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Ganges River: Location, Facts & Animals

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Ganges is one of the most important rivers in the world. In this lesson, we are going to explore this vast river system and see what makes it so unique and important.

The Ganges

Humans need fresh water. You probably know that. As a result, rivers have been unbelievably important to human history. They've helped humans create agriculture, technologies, and even entire civilizations. But how may of these rivers can claim to have their headwaters in the heavens?

The Ganges river of eastern India is a major river system of the subcontinent
Ganges river map

The Ganges River is the predominant river system of India, flowing across the subcontinent. The river provided the resources necessary for the creation of several historic Indian civilizations, and has remained vital to religious and cultural traditions in India ever since.

In fact, according to Hindu beliefs, the Ganges was created from a hole in the universe, a rare chasm that connected the spiritual and material worlds. The waters of the Ganges are therefore sacred, flowing from heaven as the goddess Ganga.

Washing in Ganga is believed to purify someone of all sins. Some rivers provide irrigation, some provide transportation, and some, they say, provide eternal salvation.

Route of the Ganges

It's not hard to believe that the Ganges flows straight out of the heavens because it has one of the coolest headwaters in the world. We mean that literally; the main source of the Ganges is the Gangotri Glacier of the Himalayas,.

Located in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, this massive glacier is the main source of the river, which flows into the plains of northern India and joins with six other major waterways (all of which are fed from snow and glacial melt of the Himalayas) to form the Ganges proper.

The Gangotri Glacier is the main source of the Ganges
Gangotri Glacier

The Ganges flows a total of about 1,560 miles from the Himalayas, across eastern India and through Bangladesh. That's roughly equivalent to the distance between Miami and Montreal, or the entire east coast of the United States.

Here, the Ganges empties into the Bay of Bengal at a rate of 11,000 cubic meters of water per second. The entire route is pocketed with pilgrimage sites and shrines, and people come from around the world to wash in the sacred waters or spread the ashes of cremated loved ones. There are also dozens of cities along the route, which rely on the water for fishing, transportation, agriculture, and drinking.

Animal Life

Humans have relied on the Ganges for millennia, but we aren't the only species to do so. The Ganges hosts a diverse array of animal life, and is one of the richest river systems in the world in terms of biodiversity.

There are over 140 species of freshwater fish, 90 amphibian species, and 315 bird species unique to this river system. Many of these can be found in the mangroves of the Sundarbans delta in the Bengal Basin, which is an extremely unique ecosystem.

The Ganges River dolphin
Ganges River Dolphin

As such, it shouldn't be surprising to learn that there are some pretty rare creatures in and around these waters. Rare freshwater sharks hang out in the mangroves, as do the world's last surviving populations of mangrove-based tigers.

One of the most famous species unique to the Ganges, however, is the Ganges River dolphin. There are very few places in the world where freshwater dolphins can be found today, and the Ganges is one of them.

Pollution

The Ganges is clearly an important river system to both humans and the natural ecosystem, but it's in danger. It may be surprising that something so large can be threatened, but that is the case.

As India has rapidly industrialized over the last 60 years, major factories and industrial centers popped up in growing cities along the Ganges. With little government regulation for much of the 20th century, a lot of pollution was dumped into the river.

The river system became so unhealthy that the government finally acted in 1986 and launched the Ganga Action Plan to curb pollution and restore the waters. It's effectiveness has been criticized. While the rate of pollution has been contained, it still continues.

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