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She begins high in the Himalayas, a rivulet from the Gangotri Glacier that becomes a stream that becomes a river that flows through India for 2500 kilometres (1550 miles) and eventually becomes the biggest delta in the world as it empties into the Bay of Bengal. The indomitable Ganges.

It ranks only thirty-fifth among the world’s longest rivers but nothing can outrank it’s meaning and sacred significance in the hearts of India’s one billion Hindus. To them the river is the divine mother, a goddess known as Ganga, Mother Ganga, Maa Ganga, a deity that can wash away your sins and your suffering, and take the souls of your deceased loved ones straight to heaven. It is not just a river giving life in the form of water, but a whole culture of the river as a deity: to the Indian Hindu people she is not merely water, but holy water, the very source of salvation, drenching hearts and souls with sustenance and grace even as she irrigates their farms, giving freely to all and purifying all who bathe in her or drink from her.

After flowing through a narrow Himalayan valley the river emerges from the mountains at Rishikesh

wide and blue and deep. It is a river now, whereas only a couple of hundred kilometres upstream it had been a burbling stream in a narrow valley stumbling and tumbling over rocks. From Rishikesh it flows onto the plains of northern India just a little downstream at Haridwar, gathering speed and depth as it flows southeast towards the sea. And all along her banks are those for whom she is both the source of life and a great holy mythical being descended from heaven.

To us outsiders it’s difficult to understand, but to the Hindus of India it’s very real. The Ganges is a deity come to earth that can help them in many ways, and this belief is so deeply entrenched in the culture and belief system of the people that it is their lived reality. They drink the water, they bathe in it, they throw the ashes of their dead in it, they even drop weighted bodies into it, and yet they don’t get sick from it. The river is in parts so polluted that it’s dead, and yet further downstream it regains the properties of a living river without any apparent help.

In Rishikesh the river is very much alive. This woman sells small bowls of hand-made fish food.

There are many like her all up and down the ghats of the town. One day we were on a crowded ferry crossing the river and a woman sitting near us was feeding the fish as we went. She offered us some. I leaned over and threw a few pieces into the water not really expecting to see much, but instantly there were many fish crowding in to eat, a sure sign that the water is alive and healthy.

People flock to the holy cities – Rishikesh, Haridwar, Varanasi (Benares), Allahabad to make a pilgrimage to the Goddess, hoping for their sins to be forgiven, hoping for the end of suffering, hoping for liberation for their dead, and to give thanks to the river for all she offers.

While we were living in Rishikesh for a month in 2019, and again in 2020, we walked along the river every day. And every day we were witness to this remarkable culture of the Goddess Maa Ganga. We would see pilgrims

arriving by the busload like this group from Rajasthan

who have come for holy rituals both in the river, and on the banks.

Of course the biggest ritual is Ganga Aarti, an hour or more of singing, chanting, praising, and giving thanks to the Goddess every evening at sunset. The pilgrims visiting all the holy cities crowd the banks to watch and participate in this most joyous of ceremonies.

Then there are the smaller observances that we couldn’t begin to fathom. Like this group led by the man in white, intoning sacred mantras,

this group chanting and praying to their guru,

and this small group on the ghat right below our hotel balcony. At least one of them is a Hindu priest performing a ritual of chanting while burning various substances,

and this group of men sharing a meal, in Rishikesh likely to practice yoga and make devotions to the river.

One day we came across a group of Jains. Jainism, an ancient Indian religion, teaches, like many mystical practices, that the way to liberation and bliss is renunciation and non-violence. Believing that all living beings contain souls they are strict vegetarians and wear mouth masks so as not to inadvertently swallow insects. Like the Hindus they believe in the cycle of reincarnation and seek to attain ultimate liberation from it. Unlike the Hindus, and indeed most religions, they have no gods; it is a spiritual practice of self-help. There are just over 4 million practising Jains in India.

We came upon them on the beach on the east side of the river. Initially they were all sitting around on the rocks, and some were handing out flyers.

This part of the river is a playground, a place for outdoor yoga classes and other gatherings, and for people to hang out by the water. And there were the Jains, all white robes and mouth masks, as unexpected to us as the Easter Bunny. As we watched they began to move. I read that the Jains have no leaders or priests, but what I witnessed certainly did not look like that. With a wordless indication from their apparent leader sitting cross-legged on the highest rock

all the female followers lined up

and then proceeded to walk in a circle around him. Perhaps he is their teacher and they are novices. We all need guidance when starting something new, but the hierarchical nature of the proceedings disturbed me.

The river is considered pure and it is believed that bathing in her will bring redemption and liberation; so ritual bathing is an important part of any pilgrimage. Every day we would see groups of people bathing, sometimes to get clean, but most often to be immersed in the Goddess,

and others alone in quiet contemplation and prayer.

And this man.

A couple that I took to be his parents sat on the shore and watched him. I’m sure this must have been his first, and likely his only, trip to the Ganges. Over and over again he threw handfuls of water into the air and watched as it rained down on him, the sheer ecstatic joy of the moment written all over his face. Finally he made it. Finally he was here with  Maa Ganga.

For the longest time I wondered why there were people sitting on the ghats selling plastic containers of various sizes.

Finally the mystery was solved. They were purchased by pilgrims needing a container to collect holy water to take home.

Like the ancient myths of many countries the Hindu gods are all-powerful, and being cunning shape-shifters they show up in many forms. In one myth Ganga is married but the ending of this relationship is not pretty when it’s discovered that she has drowned all their children. Oops. In another, Ganga is in a union with Agni the god of fire and the offspring from that union is the Hindu God of War. In yet another mythological story Ganga was living peacefully in heaven. There was a bit of trouble involving a couple of kings and their ancestors, a Vedic sage, the god Vishnu incarnated as a dwarf, and a thousand years of ascetic acts by the mythological King Bhagirath. This resulted in the god Shiva using his hair to gently lower the goddess Ganga to earth. The Vedic sage had incinerated 60,000 of Bhagirath’s ancestors by staring at them. I can imagine that the eyes of a Vedic sage upon you could be something akin to a furnace. Anyway, King Bhagirath’s thousand years of penance satisfied the gods enough so that Ganga could come to earth and wash over his ancestors’ ashes, thus purifying them, freeing them from the cycle of reincarnation, and allowing them eternal liberation. Thus the Ganges became the place to release the ashes of the dead so that the spirit could most easily ascend to heaven. For hundreds of years the people have offered the remains of their dead expecting liberation for them. And so of course in Rishikesh, as in Varanasi (Benares), there is a place for the burning of bodies.

We walked by it every day. We saw the procession of men unloading wood from trucks and carrying it to the river. It takes a lot of wood to burn a body.

We saw them carrying the shrouded and flower bedecked body

and from a distance we watched fascinated.

In our western culture we shield ourselves from the inevitability of death. There is no such pretence in India, particularly since a belief in reincarnation is such a strong part of their religion. There is birth, life, death and rebirth. The absolute best one can hope for is for one’s ashes to be washed over by Maa Ganga and in this way be liberated from the reincarnational cycle.

Some evenings at sunset as the bodies were on fire it seemed as if the river herself was also on fire, an eternal source of life and grace to the people for whom she is the Mother Goddess.

I’ve travelled in India from Tamil Nadu in the south to Uttarakhand in the north, and been to nearly a dozen towns and cities, including three of the holy cities on the banks of the Ganges. And everywhere I went I saw fascinating and remarkable things, but nothing, in my opinion, quite beats the spectacle and reverence I saw on the banks of the beloved Maa Ganga.

A 23 minute National Geographic video about the Ganges:

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.