The River Ganges (Ganga to most Indians) begins as a skein of Himalayan streams. Here's the story of how the goddess Ganga fell to earth in the Himalaya, and became India's river of life.
It was almost evening when we arrived at Gangotri. Granite crags pressed the township tight against the Bhagirathi River. Cold shadow rose up the valley like canal water behind a lock gate. We were 3200 metres above sea level.
We found a room on the left bank of the Bhagirathi and dined outdoors in our down jackets while the cooks stood in a scrum around their fire. Then we went to our room to hide beneath leaden quilts and peer at our maps by candlelight.
The grain of the Himalaya swirls around Gangotri in a vast knot. Badrinath is on the eastern side of the knot; Rudranath and Tugnath and Kedarnath are on its southern edge. Threads of water spin from it like the flying hair of a dancing woman, and then are teased southwards by an invisible hand and braided together to make the River Ganga. In the middle of them, caught in a saw-cut at the heart of the knot, is the Bhagirathi River. The river’s story is told in the Mahabharata and in the Ramayana.
Aeons ago, long before the exploits of the Pandavas or the rule of Ram, King Sakara of Ayodhya made up his mind to perform a horse sacrifice, the greatest of the Vedic fire sacrifices. A horse was set loose to roam the kingdoms of the earth. If it came home unmolested, the king could count himself overlord of all the kingdoms it had wandered through and mark his triumph with the sacrifice of the horse.
King Sakara was wise and valiant; there was no earthly ruler who could thwart his ambition. But Indra, god of the sky, grew jealous of Sakara’s hubris and hid the horse away. Sakara’s sons followed the horse, and eventually they found it deep underground, in a place where the sage Kapila was engrossed in meditation. The sage resented the disturbance and turned the princes to ashes with his glare.
Years later, Sakara’s great-grandson Bhagiratha resolved to rescue the spirits of the incinerated princes so that they might at last find peace. The only way to do this was to bring the heavenly river Ganga down to earth to wash their ashes. Bhagiratha travelled to Gangotri and sat there in meditation for millennia, until Ganga finally consented to come to earth. To spare the earth from the full force of her fall, the river goddess tumbled down through the matted locks of Shiva’s hair, and became the myriad rivers of Garhwal and Kumaon. She touched the ground first at Gangotri, and from there Bhagiratha led her on until she flowed over his ancestors’ ashes and brought them salvation.
That is why the strand of Ganga that flows through Gangotri is called the Bhagirathi and is venerated above all others as the true source of the Ganga. Were it not for this story, a commission of geographers might sit for eternity without agreeing which of the Garhwal rivers is Ganga’s source.