Rivers in Ancient India (study)

by Archana Sarma | 2019 | 49,356 words

This page relates ‘The river Ganga and its present status’ of the study on the rivers in ancient India as reflected in the Vedic and Puranic texts. These pages dicsusses the elements of nature and the importance of rivers (Nadi) in Vedic and Puranic society. Distinctive traits of rivers are investigated from descriptions found in the Vedas (Samhitas), Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads and Puranas. The research is concluded by showing changing trends of rivers from ancient to modern times.

The Gaṅgā was the bordering river of the Saptasindhavaḥ Pradeśa. The name of the Ganges is not to be found in any of the other Vedas except the Ṛgvedasaṃhitā.[1] Though Gaṅgā is considered as a helping river of the Sindhu river, this river has not been given so importance like the other seven rivers of the Saptasindavaḥ Pradeśa. Thus it is proved that the Ṛgvedic Gaṅgā was a minor river. The present Gaṅgā is not different to that of the Ṛgvedic times but its size have been changed and enlarged. The river Gaṅgā occupies an important place in the Purāṇa also. Gaṅgā had its origin during the incarnation of Viṣṇu as Vāmana. When Vāmana measured the three worlds in three steps the nails on his left feet were raised high. They caused a hole on the upper side of the universe. Gaṅgā, starting from the finger of Viṣṇu’s feet fell in heaven.[2] According to Agnipurāṇa, river Gaṅgā should be worshipped. She provides enjoyment and liberation. The countries through which she flows are holy and excellent.[3]

The Gaṅgā river system consists of the master river Gaṅgā and a large number of its tributaries. This system drains a very large area comprising the middle part of the Himalayas in the north, the northern part of the Indian Plateau in the south and the Gaṅgā plain in between. The total area of the Gaṅgā basin in India is 861,404 sq km which accounts for 26.3 per cent of the geographical area of the country. This basin is shared by ten states. These states are Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh (34.2%), Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh (23.1%), Bihar and Jharkhand (16.7%), Rajasthan (13.0%), West Bengal (8.3%), Haryana (4.0%), and Himachal Pradesh (0.5%). The union territory of Delhi accounts for 0.2% of the total area of the Gaṅgā Basin.

The Gaṅgā originates as Bhāgīrathī from the Gangotri glacier in Uttar Kashi District of Uttaranchal at an elevation of 7,010m. Alakānandā joins it at Devaprayāg. But before Devaprayāg, it reached the Pindar, the Mandākinī, the Dhauligaṅgā and the Bishengaṅgā rivers pour into the Alakānandā and the Bheling flows into the Bhāgīrathī. The Pindar river rising from Nanda Devi and East Trisul (6,803m) joins Alakānandā at Karan Prayāg and Mandākinī or Kali Gaṅgā meets at Rudra Prayāg. The combined water of the Bhāgīrathī and the Alakānandā flows in the name of the Gaṅgā below Devaprayāg. After travelling 280 km from its source, the Gaṅgā reaches Haridwar, debouches from the hills and enters plain area. From here it flows in south and south-east direction for a distance of 770 km to reach Allahabad. Here it is joined by the Yamunā which is its most important tributary. It sweeps another 300 km eastwards to reach the Bihar plain. Near Rajmahal Hills it turns to the south–east and south of Farraka, it ceases to be known as the Gaṅgā. It bifurcates itself into Bhāgīrathī-Huglī in West Bengal and Padmā-Meghnā in Bangladesh. After traversing 220 km further down in Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra (or the Yamunā as it is known here) joins it at Goalundo and after meeting Meghnā 100 km downstream the Gaṅgā joins the Bay of Bengal.

Before entering the Bay of Bengal, the Gaṅgā, along with Brahmaputra, forms the largest delta of the world between two arms: the Bhāgīrathī -Huglī and the Padmā-Meghnā covering an area of 58.752 sq. km. The delta front of the Gaṅgā is a highly indented area of about 400 km length extending from the mouth of the Huglī to the mouth of the Meghnā. The delta is mode of a web of distributaries and islands and is covered by dense forests called the Sunderbans. A major part of the delta is a low-lying swamp which is flooded by marine water during high tide.

The total length of the Gaṅgā river from its source to its mouth (measured along the Huglī) is 2525 km. of which 310 km in Uttaranchal, 1,140km in Uttar Pradesh, 445 km in Bihar and 520km in West Bengal. The remaining 110km stretch of the Gaṅgā forms the boundary between Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The river flows majestically from Gangotrī to Bay of Bengal with an average gradient of 9.5 cm per km.

The Gaṅgā is joined by a large number of tributaries both from the left as well as from the right. Majority of them originate in the Himalayan ranges but some of them have their sources in the peninsular plateau.

Footnotes and references:


Ṛgveda Saṃhitā, 10.75.5


kathaṃ kutra yuge kena prārthita preritā purā | tatkramaṃ śrotumicchāmi pāpaghnaṃ puṇyadaṃ śubham || Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa, 2.10.3


gaṅgāmāhātmyamākhyāsye sevyā sā bhuktimuktidā | yesāṃ madhye yāti gangā te deśāḥ pāvanā varāḥ || Agni Purāṇa, 110.1

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