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Ganges Boat processed Ganga begins her great journey high up in the Himalayas and snakes through the great plains of India, past some of the oldest habitations in the world, eventually dispersing itself in hundreds of tributaries as she pours into the Bay of Bengal.

Incredibly, the Ganga directly or indirectly provides for the livelihood of about one-tenth of humanity. About one out of every 10 people on earth depends on this river, which is as much a part of the mythology of India as it is a part of the ecosystem.

Ganga was a goddess born of Lord Vishnu. She was cursed to became a river, but with the special condition that whoever bathed in her waters would be purified of all sins. She was called down to release the souls of the 60,000 sons of King Sagara who died battling the Vedic Sage Kapila. The force of releasing Ganga all at once would have wiped out the earth, so Lord Shiva was called to help. Lord Shiva spread his long hair all over the sky and asked Ganga to fall from the heavens. Catching the waters in his matted hair, he slowly released Ganga to the earth.

All along the banks of Ganga, from the source to the sea, there are countless pilgrimages, shrines, sacred cities and spiritual gatherings. The pilgrimage to the source of the Ganga is called Char Dham, which means four holy places, and includes visiting Gangotri, Kedarnath, Badranath and Yamunotri in the Garwhal region of Uttarakhand in the Himalayas.

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The Ganga has multiple sources, but they all come together and eventually, at Rishikesh, tumble out of the mountains and begin the long and winding journey across the great Indo–Gangetic plain, past Kolkata, to the Bay of Bengal.

Rishikesh is a picturesque and spiritually stirring spot in North India that rings with temple bells. Since time immemorial, this serene and beautiful valley has attracted rishis (sages) to meditate on the banks of the milky green Ganga. It still attracts seekers, though these days they are often foreigners taking yoga teacher training courses from one of the many ashrams.

About 30km (186 mi) south of Rishikesh, the sacred city of Haridwar attracts pilgrims all year round. They come to bathe in the river at Har-ki-Pauri, channeled through the city and surrounded by temples and ghats (steps leading down to the water). Here, ancient rituals are enacted each day and the evening aarti (ritual) in honour of the river is performed with great fanfare. Pandits (priests) wave lighted diyas (lamps) while amplified Vedic chants fill the air and pilgrims float offerings on the river. It's at Haridwar where the Ganga enters the plains of India.

hardiwar

At approximately the halfway point of her journey to the sea, Ganga reaches Allahabad. Here at the triveni sangam is the place where three rivers meet: the Ganga, Jamuna and mythical Saraswati. Every 12 years, the Maha Kumbh Mela — the largest gathering of humanity on earth — is held here. It's an intense spiritual assembly that can be seen from space.

Cruise the Ganges (12 days)

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