The river Ganges is also called the Ganga. It is a major river of India, with its source in the foothills of the Himalayas. It flows for about 1550 miles, or 2500 kilometers, into the Bay of Bengal. Calcutta, Benares, and Kanpur are major cities along its banks. Its important tributaries are the Brahmaputra, the Yamuna, Ghaghara, Gandak, Gomti, and Chambal.
The Sunderbans delta of the Ganges (which at this point, in Bangladesh, is called the Padma), is 42,000 square kilometer mangrove swamp, which, though it regularly floods, is home to thousands of people and quite a few tigers, who kill and eat about 20 people a year. It is the world's largest river delta.
The present day river is considered holy: if you bathe in its waters, all your sins are washed away. The holy water has the amazing property that even a drop of it mixed with other water makes that water into holy Ganga water. The dead are burned on the landings, sometimes rather incompletely, and their ashes or the remains of their bodies are thrown into the river, which guarantees your soul's escape from the material world.
The Kumbha Mela is a 42-day festival held every 12 years on the banks of the Ganges in Allahbad. During Kumbha Mela, 10 million people a day bathe in the waters at the ghats. On Makara Sankranti, pilgrims bathe in one of the mouths of the Ganges where it joins the ocean, at Sagar Island. Benares, also known as Varansi or Kasi, is a sacred pilgrimage spot where the Ganges and Varana converge.
The river is personified as a goddess in many Hindu epics. She is the daughter of Mount Meru, or the Himalayas, and of Uma, Shiva's consort. She plays an important part in the Mahabharata and there are many other legends about her incarnations as a human being. Ganga is one of the mothers of Skanda, and she is sometimes shown as Shiva's consort, in images where she sits in the matted locks of his hair. The river is also said to flow from the toe of Vishnu.
The sacred waters of the Mother Ganges bring life, in that they irrigate thousands of miles of land. Unfortunately, the river is disgustingly polluted. The leather industry, raw human and animal sewage, and human and animal corpses all contribute to the unhealthiness of the holy waters of the Ganges. Forty percent of India's population live in the watershed of the Ganges, and most of their raw sewage goes into the river.
Efforts are underway to clean up the river, including one massive dumping of thousands of live turtles, which were supposed to eat the corpses. It seems, though, that admitting that there is pollution in the river is a kind of blasphemy. The river's holiness should cleanse any impurity. The millions of people who drink the water and bathe in it have absolute faith in its cleanliness, despite the hepatitis, amebic dysentery, typhoid, and cholera that it spreads.