Chhoti Gandak and the left hand tributaries of the Rapti, that is the Burhi Rapti, the Banganga, the Ghonghi, the Rohin, are all Siwalik rivers. There are several others that originate from the Bhabar or Terai plains, and still others from the mid-zone uplands or tals of the Saryupar Plain itself.
Ghaghara is a tough person to deal with and is easily incited. She is notorious for the floods she causes and rapidly changing courses. Once angry she is reckless! She has the lethal capacity to render vast agricultural lands into sand flats. Her friends are just like her, especially Rapti. When she meets me near Chapra, I as a big sister have tried to advice her against keeping friends such as these, but to no avail. Well, all I can say is, she does help to make the land fertile!
Do you know who the largest contributor to my strength from the southern uplands is? Yes, it is my beloved Son flowing all the way from Amarkantak Plateau! It’s markedly steep gradient, of an average 35-55 cm per km, a quick run-off and ephemeral regimes are indeed refreshingly different from my other cousins. Son’s channel is very wide (about 5 km at Dehir) but the flood-plain narrow, only 3 to 5 km wide. Its average annual flow where it meets me is 31,800 million cubic meters.
He perhaps is not as rough as my tumultuous sisters, but he too is known for having changed courses in the past, which is traceable from several old beds on its east. A thousand years back we met below Patna, the then Pataliputra. Later, around 1750, it shifted towards the west and met me at Maner, and now it has shifted further west and meets me about 16 kms upstream Danapur. However, he has been squarely beaten with the anicut at Dohri, and Indrapuri Barrage, a few kms upstream.
In fact all my southern tributaries meet me rather hurriedly because of steeper slope they traverse, particularly in the east of Monghyr and west of Rohtas. The average gradient is 9.5 cm. per km. in the region, slowing down to 6 cm. in Bihar. They come to me arms open like long lost sisters and hug me tightly. Son too does the same and I tell him all the time, ‘you have grown up, stop being childish.’ To that he would just give one of his impish smiles and waive the suggestion away.
And then? Meet my naughty sibling, Gandak, turbulent and triumphant. He flows down from Nepal and has many equally tumultuous tributaries joining him. Well, boys will be boys! Now Gandak being the kind he is, stormy and reckless, flows noisily and more than often causes floods, as he carries a greater load than any of my sisters. His average annual flow is 52,200 million cubic meters. Unlike other large rivers, poor Gandak does not receive any important tributary though it has a number of old deserted beds and distributary-like spill channels such as Banri, Jharahi, Daha, Gandaki, Dabra, Mahi, Dhanauti, Baya, Saran and others. It has a higher gradient than Ghaghara, which is the reason for the floods it causes.
Then of-course man is also to blame! They have contained 5 to 7 km my poor brother’s channel in the flood-plain by building protective embankments on either side. Protective did I say? Well, protective for you not for us! For us it is no less than a curse, building a momentum in us that is bound to cause more devastation downstream. However, I love my brother! He constantly gifts me a huge bounty of water at our confluence near Patna, and I grow from strength to strength.
Here I am at Patna, another city steeped in history. It is now the capital of a state called Bihar! This very ancient city is situated on my right bank levee and is backed by a curvilinear depression. It all began nearly 3000 years ago, when silk clad kings of the Magadhan empires came down my banks to take a quick dip. Since then the seat of power has changed so many times! I’m tired of it all!
Flowing Gently to the Sea
By the time l reach Bhagalpur, where the mesmerizing ancient city of Champa once stood. I can hear the distant call of the ocean. I long to meet him and my yearning grows with every passing moment. This important trade and handicraft centre of southern Bihar plain stretches for about 10 km along the right hand levee of one of my southern channels, Jamunia. But now these colourful cities fail to thrill me! My waters are listless and slow. Frankly speaking my ‘late maturity’ age seems to be catching up! As I slowly pass through the flat plains, I can see, among many others, Bagmati joining my cousin, Kosi. I have a soft spot for dear Bagmati and look out for her every time I pass her. Why? I am sure you have heard of her nutrient rich waters, carrying so many different salts! Well, Bagmati joins Kosi at the lower reaches and flow into me near Kursela.
Kosi, who joins me after travelling a distance of 730 kms in India, is rather short-tempered and keeps changing her course and causing extensive flooding, so much so that she is known as the ‘sorrow of Bihar’ ! What a horrendous reputation! She comes into being from a confluence of Sun Kosi, Arun Kosi and Tamur Kosi, who contribute 44 per cent, 37 per cent and 19 per cent of her total water mass. Did you know that she has loitered over 120 km during the last two hundred years, from near the town of Purnea up to the Tiljuga within Darbhanga district? Historically speaking, she has oscillated from the Brahmaputra to about the place where I meet Gandhak. She flows through several capricious channels. Below the Chatra gorge, where she enters the plains, there is a sudden break of slope, which is so unlike me, in fact unlike most of us. But I really cannot blame her totally. I believe she had the making of a great river, if only she had more space to gradually pass through the stages of grading and maturity. This restless soul is always on the move and now I find it is difficult to keep track of her.
That’s not to say that I haven’t moved, but not as much. I have shifted over only 35 km between Bhojpur tal and Surha tal and am responsible for causing changes in the site of Ballia. That’s all!
Do you know, even the deposits of poor Kosi are infertile! She brings micaceous sands and renders vast fertile lands into sandy and marshy flats! I believe this dear sibling of mine is a misunderstood soul. Although she tries to help in her own way, it always goes wrong! The Kosi project that you people have devised is an attempt to tame and train this impetuous damsel. A protective embankment from Bagha to its confluence with me has been built. Kosi too is no less! She challenges man’s power by finding different ways to meet me through its several seasonal distributaries like Saura, Kamla, Barhnadi, Dhusan and Tilabeh.
I comfort her in the best way I can and take her along to meet my little cousins of the Bengal plain. The call of the ocean is stronger now and my languid movements are filled with lethargy as I ache for our union! I am so large, and my main channel so clogged up that I break up into little distributaries, seeking a way to reach my mate. My delta begins at the ancient capital of Bengal, Gaur, from where the best known channel, Hoogly parts from me at Tribeni. Soon, my waters will seek the solace in the heart of the ocean after a 2,525 km long journey. Quietly, as I rise and fall with the rhythm of my lover. I will whisper sweet nothings about sprawling golden fields of wheat followed by enormous emerald stretches of sprouting rice crop and more. As night falls, I will rest on his wide chest and cry in anguish about the realities of life and all the atrocities that I daily face. Listen carefully from behind the green mangrove forests fringing my banks, you might hear just hear my deep tormented moans!
Life is an Eternal Cycle!
Well, finding my mate is not the end of my journey, it’s the beginning of another journey! Surprised? Yes. I live an eternal cycle. The cycle in which love, hate, struggle and faith are everyday issues! My waters rise again from the depths of a cold glacier, my mothers nurse me to a blossoming youth, and my brothers and sisters allow me grow from strength to strength. But, life is now changing with a rapidity that scares me. Dams were used from time immemorial to hold my splashing torrents. They were little toys compared to what you build now!
If I begin to tell you about how man has restricted me and my cousins it would bring tears to your eyes! A canal cut at Rishikesh diverts some of my waters for irrigation, while about 250 kms downstream, at Narora another feeder canal waters your fields, to mention just two! There are so many such canals. I don’t really mind that, none of us does, but it’s not fair that you erect gargantuan dams on us. Agreed, we at times cause damaging floods but is this a just punishment? Just the other day Yamuna was telling me about a big dam across the small Rihand. She is so frail, and drains only a small region. How could you have a heart to dam that poor little thing? The waters, they say, would be of immense use to you — for generating power, for fishing, for irrigation and flood control and so on, but how much more should we give before your greed is satisfied! Look at poor Damodar who has five dams built on her and is now completely controlled and chained down. Farakka, the immense barrage to hold my waters, in fact breaks my spirit.
A few years ago I had seen an eccentric youngster fill a plastic bottle with my water. I heard that you were planning to clean up my waters. What luck! You will perhaps save me from turning into a sewer! I still have so much to give you and my only request is, love me just the way I love you! So much for my story!