The Ganges River is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, this 1,500-mile stretch of water is one of the most polluted rivers in the entire world. It takes in over 3.6 billion liters of untreated sewage every single day, all from the towns that sit along its banks. On the other hand, there are some who believe the river is sacred to their culture and therefore see it as a divine body of water.
People defecate and urinate in the river, en masse, on top of the industrial waste that's pumped into its waters by local canneries, fisheries, chemical plants, even hospitals. But despite the monumental health hazards that come with wading into the Ganges' infested waters, some cultures practice centuries-old religious rituals to honor it.
Ganges River ceremonies are performed by many tribes and religions. This one polluted body of water means so many different things to so many different people - read on to learn about some beautiful Ganges traditions.
India's Tripuri Tribe Sacrifice Animals to Please the River GoddessPhoto: Khitindranath Mazumdar/Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons
Every year, around March or April (there is no concrete date, but rather one determined by the Hindu Lunisolar calendar), the Tripuri people gather on the banks of the river to praise Ganga, a goddess and personification of the Ganges, during the celebration of Ganga Puja (a festival meant to honor the river).
During the festival, the Tripuri sacrifice animals to the gods in hopes of gaining their favor. They hope that by honoring the gods, the gods will prevent epidemic diseases from affecting their community. They also ask the gods to ensure the well-being of pregnant women within the tribe.
The Largest Religious Gathering in the World Takes Place on Its Banks
Considered the largest religious gathering in the world (nearly 24 million people attended in 2001), Kumbh Mela is a Hindu spiritual meeting that takes place once every twelve years over four different locations, with two being on the Ganges river: Haridwar, in Western India, and the confluence of the Yamuna, Ganges, and Saraswati rivers.
So what is Kumbh Mela? According to Hindu mythology, while transporting Amrit (the drink of immortality), the mythical bird Garuda dropped some of the mystical liquid in each of the four places where the Kumbh Mela occurs. Thus, they have become sites of spiritual celebration, places where millions from around the world gather to take part in the festival.
The act of bathing in the Ganges' waters is the culmination of the ceremony. Participants cleanse themselves of mind and soul in a united celebration of religion, as well as the astrological components that go along with it.
Bodies Are Cremated on the Banks
Funeral rites vary wildly from religion to religion and culture to culture. In Hinduism, cremation is very important; it is believed that a proper cremation releases one's soul from their physical body so they can be reborn. But for those looking to escape the cycle of reincarnation, the ancient city of Varanasi is very important. It is believed that if you die in this holy city along the banks of the Ganges, you will achieve moksha, or liberation from reincarnation, and become one with Brahman, the Ultimate Reality in Hinduism.
In Varanasi, bodies are cremated on the banks of the Ganges. The ashes are then spread in the holy river. After cremation, it is important for the family of the deceased to cleanse themselves, and when cremation takes place in Varanasi, this cleansing often takes place in the Ganges.
Hindus Bathe in the River to Celebrate Ganga
There are several stories regarding the origin of the Hindu goddess Ganga, but the main one involves her descending to Earth in order to cleanse mankind's sins. As a result, Hindus take to the waters of the Ganges to celebrate her arrival during a festival called the Ganga Dussehra. The date of the festival varies according to the Hindu calendar, but it generally takes place each year in the spring.