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The Ganges – popularly known in India as the Ganga – is the great holy river of northern India. It rises in the Himalayas and is fed by five small rivers at an elevation of around 10,000 ft (3000m). For most of its length, however, after Rishikesh, it is a wide, rather sluggish, river that makes its way slowly across its great plain towards its even greater delta in the Bay of Bengal which it shares with the Brahmaputra River. This is the only part of its journey when the Ganges is not in India but Bangladesh where it is known as the Padma. It is not a long river – 1560 miles (2510km) – but it is a hugely important one, not just for religious reasons, but because its river basin, the largest in India, is home to an immense population and has been the birthplace of numerous civilisations. A combination of melting snow from the Himalayas and the monsoon rains causes regular flooding. The river is fed, too, by numerous tributaries including the Yamuna, Gomati, Ghaghara, Gandak, Kosi and Son rivers.

The flooding of the Ganges – like the Nile – has created first an area that could be used for farming and later towns and cities such as Patliputra, Varanasi, Haridwar, Allahabad, and Kolkata. Rishikesh overflows with temples and ashrams, one of Hinduism’s most sacred places. The Ganges is, in fact, the embodiment of sacred water for Hindus and so along its banks there are temples and ghats (steps down into the river) for believers to bathe. In particular, they come in late May or early June to celebrate Avatarana (the descent of the Ganges from heaven) when sins will be washed away. The Ganges basin is home to many birds, such as mynah and parrots but few animals until it reaches its end in the delta area known as the Sundarbans. Here, there are crocodiles and the famous swimming Bengal tigers.