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Where Ganga descended on Earth:

Gangotri, located in the midst of giant deodars and conifers at a height of 3140 meters, is one of the Char Dham shrines of Uttarakhand. The word “Gangotri” exudes peace and divine love, and the visitors literally find it here. Here in the midst of towering mountains, where the air is cool and crisp and the sky is deep blue, everything looks cleansed and pure; and this is what Ganga has been doing to mankind for ages. Arriving here, the thoughts become pure, the spirit is rejuvenated and a dip in the river automatically cleanses the body and soul. Visitors  begin to think of this world and life in a more benign and positive manner. This is what Ganga descended to this earth for.

From Gaumukh to Devprayag, Ganga is known as Bhagirathi, and so far in these pages she has been so mentioned, but here at Gangotri she is being adored and worshipped as Ganga, because the name Ganga alone has relevance here.  On the right bank of the river is the holy temple of Ganga, whilst on the left bank there are a few ashrams and dharamshalas.  The temple of Ganga was originally constructed by the adventurous Gorkha General Amar Singh Thapa of Nepal, who also appointed the Pandas of Mukhwa as the pujaris, and donated the entire forest land between Mukhwa and Gangotri to the temple as goonth (Goonth is the term used for land donated to the temple, the revenue from which is then  used for the maintenance of the temple.).  The temple was then maintained from the income of the goonth land. Prior to the Pandas of Mukhwa, when there was no regular temple at Gangotri, the Rajputs of Taknor are said to have been the pujaris of Gangotri. The existing temple is said to be one reconstructed by the Jaipur dynasty. 

So what does “Gangotri” mean? It means “Ganga utari”, that is Ganga descended from heaven on earth at this spot.  In a manner of speaking, this is what actually happened.  Centuries ago, the entire stretch of land from Gaumukh to Gangotri was covered with glaciers, and Ganga emerged at this place exactly the way it does at Gaumukh today.  As the glaciers melted, the source receded back to Gaumukh.  Scientists and geologists have definite views about the receding glaciers and in fact, one can see the cracking and melting of the age-old glaciers at Gaumukh during the summer months.  So when the shrine was established, Ganga was emerging out of the glaciers on this very spot and now she does so some 18 kilometres north east at Gaumukh. In other words Gaumukh has, during the last 300 years, shifted from Gangotri to its present place.

Throughout its journey, the Bhagirathi or Ganga is seen in various moods – deep and silent in the lower plains and gurgling, tossing, frothing  in the middle Himalayas. But here at Gangotri she is  singing an ecstatic melody.  The Bhagirathi is different from the Yamuna, the Alaknanda and the Saraswati just because she is Ganga.  Perhaps it is for this reason that the waters of Gangotri are carried to Rameshwaram, the southern shrine established by Adiguru Shankaracharya, and offered to Lord Shiva to sooth his throat after He engulfed the poison that emerged out of the churning seas. 

The water of Ganga is believed to have Amrit (nectar) in it. After engulfing the poison and holding it in His throat, did Lord Shiva require the water of Ganga to soothe the burning throat? May be that is the symbolic connotation as why water from Gangotri is carried such long distances for offering to Lord Shiva. The milling crowds of Kanwaries carrying Ganga water on their shoulders from Haridwar to their respective Shiva shrines on Shivratri day also explains the same belief.

Mythological stories and the traditions attached are not without any relevance .  Why is water from Gangotri taken to Rameshwaram to be offered to Lord Shiva?  The underlying idea was that people from Gangotri to Rameshwaram get woven into one texture through this unique thread of religion.  It was the supreme sense of national and cultural oneness that Adi Guru Shankaracharya sought to strengthen by promoting these traditions. 

How Ganga was brought to the Earth

Having slain the demons on earth, King Sagar decided to stage an aswamedh-yagya as a proclamation of his supremacy.  The King’s 60,000 sons born of Queen Sumati, and the one son, Asamanjas, born of the second Queen Kesani  accompanied the horse, which was to be taken on an uninterrupted journey around the earth.

Indra, the supreme ruler of the land of Gods, feared he might lose his celestial throne if the yagya was successful.  So under a plan he stole the horse and tied it to the ashram of sage Kapil in Kapilsthan or Mayapuri, the popular name of Haridwar then. The sage, who was then in deep meditation knew nothing about this.  The sons of King Sagar searched for the horse and eventually reached the ashram and found it tied near the meditating sage.  Concluding that the sage had  stolen the horse, the angry sons stormed the ashram and were preparing to attack the sage when he opened his eyes and reduced them all  to ashes. Only Asamanjas survived to tell the tragic tale. King Sagar’s grandson, Anshuman was successful in recovering the horse from sage Kapil, who told him that the 60,000 sons were burnt because of his anger and their souls could attain the heavenly abode if Ganga was brought down from Heaven and their ashes were cleansed by her waters.

Then began the great task of bringing Ganga to the earth. Anshuman failed and so did his son Dilip, but his grandson Bhagirath was determined to succeed and began meditating at Gangotri.  After several years of intense meditation by Bhagirath, Goddess Ganga finally agreed to descend on earth. It was necessary however, to somehow cushion the force of the Ganga falling from heaven as it would be too heavy for the earth to support. Bhagirath therefore proceeded to worship Lord Shiva, who agreed to accept the descending river in His hair-coils and defuse the load in seven streams, on earth, one of them  in the form of Bhagirathi. Having propitiating both mother Ganga and Lord Shiva, Bhagirath saw Ganga descending on Shiva’s coils and then fall on Sumeru Parvat, where she defused in seven streams. All seven streams flew and started mingling into one another at different points and finally became Ganga at Dev Prayag.

The slab of stone on which King Bhagirath is believed to have meditated, is called the Bhagirath Shila and is located near the Temple of Ganga.

The Ganga – A Canal?

 According to legend King Bhagiratha, sitting in his chariot  guided the course of river Ganga and even carved out  gorges through which the river could flow. The river followed the King to Mayapuri (Haridwar) and its waters then washed the ashes of the 60,000 sons of king Sagar and released their souls to proceed to their heavenly abode.

The legend leads some to believe that the Ganga is actually a canal designed by King Bhagirath.  Its canal-like formation in the lower hills has led many people to support this myth. The Ganga flows to the north at Gangotri, northwest up to Harsil and then turns abruptly to the south towards the land of King Bhagirath.  If  Ganga did not change its course at Harsil, it would go away from the land of Bhagirath.  Did King Bhagirath in his mystic chariot guide the Ganga to the present course?  

The Ganga – Its Medicinal Properties

The water of the Ganga is believed to have medicinal properties. It is believed that water collected from Gangotri does not contain any impurities, and  even after being stored for several months, no bacterial or fungal contamination takes place. Believers are inclined to attribute this phenomenon to the medicinal secretions of the herbs and their mixing with the waters of Ganga.  Others believe that it is the mineral contents in the water that makes the difference.  Whatsoever the reasons may be, the Ganga waters do appear to hold some special properties, recognised through the ages, which rivers such as the Yamuna, Alaknanda, Mandakini etc. apparently do not appear to have. It is said that it was for this reason that the Antibiotics Factory had been located on the banks of the Ganga, at Rishikesh, so that its waters could be used in the preparation of medicines. Truth about this common belief is yet to be cinfirmed.

When one takes a “holy dip” in the Ganga at Gangotri, it is believed that all sins are cleansed away.  With the waters of the Ganga one is literally cleansed, soul and body.

Puja at the Temple of Ganga

Ganga is worshipped both as the sacred river, as well as a Goddess in the temple.  Both forms of worship have purpose and significance. Question may arise as why Ganga is worshipped as a deity in the temple, when she is flowing nearby in her live form. The answer is simple that Ganga has a peculiar position in the Indian social system.  She is not only a river, the perennial source of water and energy, but is also the mother benevolent, feeding and cleansing the millions.  This aspect of Mother Ganga can be better perceived only in her deified form.  The temples and idols elicit faith and devotion, which the Indians have in Ganga and hence the relevance of the Ganga temple in the presence of the real Ganga flowing nearby.  All pujas are preceded by a holy bath in the river.  The pujaris are Brahmins from the village of Mukhwa.  Every year, ten of them are selected in rotation to take charge of all the functions concerning the temple.  Unlike at Sri Badrinath, the office of Rawal does not exist and the pujaris perform the duties of Rawal also.


Unlike other places, the pandas and the pujaris do not form separate branches in the religious heirarchy of Gangotri.   The ten pujaris selected in rotation from the village of Mukhwa also perform the functions of pandas and from puja to pind[1] it is always the same ten pujaris who are consulted.

Temple Administration

The entire administration of the temple and the town is in the hands of a local committee made up of five members – the tehsildar of the area, the gram pradhans of the villages Mukhwa and Dharali, and two leading sanyasis[2] of Gangotri.

Gangotri township is electrified, but due to damages by heavy snowfall during winters, the power supply becomes erratic and repairs take time.  The temple administration has installed a small generator, which is just enough to electrify the temple premises.  Visitors must carry with them lighting arrangements like torches, candles etc. 

Opening Day

Like Yamunotri, the shrine of Gangotri opens every year on the auspicious day of Akshaya -Tritiya, which normally falls during the last week of April or the first week of May.  The temple opens with a formal puja of Goddess Ganga both in the temple and on the river bank.  The opening day is announced through print and electronic media. 

Closing Day

The temples of both Gangotri and Yamunotri close on the day of Deepawali.  The pujaris, in the midst of an array of oil lamps perform the closing ceremony along with the usual puja rituals. After the closing rituals the entire temple staff and remaining pilgrims return to their respective places, leaving behind Gangotri to the care of Mother Ganga

But mother Ganga, the benevolent mother escorts the returning entourage and continues to bless mankind throughout the rest of year at Haridwar, Prayagraj and Varanasi. The Pandas of Mukhwa, the most blessed children of mother Ganga, will be the first to reach Gangotri the following summer to set the temple bells chiming again.


At Gaurikund, not to be confused with the Gaurikund on way to Sri Kedarnath, the Ganga falls from a picturesque height of nearly 100feet into a swirling pool and it is possible to stretch ones imagination a little and imagine the Ganga descending from the hair-coils of Lord Shiva into the kund.  After some twirling and whirling she finally finds her way out of the kund, and flows on her way through sculptured gorges, lush valleys and fertile plains until at last she gets lost in the sea.

Dev Ghat

Just across the Bhagirathi river, a small stream emanates from a cluster of some brilliant snow peaks known as Dev Ghat. Some of these peaks have been named as Ganga Mandir, Brahma and Shankaracharya. The stream known as Dev  Ganga comes down to meet Bhagirathi.


[1] PIND – praying for the soul of one’s ancestors

[2] Sanyasis in hinduism are like Monks in Buddhism. 

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