A Tale of Two Rivers


Two rivers that are major lifelines to the Indian subcontinent provide sustenance for hundreds of millions of people. Born not too far apart in the glacial areas of the world’s highest mountain ranges, they each flow majestically more than 1,500 miles [2,400 km], mainly through two countries. They empty into two different seas. Each river was the cradle of an ancient civilization. Each saw the birth of a major religion. Each is appreciated by man for its gifts, and one is worshiped, even today. Their names? The Indus and the Ganges, the latter known here in India as the Ganga.

BECAUSE mankind needs water to survive and prosper, early civilizations developed around rivers. Since rivers were sometimes personified as gods and goddesses, early records can be shrouded in mythology. This is certainly true of the history of the Indus and the Ganga, also known in India as Ganga Ma (Mother Ganga).

To both Hindus and Buddhists, 22,027-foot-high [6,714 m] Mount Kailash and nearby Lake Mapam Yumco, also known in Tibet as Manasarovar, are the abode of the gods. For a long time, it was believed that four great rivers flowed from the lake out of the mouths of animals. The lion river was the Indus, and the peacock river was the Ganga.

The Tibetans did not welcome foreign explorers. In 1811, however, an English veterinary surgeon employed by the East India Company traveled through the land in various disguises. He reported that no rivers ran out of Manasarovar, though some mountain streams did run into it. It was not until the early 20th century that the headwaters of both the Indus and the Ganga were located. The Indus has its source in Tibet, north of the Himalayas, and the Ganga starts in an ice cave in the Himalayan slopes of northern India.

Where Ancient Civilizations Started

It is believed that the earliest inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent journeyed eastward into the Indus Valley. Here archaeologists have found ruins of a highly advanced civilization at such sites as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. In the early decades of the 20th century, these finds changed the view that India’s early settlers were primitive nomadic tribes. More than 4,000 years ago, the Indus Civilization was on a par with, if not superior to, that of Mesopotamia. Evidence of grid-patterned streets, multistoried houses and tenement blocks, excellent sewer and septic-tank drainage, enormous granaries, temples, and baths for ritual cleansing all point to an advanced urban civilization. There are also indications of trade connections with Mesopotamia and the Middle East, the Indus providing a route to the Arabian Sea from hundreds of miles inland.

Over the centuries natural disasters—perhaps earthquakes or great river floods—appear to have weakened the urban civilization of the Indus Valley. This left little resistance to invasion by waves of nomadic tribes from Central Asia, generally referred to as Aryans. They drove most of the city dwellers away from the river, so that the ancient culture that had developed  around the Indus now moved to southern India, where today the Dravidian race continues as one of the major Indian ethnic groups.

Moving east through India, some Aryan tribes began to settle in the plains of the Ganga. Thus the Aryan division of the subcontinent developed its unique culture in northern India, primarily associated with the Ganga River, where it largely remains today.

Two Rivers and Two Religions

Archaeological finds show similarities between the religion practiced in the Indus Valley and that in Mesopotamia. Some relics of Hinduism, long thought to be the religion of the Aryans, have been found in the ruins of Indus cities. With the fusion of pre-Aryan and Aryan gods and religious beliefs, the Hindu religion was born. The Aryans first held the Indus as sacred, but as they moved east and settled along the Ganga, they transferred their worship to that river. As centuries passed, cities like Haridwar, Allahabad, and Varanasi developed on the Ganga. These were centered on the Hindu religion. Today millions of pilgrims flock to such centers to dip in the waters of the Ganga, which are considered to be both healing and purifying.

While Hinduism was started around the Indus, Buddhism has its roots near the Ganga. It was at Sarnath, near Varanasi, that Siddhārtha Gautama, called Buddha, preached his first sermon. It is said that he swam across the Ganga’s great width when he was 79 years old.

How Are the Rivers Today?

River water is more critical today than it was 4,000 years ago, when people were drawn to the banks of the Indus and the Ganga for sustenance. To support the great populations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the rivers must be carefully controlled. (See the map on pages 16-17.) International agreements have been necessary, since the rivers flow through more than one country. Pakistan has built, among others, the two-mile-long [3 km], 470-foot-high [143 m] Tarbela Dam for irrigation. One of the largest in the world, it contains 194,200,000 cubic yards [148,500,000 cu m] of earth fill. The Farakka Barrage, on the Ganga, ensures an adequate and stable supply of water to the river for the increased shipping near Calcutta Port.

As is true with many rivers, pollution is a major problem with the Ganga. Thus, in 1984 the ambitious Ganga Action Plan was set in motion by the Indian government. Attention was given to converting sewage into fertilizer or biogas, diverting drains emptying into the river, and building treatment plants for chemical wastes.

However, the problem of restoring earth’s rivers to their pristine beauty and cleanness is proving to be beyond the capacity of human agencies. But God will soon remedy the situation. Under the rule of his Kingdom, ‘the rivers themselves will clap their hands’ as the entire earth becomes a paradise.—Psalm 98:8.

 [Box/Map on page 16, 17]

The Mighty Indus

With so many streams merging to form the Indus, there has been debate about the location of the actual source of the river. But that this great river originates high up in the Himalayas is certain. Flowing in a northwesterly direction and joining other streams en route, the river runs 200 miles [320 km] across the high plateau of Tibet, “the roof of the world.” As the river approaches the borders of India in the Ladakh region, it works its way through the mountains, wearing into the base of cliffs to form a channel between the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges. Now in Indian territory, it drops nearly 12,000 feet [3,700 m] in a matter of 350 miles [560 km]. During this plunge it travels north and then takes a sharp turn around the western edge of the Himalayas, where it is joined by the Gilgit, a large river surging out of the Hindu Kush. The waters then flow south through Pakistan. Forcing its way between the mountains, twisting and turning with violent force, the Indus eventually reaches the plains and flows on through the Punjab. This name means “Five Rivers,” as five great tributaries—the Beas, the Sutlej, the Ravi, the Jhelum, and the Chenab—flow like outspread fingers of a giant hand to join the Indus and travel with it to the end of its majestic journey of more than 1,800 miles. [2,900 km]

 The Venerated Ganga

About 60 miles [100 km] south of the Himalayan source of the Indus, the Ganga begins its journey of more than 1,600 miles [2,500 km] to the Bay of Bengal. At an altitude of over 12,700 feet [3,870 m], the headwaters gush from a glacial projection that resembles a cow’s mouth, called Gaumukh in Hindi, forming a stream named Bhagirathi. Some 133 miles [214 km] from the source, it is joined by another stream, the Alaknanda, at Devaprayag. These two streams along with the Mandakini, the Dhauliganga, and the Pindar become the Ganga.

Flowing southeast across the subcontinent, the Ganga is joined by other large rivers such as the Yamuna at Allahabad in India and then the mighty Brahmaputra in Bangladesh. Spread like a fan, the Ganga and its tributaries water one quarter of the total area of India, the fertile plains of the Ganga. The river system drains an area of 409,000 square miles [1,035,000 sq km] and supports about a third of India’s population, now more than a billion, in one of the world’s most densely inhabited areas. In Bangladesh it becomes very wide, like an inland sea, with river traffic of all kinds. Then the Ganga divides into several major rivers and numerous rivulets to form one of the largest deltas in the world.


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Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.


Hindus bathe in the Ganga

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Copyright Sean Sprague/Panos Pictures