Gangotri is one of the Char Dhams of the Himalayan region located in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. It is the source of the mighty and sacred river Ganga which has inspired countless devotees. As per the scriptures, Gangotri is the location where Lord Shiva received the mighty Ganga river on his matted locks of hair. The actual source of the Ganga river is Vaikuntha from where she started flowing after Lord Vamana’s toe pierced the covering of the material universe. The source of river Ganga on earth is the Gaumukh or Gangotri glacier located at a distance of 19 kilometers from Gangotri where the Gangotri temple dedicated to Ganga Devi is present. The temple opens every year on the auspicious occasion of Akshaya Tritiya and closes on the occasion of Diwali.
The river Ganga is the lifeline of many people living in North India where she traverses through. There are many tributaries of the river throughout the country. In the Bhagavad-gita (10.31), Lord Krishna says, ‘shrotasam asmi jhanavi – of the flowing rivers I am the Ganga.’ ‘tirthanam srothasam ganga – Among sacred and flowing things I am the holy Ganga,’ – Lord Krishna in Bhagavata Purana (11.16.20). Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the great devotee Saint and an incarnation of Lord Krishna, says that Ganga Devi is always chanting the holy names of the Lord.
Ganga is cursed to flow in Bharata Varsha
The pastime of Ganga descending to earth has a beautiful pastime associated with it narrated by Sage Narayana to Sri Narada Muni in Brahma-vaivarta Purana. Ganga, Saraswati and Lakshmi are the three consorts of Lord Vishnu. Once Ganga approached Vishnu with the desire to enjoy conjugal pastimes with her husband, but Saraswati became enraged with envy and started cursing Ganga. Lakshmi tried to pacify her, but to no avail. Saraswati spoke angrily to Lord Vishnu who walked away from the scene. After this, Saraswati started cursing Ganga using very poisonous words and attempted to grab her hair. Lakshmi intervened but she was cursed by Saraswati to assume the forms of a tree and a river. But inspite of this, Lakshmi Devi stood quiet and didn’t pronounce a counter-curse and stood still silently holding Saraswati Devi’s hand.
Hearing Lakshmi Devi being cursed by Saraswati Devi, Ganga Devi became angry and cursed Saraswati Devi to become a river and flow near sinful places in Kali-yuga to accept the sins of others.
At that time, Lord Vishnu returned and embraced Saraswati Devi so as to enlighten her with divine knowledge. Coming to know of the events that happened during His absence, the Lord spoke to all His consorts in the respective manner. He addressed Ganga Devi in the following way – My Dear Ganga, as a result of Saraswati’s curse, you will flow through Bharata Varsha on earth, removing the sins of all people. Because of the austerities performed by King Bhargiratha, when you descend to earth, you shall be known as Bhagirathi. Later by My will, you shall become the wife of King Shantanu. Lord Vishnu also ordained that Ganga Devi would go to Lord Shiva, as His consort.
Hearing this, Ganga Devi said the following – O Lord of the universe, why are You disowning me? I shall give up my life so that You will incur the sin of killing an innocent woman. Lord Vishnu being compassionate towards His servants, told Ganga Devi that while her expansion would fulfill the desires of King Bhagiratha, her original form would remain with Him in Vaikuntha. Later, the expansion of Ganga Devi manifested on earth after flowing through the matted hair locks of Lord Shiva.
As per the conversation of Narada Muni and Narayana Rishi in the Brahma-vaivarta Purana, Ganga was born as the elder daughter of King Himavan, the King of Mountains and his consort Mena on earth to fulfill the curse of Sarasvati.
Ganga’s origin in Goloka Vrindavana – the topmost planet of the Spiritual World
In the the Brahma-vaivarta Purana, Narada Muni asks Narayana Rshi to narrate about the emergence of Ganga from Lord’s lotus feet. Narada Muni says that He has heard of Radha and Krishna transforming into water on hearing the music of Lord Shiva and hence was eager to hear about the pastime. Narayana Rishi narrated the following pastime:
Once, on the full moon night of Karthika, Krishna organized a festival in the honour of Radha at the rasa-mandala where She was worshiped by Brahma, Shiva and the other Sages along with Saraswati playing the veena. Krishna was very much pleased by this. Radha was presented with various gifts by everyone present.
Lord Brahma along with Lord Shiva began singing the glories of Lord Krishna on being enchanted by His dancing. The devatas fell unconscious with ecstasy on listening to the songs and on regaining consciousness found that the rasa-mandala was submerged with water. Radha and Krishna were nowhere to be seen and hence, the devatas, sages, the gopas and gopis began crying loudly. Through divine vision, Lord Brahma understood that Radha and Krishna had transformed into water and hence, He and the devatas prayed to Krishna saying, “O Krishna, kindly appear before us once again in Your humanlike form. This is our sincere desire”
A celestial voice announced the following, “O devatas, I am the supreme soul. To shower My mercy upon My devotees, I appear in My humanlike form. If you would like to see Me once more, then ask Shiva to carry out My order of compiling the tantra shastras, which will be considered part of the Vedas. These scriptures will contain innumerable mantras glorifying Me. If Mahadeva compiles such a shastra, I will surely become visible to you again.”
After listening to the celestial voice, Brahma requested Shiva to carry out the orders which Shiva gladly accepted by taking a vow with the waters of the Ganga (the water present at rasa-mandala) in His hands. He also vowed that anyone who tells a lie while holding the waters of the Ganga in his hands will reside in the hell known as Kalasutra until the death of Brahma. After the vow by Shiva, Radha and Krishna reappeared and the festival went on.
In response to Narada Muni’s further query about the status of the curse of Ganga after 5000 years of the Kali yuga have elapsed, Narayana Rishi says that Ganga will return to the abode of Lord Vishnu after Saraswati Devi’s curse expires and will continue living as His queen. Following the talks between Narada Muni and Narayana Rishi, the following pastime about Ganga Devi’s origin in Goloka Vrindavana was narrated by Narayana Rishi.
Ganga was in Goloka Vrindavana as the incomparably beautiful Goddess of water who had emerged from the bodies of Radha and Krishna. Once Ganga shyly approached Krishna intensely gazing at him in a very ecstatic mood. At that time, Radha came there with 300 million gopis. She sat on a throne next to Krishna with Her eyes reddened due to extreme anger. Krishna got up from His throne to welcome Radha. Ganga Devi’s mouth became dry due to anxiety as she took shelter of Krishna who entered her mind to give protection.
Ganga looked at Radha who was incomparably beautiful and the better half of Krishna whose influence pervaded the entire assembly. Noticing Ganga observing Her, Radha enquired about Ganga in anger citing Krishna’s misbehaviour with Radha on numerous occasions. Radha started narrating Krishna’s misdeeds to Him out of this anger. Radha began speaking to Ganga whose head was bent down with shame. Having understood the truth of the matter, Ganga transformed herself into water before Radha could start speaking. At this, Radha started sipping the waters of river Ganga from Her cupped palms. Ganga took the shelter of the lotus feet of Lord Krishna and thereafter Radha searched for Her throughout Goloka and the other planets of the spiritual world, not finding her anywhere. Since Ganga was the presiding deity of water, no water was to be found in Goloka and hence, the lotuses dried up and the aquatics died.
The mouths of the devatas, human beings and all other creatures dried up which led the chief devatas to come to Goloka Vrindavana to take shelter of Lord Krishna who was seated on a throne being fanned by the gopas. The devatas were unable to identify who Krishna was as all the gopas had forms similar to Krishna and sometimes Radha appeared as Krishna and vice-versa. The devatas after consulting among themselves, requested Brahma to convey their problem to Krishna. Brahma started meditating on Krishna with closed eyes and then after some time opened his eyes at the command of Krishna who could now be seen clearly.
Krishna said, “O Brahma, come forward. O Shiva you should also come forward. I know that you have come here with a desire to take Ganga, who has taken shelter under My lotus feet. Radha intends to drink all her water and, so I wish to hand Ganga over to you. You can give up your fears.”
Brahma glorified Radha with his four mouths, saying, ” Ganga was born from your body and the body of Lord Krishna, and so she is Your daughter.” Upon hearing Brahma’s words, Radha smiled and gave Her consent. Thereafter, Ganga manifested from Krishna’s lotus feet and stood shyly before the devatas. The Ganga river then emerged from the Goddess and Brahma took some water and placed it in his kamandalu. Brahma initiated Ganga into the chanting of the Radha mantra and instructed her in Radha worship.
Lord Krishna thereafter said, “My dear Brahma, all of you devatas and sages shall remain here in Goloka, as the universe has now become merged into the ocean of devastation. At the proper time, all of you should go to Brahmaloka and engage in the work of creating the universe as it was previously. Ganga will depart after some time.” After saying this, Krishna retired to His private quarters and so all the devatas departed so that they could engage in the works of creation. Since, Ganga emerged from the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu, she is known as Vishnupadi.
Ganga descends on earth due to the efforts of King Bhagiratha
The story of the descent of river Ganga on earth was narrated by Sage Vishwamitra to Lord Rama and Lakshmana. The great King Sagara who ruled over Ayodhya performed an Ashwamedha yagna for the benefit of the whole world. Lord Indra was worried that King Sagara would become more powerful and popular than him and hence, stole the sacrificial horse from the site of the sacrifice and hid it at the ashram of Kapila Muni. The King ordered his sixty thousand sons to go search for the horse and bring it back. The princes went searching for the horse all over the world by excavating the earth, searching the subterrenean regions, etc but was unsuccessful. In the process, the princes’ caused havoc everywhere and killed innumerable creatures. The devatas were worried and hence went to Lord Brahma who assured them that the princes would be killed by Lord Vishnu in the form of Kapila Muni.
The princes’ upon reaching the ashram of Kapila Muni found the sacrificial horse tied to a pole there. On seeing this, they started abusing Kapila Muni using very harsh language upto to the point of threatening to kill him. Kapila Muni got enraged by the behaviour of the princes’ and hence opened his eyes. Kapila Muni had acquired immense powers by dint of his tapasya and hence, burnt to ashes the sixty thousand princes’ immediately.
King Sagara was worried that his sons hadn’t come back yet nor was there any news about the. He sent his pious son Amshuman to search out his other sons’. Amshuman traveled and came across the ashram of Kapila Muni where he found the ashes of his sixty thousand brothers’ scattered beside the place where Kapila Muni was sitting in meditation. Amshuman being grieved by his brothers’ death, looked around and saw Garuda, the devotee eagle carrier of Lord Vishnu who advised him to find out ways to bring the river Ganga down to earth to be able liberate his brothers from hell. Amshuman offered prayers to Kapila Muni and got back the sacrificial horse with which he went back to his father King Sagara. Despite all efforts to bring river Ganga to earth, neither King Sagara nor Amshuman were successful.
Generations later, King Bhagiratha pleased Lord Brahma by dint of his tapasya and hence, Lord Brahma ordered Ganga to descend and flow on earth so as to liberate the ancestors of King Bhagiratha. River Ganga’s extreme flow strength would cause massive flooding and destruction on earth if she were to descend directly. Seeing this, Lord Shiva agreed to hold Ganga in his matted locks of hair and release her in a regulated way. The waters of the Ganga river after falling on earth flowed through the subterranean regions where the ashes of King Sagara’s sons were scattered and thus liberated them. The river also filled up the huge excavations done by the sixty thousand princes’ in their search for the sacrificial horse and thus formed the oceans.
The path of river Ganga through the universe
The Ganges River, emanating from the lotus feet of the Lord, inundates the heavenly planets, especially the moon, and then flows through Brahmapuri atop Mount Meru. Here the river divides into four branches known as Sita, Alakananda, Cakshu and Bhadra which then flow down to the ocean of salt water. The branch known as Sita flows through Shekhara-parvata and Gandhamadana-parvata and then flows down to Bhadrashva-varsha, where it mixes with the ocean of salt water in the west. The Cakshu branch flows through Malyavan-giri and, after reaching Ketumala-varsha, mixes with the ocean of salt water in the west. The branch known as Bhadra flows onto Mount Meru, Mount Kumuda, and the Nila, Shveta and Shringavan mountains before it reaches Kuru-desha, where it flows into the ocean of salt water in the north. The Alakananda branch flows through Brahmalaya, crosses over many mountains, including Hemakuta and Himakuta, and then reaches Bharata-varsha, where it flows into the southern side of the ocean of salt water. Many other rivers and their branches flow through the nine varshas.
Places to visit at Gangotri
1. Gangotri Temple
2. Jalmagna Shivalinga, where Lord Shiva held the sacred river Ganga in his matted locks. There is a natural Shivalinga which is visible only in winter when the water level goes down.
3. Dharali, where King Bhagiratha performed penances to bring down river Ganga to earth. This is en-route Gangotri after Harshil.
4. Surya Kund, near the Gangotri Temple where the water falls directly from the Bhagirathi river.
5. Harsil – the village where Deity of Ganga Devi from Gangotri Temple is worshipped in Mukhba during the winter season when Gangotri becomes inaccessible.
6. Gaumukh – the source of river Ganga. Can only be reached by trekking from Gangotri.
7. Bhojbasa, which is well known for Bhojapatra trees. Can only be reached by trekking from Gangotri.
Gangotri is located at an altitude of 10,200 feet above sea level on the greater Himalayan mountain ranges. Gaumukh, which is the actual source of the Ganga river is located twenty one kilometres away from Gangotri in the south eastern direction. The area is comprised mainly of forests, springs, waterfalls and snowy peaks.
How to reach
Gangotri can be reached through the following modes –
By Road – Gangotri is well connected by state transport buses or private deluxe buses from Yamunotri, Mussorie and Tehri. One has to reach Uttarkashi from where regular buses, autos and jeeps ply at regular intervals.
By Rail – The nearest railway station is Rishikesh from where cabs are available to Gangotri. From Rishikesh regular buses ply to Uttarkashi.
By Air – Cabs are available from Jolly Grant airport in Dehradun to Gangotri.
The Ganga Ashtakam (the glorification of river Ganga by Adi- Shankara) –
bhagawathi thava theere neeramathrasanoham
vigatha vishaya thurshna krishnamaradhayami
sakala kalusha bhange swarga sopana sange
tharala thara tharange devi gange praseedha
Goddess, I came to your shore and sat there praying on Krishna, taking nothing else but water. Oh Ganga, who removes all dirt. who is the ladder for the heaven and who is full of spreading waves, be pleased with me
bhagawathi bhava leela mouli male thavambha
kana manu parimaanam pranino yeesprusanthi
amara nagara naari chamara grahineenaam
vigatha kali kalamkatham kam anke lutanthi
Oh, Goddess who is the garland on the head of Shiva and meant for his happiness, those beings who are lucky to touch drops of your water, get relieved of all sins and would enjoy the fondling in the laps of those maidens of heaven, who hold fans in their hands.
brahmandam ghandayanthi hara sirasi jata valli mullasayanthi
swarlokadha pathanthi kanaka giri guha ganda shailal skhalanthi
kshoni prushte lutanthi duritha chaya chamoo nirbharam bhathsayanthi
padhadheem poorayanthi sura nagara sarith pavani na punathu
Let the pure waters of the Ganga of heaven originating from the breaking of the universe into two, watering the hair curls of Lord Shiva’s head, falling from the heights of heaven, coming out of the sandal wood trees of the caves of Meru, falling torrentially on the earth, washing away the crowds of sins and making full the waters of the sea take care of all of us.
majja mathanga kumbhachyuthamadhira moda mathali jaalam
snanai sidhangananaam kucha yuga vigalath kanku masangapingam
sayam prathar muneenaam kusa kusuma chayai channatheerasthaneeram
payanno gangamamba karikalabhakaraakrantharamhastharagam
Let this waters of Ganga which is full of several crowds of bees rushing to drink the water coming out of the bathing elephants, which is fully red because of the saffron coloured water flowing from the head through the busts of holy ladies, which is full of different types of floating grasses and flowers after the dawn and dusk salutations done by saints in the morning and evening and which is full of waves created by the playful elephants and calves due to their beating the water by their trunks save all of us.
aadhaavaadhi pithamahasya niyama vyapara pathrejalam
paschath pannaga sayino bhagwatha padhodhakam pavanam
bhooya shambhu jata vibhooshana mani jjahnor maharsheriyam
kanya kalmasha nasini bhagwathi bhagiradhi drusyathe
This Goddess brought down by King Bhageerath was initially seen as the water of worship from the pot of Brahma. Later it became the purest of holy waters washing the feet of Vishnu, then became an ornamental gem on the head of Lord Shiva and then later was born as the daughter of sage Jahnu.
shailendra deva tharini nijjale majja jjanotharinee
paaravaara viharinee bhava bhaya sreni samuthsarini
kashi prantha viharini, vijayathe ganga manoharini.
Victory to that pretty Ganga who took birth as the daughter of the King of mountains, who makes people who dipping in her waters cross the ocean of birth and death, who reaches and plays in the ocean, who completely uproots sorrows from life, who imitates Adhisesha and bends and flows, who appears like leaves on the hairs of Lord Shiva and who flows very near the city of Kasi.
kutho veechir veechisthava yadhi gatha lochanapadham
thwamaapeethaa peethambarapuranivasam vitharasi
twaduthsange gange pathathi yadhi kayasthanubrutham
thadha maatha shathakratha vapadhalaabhopyathi laghu
Hey river Ganga, where are the pains of hell to him whose eyes see at least one of your waves? Hey Ganga! You give to anyone taking a sip of your water permanent residence in Vaikuntha and Oh mother, to any being whose body falls on you, even the post of Indra become worthless.
gange trilokya sare sakala sura vadhoodhowtha vistheerna thoye
poorna brahma swaroope haricharanajoharini swarga margay
prayachitham yadhi syathava jala kanika brahma hathyadhi pape
kasthwam sthothum samartha trijagadagahare devi gange praseedha
Hey Ganga! who is most important in all the three worlds, who is so wide and big that all women of heaven dip and bathe in you, who is having the full form of the eternal truth, who flows carrying the dust of the feet of Lord Vishnu, who flows in the paths of heaven and whose one drop is the only cure for sins like the killing of a Brahmana. Hey Ganga! who is capable of praying to you adequately?And who is more capable of washing any sin in the three worlds? Be pleased with me.
matha Jahnavi shambhu sanga valithe moulou nidhayanjaleem
thwathere vapushavasana samaye na rayanangri dhwayam
saa anandam smaratha bhavishyathi may prana prayanathsavo
bhooyath bhakthi ravichutha hari haradwaithathmika saswathi
Hey mother Jahnavi! At the end of my wanderings, devoted for searching the company of lord Shiva, the end celebration of my travel of the soul, would happen in your bank while I would be meditating. Holding my two hands in salute over my head with happiness on the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu. Let my devotion to Vishnu and Shiva be permanent, Oh Goddess.
gangashtakamidhampunyam ya padeth prayatho nara
sarva papavinirmuktho vishnu lokam sa gachathi
That holy devotee who reads this holy octet on Ganga would become free of all sins and reach the world of Vishnu.0