top of page



The Beginning

Thick fog descended from the snowy mountain tops at an unfathomable pace. Wagtails stopped pecking around and flew away. The bharals rushed from their grazing grounds to the misty havens. The sun had gone into hiding, and the tall mountains blocked the remnants of twilight from reaching us. Soon, the visibility would drop to zero. There was only the sound of a stream reverberating in the frosty air. Droplets of cold drizzle were rolling down my cheek. I carefully took each step on the treacherous ground strewn with boulders uprooted in a recent landslide. The long and arduous trek had made us weary. There was no option of going back at that juncture. The civilization was far away…


Bhagirathi River begins its journey from Gaumukh, which is the pout of the Gangotri glacial system that feeds it. Bhagirathi is one of the two source streams of the Ganga, the other one being Alaknanda. While cultural beliefs attribute the source status to Bhagirathi, Alaknanda is Ganga’s source stream hydrologically. Several dam projects are at various stages of implementation downstream of these source rivers. The execution of such projects, often without long-term environmental impact assessments, has attracted criticism from environmental organisations


Tehri Dam is the tallest dam (260.5 metres) in India. Located in the young and seismically active Himalayas, this dam triggered numerous protests and litigations. Several villages and the historic royal town of Tehri were submerged after the dam was filled to the brim. This mammoth project provides electricity and drinking water to millions of people in Uttarakhand and adjoining states. There are still concerns about potential threats to human lives due to the location of such a huge dam in the fragile mountain region


Bhagirathi and Alaknanda combine to form the Ganga at Devprayag. This small town is a popular pilgrimage centre attracting people from faraway places. We took a dip at the confluence on a foggy morning before starting the day’s walk towards Rishikesh. The icy water made it impossible to stay immersed for more than a few seconds. The effect, however, was reinvigorating


Wandering sadhus and cattle share a night shelter in Rishikesh. Also known as the yoga capital of the world, Rishikesh attracts thousands of pilgrims and tourists from India and abroad. Many of these visitors opt to extend their stay here due to its pleasant climate and liberal outlook


A pundit counts the coins a woman offers in Haridwar, the first important pilgrim centre on the Ganga. Millions of people from across India visit Haridwar to conduct rituals for the emancipation of the souls of their departed relatives


Pilgrims throng the riverbank in Garhmukteshwar. Due to its proximity to Delhi, this town attracts a steady flow of visitors throughout the year


A rhesus monkey with a disfigured face, probably the result of a fight with another member of the simian family, watches passersby at Garhmukteshwar, Hapur district, western Uttar Pradesh


A man who arrived to attend a funeral takes a bath in the Ganga at Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh


Kanpur is a hub of the leather industry. On one side, it provides livelihood to thousands and on the other side, it generates millions of litres of toxic waste, a big part of which finds its way to the Ganga despite numerous regulations and the construction of waste treatment plants. In recent years, there has been an encouraging reduction in the pollution levels in the river at Kanpur. The picture shows workers sorting rawhide at an industrial unit in the city


It is not just the industries that pollute the Ganga. Copious amounts of waste end up in the water as part of the cultural practices of people, many of them still believing that the river can purify anything and everything. This scene is from a bathing ghat on the outskirts of Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh


Anand Bhavan, also known as Swaraj Bhavan, was the home of independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Converted into a museum, this palatial mansion in Allahabad (now renamed Prayagraj) has a rich collection of objects related to the life of Nehru


The town of Ramnagar lies opposite Varanasi on the banks of the Ganga. The fort here hosts the palace of the ‘Maharaja of Benaras’. A sleepy town, Ramnagar is rarely visited by the millions of travellers who confine their itinerary solely to Varanasi. Ramnagar is adjacent to Mughalsarai (now renamed Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Nagar), a transit hub on the Grand Trunk Road. Situated on the vital trade route between the eastern and northern parts of the Indian subcontinent during the Mughal period, Mughalsarai is believed to have gained its name due to the sarais (inns) for caravans on both sides of the road. The railway junction here is one of the largest and busiest in the country and directly connects the cities of Kolkata and Delhi


The Ratneshwar Mahadev temple is also known as the ‘leaning temple’ of Varanasi. Waterlogging of the foundation is suspected to be the reason for its current state


Varanasi attracts pilgrims and tourists alike from across the world. There are lodges and eateries here that can cater to the diverse demography of visitors. The image shows the hailing of Lord Shiva in Tamil script. Besides being an important pilgrim centre for Hindus, the city holds a special place for Buddhists. Gautama Buddha is believed to have delivered his first sermon circa 528 BCE at Sarnath on the outskirts of Varanasi


Young men and boys take out a procession on the death anniversary of Dr B R Ambedkar, the champion of Dalit rights and father of India’s constitution, at Zamania near Ghazipur, eastern Uttar Pradesh. The state is home to the largest population of Dalits in India (around 4 crore as per the 2011 census) and often finds itself in the news for caste-based atrocities


Vehicles cross over the Ganga through a floating bridge on the outskirts of Patna, Bihar. Due to its floating nature, the bridge is off-limits to two-wheelers. Even a ride in a rickshaw over this bridge is a stomach-churning experience


People gather around a woodfire to escape the chilling winter at Lakhisarai, Bihar


We cycled from Lakhisarai to Munger on a cold winter morning. The landscape was filled with mustard crops and brick kilns. Most of these kilns thrive on some form of bonded labour. Entire families, right from children to adults, stay around the place and work for 10 to 12 hours for paltry sums offered by the kiln owners


Carvings on a rock on the banks of the Ganga in Sultanganj, Bhagalpur district, Bihar. Archaeologists have found several ancient stone carvings from Sultanganj and its surroundings. It is believed this region was a centre of art during the Gupta period. Sultanganj is famous for the tallest metal sculpture of Buddha from early medieval times (between the 6th and 8th centuries). The antique was unearthed during the construction of railways in 1861 and was moved to England. It has been on display at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery ever since


Devotees of Shiva make slow progress to the Deoghar temple in Jharkhand. This arduous pilgrimage involves crawling and walking alternately. Photographed on the outskirts of Bhagalpur city, Bihar


A band of village musicians at a cremation ground in Rajmahal district, Jharkhand


Boys play on the dry Ganga riverbed in Farakka, Murshidabad district. Farakka Barrage is the last barrage on the Indian side along the course of the Ganga. From here, the river enters Bangladesh and assumes a new name, Padma. The barrage diverts a fixed volume of water from the Ganga, based on a controversial water-sharing treaty, towards Hooghly on the Indian side and sends the rest to the neighbouring country. Padma eventually meets Jamuna (downstream of Brahmaputra) before merging with Meghna, which drains into the Bay of Bengal. The river system, comprising Hooghly, Padma, Jamuna and Meghna, along with hundreds of small and medium-sized rivers, forms the Sunderbans Delta, the largest of its kind on earth


The Bengali elite accepted colonial culture and English education open-heartedly and later revolted against the colonial powers. Old houses and palaces in the erstwhile power centres of Bengal still carry those memories. Photographed in Murshidabad, the seat of power of the Bengal Nawabs


Ganga water for sale at ISKCON headquarters in Mayapur, Nadia district, West Bengal. A large Hindu spiritual organisation, ISKCON has spread across the world at a brisk pace. Bengal has been a fertile ground for spiritual or religious revival movements, including the Bhakti Movement, Brahmo Samaj, Tariqah-i-Muhammadiya, Faraizi and Ramakrishna Mission, among others


The Basilica of the Holy Rosary, popularly known as the Bandel Church, in the Hooghly district, is one of the oldest churches and a major centre of Christian pilgrimage in Bengal. The church was built in 1599 by the Portuguese adjacent to the riverine port and factory they constructed with the permission of Mughal emperor Akbar


A woman at the venue of protest against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 by the Central government, at Park Circus in Kolkata. Beginning from our entry to Uttar Pradesh, the journey was often under the shadow of uncertainty due to the widespread agitations against the controversial law. There were also numerous reports of police brutality against peaceful protestors. On some occasions, the protests turned into violent clashes between the opponents and supporters of the CAA, which makes the religion of the applicant criteria for granting citizenship and has been termed anti-constitutional by several rights organisations. A sense of tension was in the air when we entered eastern Bihar. At Munger, we found ourselves in the eye of a riot-like situation. There were moments we seriously thought of winding up the journey and returning to the safety of our homes. However, the atmosphere got calmed by the time we stepped into West Bengal, where large-scale agitations had been happening


A closed industrial unit in Howrah. Kolkata and its twin sister Howrah used to be the industrial powerhouse of India. The skeletons of decaying factories like this tell the story of a foregone era


Ferry services across the Hooghly depend on the tide timing. During low tide the river thins drastically, making it unusable for water navigation. This image was captured at Hardwood Point, an important boat jetty for Gangasagar pilgrims, near Kakdwip, South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal


The Gangasagar Mela is one of the largest religious congregations in India. Almost three million people gather at Sagar Island on the occasion of Makar Sankranti to take a dip at the confluence of Ganga and Sagar (Bay of Bengal)


A pilgrim on a special boat to Sagar Island in the Bay of Bengal


Pilgrims at the Gangasagar Mela. There is a saying, ‘Sab tirath bar bar, Gangasagar ekbar (All other pilgrimages many times, Gangasagar only once)’. The popular belief that people should make this pilgrimage towards the end of their lives is not the only reason that makes this saying apt. Pilgrims have to struggle to make it to Gangasagar and return. The rush of more than three million (30 lakh) people within three or four days makes the pilgrimage a logistical nightmare for authorities. Besides, the ferry can operate between the mainland and Sagar Island only during high tide. Passengers have to impatiently wait in long lines for several hours to catch even a glimpse of the jetty


The mythical source of the Ganga is not easily accessible. A 15-km-long tiring and treacherous trek takes pilgrims and travellers from the nearest road-head at Gangotri to the base camp for Gaumukh. The entire trekking path lies within the Gangotri National Park, which extends to the Chinese border. Long-term scientific studies have shown that the Gangotri Glacier lost 2.3 lakh square metre area between 2001 and 2016, and the rising temperatures could fasten this process, leading to catastrophic impacts


A man naps while waiting for a boat to travel across the Tehri reservoir. Several villages were submerged or reduced into islets after the commissioning of the Tehri Dam. Even though most of the local people relocated to distant places, a few others cling to the isolated parcels of land remaining above water. The free boat service provided by the dam management is the only means of transport for these villagers in this region of the Tehri Garhwal district, Uttarakhand


Visitors at the abandoned ‘Beatles Ashram’ near Rishikesh. Originally converted from a pristine forest into a yoga retreat by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1961, this place rose to fame after the Beatles stayed here to learn Transcendental Meditation from Yogi. The Ashram was abandoned later and is now a part of the Rajaji National Park and Tiger Reserve


Boys collect the coins devotionally thrown to the river by pilgrims in Haridwar. It is in this crowded city that the Ganga finally leaves its mountain home and enters the great Indo-Gangetic Plain


Large swathes of sugarcane fields started appearing once we left the mountains to enter Uttar Pradesh. Ganga gets a new purpose from here onwards as the survival of the thirsty sugarcane crop is intimately tied to the river water. Several canals have been built over the last century to irrigate the agricultural fields in the interiors of eastern UP. The fragrance of boiling sugarcane juice from jaggery-making units was a constant presence during our journey through the Bijnor district


The cremation ground on the banks of the Ganga in Garhmukteshwar. This place was a centre of the widow sacrifice, Sati, before the colonial rulers banned it


Men give ritual bath to the body of their relative in the Ganga at Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh


A perfumery in Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh. This ancient city, adjacent to Kanpur, is famous for its traditional method of ittar (perfume) production, which uses natural oils as the base instead of alcohol. Kannauj has a chequered history extending behind the Common Era with periods of extreme glory and total devastation. In medieval times it was a centre of power struggles among three dynasties, namely Gurjara Pratiharas, Rashtrakutas and Palas. The political importance of Kannauj waned after the Delhi Sultanate came into prominence


The University of Allahabad is one of the oldest modern universities in India. Established in 1887 as Muir Central College, it soon grew into a prestigious institution of higher learning in the country. A blend of Indo-Saracenic, Gothic and Egyptian architecture styles, the Muir College was designed by William Emmerson, who had given shape to the Crawford Market in Mumbai and the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. The university’s leading role in shaping post-Independent India can be understood by the fact that it has produced two presidents, three prime ministers and eight CJIs, among others


The dried-up riverbed near the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna in Prayag, Uttar Pradesh, where Kumbh Mela is held. Besides being one of the most revered Hindu pilgrim sites, the ancient Prayag holds a place in India’s Buddhist history. The adjoining areas of Prayag transformed into an urban centre after the Mughal emperor Akbar built a fort and founded the city of Allahabad (Ilahabad or ‘City of God’) near the confluence in 1583. The strategic fortification, which could be used to monitor and check the movement of troops from Calcutta towards Agra, Kanpur and Delhi, fell into the hands of the English East India Company in the second half of the 18th century. The fort eventually lost its strategic importance with the arrival of railways in the second half of the 19th century


A man in the attire of Hanuman sits below a tree in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh. Located on the southern bank of the Ganga, Mirzapur is famous for its carpet industry and the temples nestled in the Vindhya mountain range, which forms a natural barrier between the north and central parts of India


The stamp of spirituality is visible throughout Varanasi. This city also offers a glimpse of the complex history of the Indian subcontinent. One of the oldest continuously inhabited urban centres in the world, Varanasi was a centre of religion, philosophy, trade and industry by the second millennium BCE. The arrival of Buddhism, which challenged the dominant Vedic practices, heralded a new era in the region. Beginning in the 12th century, another wind of change started blowing from the west, with the advance of iconoclastic Muslim rulers who destroyed several temples in the city. The situation somewhat reversed during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar. However, the last powerful ruler of the Mughal dynasty, Aurangzeb, destroyed several temples here and built a couple of mosques. Many of Varanasi’s temples were revived in the later period, mainly sponsored by Maratha kings. The ripples of this chequered past often reflect on the whole of Indian politics. Compared to my earlier visit in 2011, I witnessed a sharper divide and distrust among the Hindus and Muslims living in the city in 2019. The ongoing dispute over the Gyanvapi Mosque is often used by opportunistic political parties to divide the communities further and gain electoral gains. While there are debates for and against ‘correcting the mistakes of the past’, it is undeniable that the fusion of cultures — whether it is food, architecture, textiles, music or spirituality — brought in by Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, has made Varanasi a precious gem on the diverse platter that we call India


A firewood store near Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation ground in Varanasi. Death or cremation in Varanasi is considered an assured path to heaven by many Hindus. Because of this belief, the Manikarnika Ghat is always lit with funeral pyres. People from the villages on the outskirts also bring bodies for cremation in Varanasi


Due to its sheer size and economic importance, the Ganga influences the lives of millions living along its long and winding course. Boats of small and medium sizes continue to transport people and goods across the river at several places, including this village in the Ghazipur district


The bank of the Gandaki River, which originates near the Nepal-Tibet border and is a tributary of the Ganga, at Sonpur, Saran district, Bihar. Sonpur is famous for the annual cattle fair that attracts thousands of traders from across India and tourists from abroad


Light from funeral pyres brightens the riverbank in Barh, Bihar. Sites such as these have Sati Stones honouring the practice of widow sacrifice. Barh is notorious for a Sati incident that happened after it was banned. Today, it is a growing and polluted town with a coal-fired power station producing more than 2,000MW of electricity


An accidental exposure paints light rays on the frame of a lonely tree in the middle of a field outside Lakhisarai, Bihar


Atop a hill in Munger, which is an important town and divisional headquarters on the banks of the Ganga in eastern Bihar. Munger was a major trade centre during the Mughal and colonial periods. The city and its surroundings are strewn with several monuments


A man on the riverbed-turned-farmland in Bhagalpur, Bihar. The Ganga assumes a colossal size during the monsoon, attaining a width of several kilometres. Once the flood waters recede, the river leans to expose its fertile bed. People from faraway places flock to this ‘no man’s land’ for seasonal farming. Racing against time, they complete the harvest and leave before the river sweeps away everything


An abandoned Durga idol on the banks of the Ganga in Sahibganj, Jharkhand


At Rajmahal the Ganga bends sharply towards the south on its way to the Bay of Bengal. The river is so wide here that bridges across the river are a rare sight. People depend on boats and barges to commute across the river. We took a barge to cross the Ganga from Rajmahal to Manikchak, a small town in the Malda district of West Bengal. The hilly terrain of Rajmahal was of immense strategic importance during the medieval times as the mountain passes here could be used to control the riverine traffic and the movement of troops


A faqir travels through a village in Jangipur district, West Bengal


The Battle of Plassey (1757) effectively stamped the British colonial power on the Indian subcontinent. Fought between the Nawab of Bengal and the English East India Company, this battle had a lasting effect. While the Bengal army was headed by Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Company forces were commanded by Robert Clive. The decisive fight, aided by treachery, took place in a mango orchard on the banks of the Hooghly. A small memorial pillar and a bust of the Nawab remain at the site today


A view of the Hooghly river from the Hooghly Imambara, a famous Shia congregation site and masjid, in Hooghly district, West Bengal


A Bhojpuri movie plays out at a local movie hall in Kolkata. Not having the glamour of multiplexes, small theatres like this offer cheaper entertainment to daily-wage labourers and migrant workers. These movies, made at low budgets, often strengthen gender and socio-economic stereotypes and have cliche storylines


Kolkata is the biggest city on the course of the Ganga. Developed as a fort and riverine port during the colonial period, Kolkata (old name Calcutta) had a meteoric growth, often stained with blood. Having failed to sustain the economic momentum in the globalised world of our times, it no longer holds the title of the most happening city in the country


Ships cruise towards the docks of the Kolkata Port through the Hooghly near Diamond Harbour. Kolkata is the only riverine Major Port of India, with its survival tied to the water level in the Hooghly. The port is situated around 200km upstream from the Bay of Bengal and serves the interior of the Indo-Gangetic Plain and two Himalayan nations, namely Nepal and Bhutan


A sadhu smokes marijuana at a camp for Gangasagar pilgrims in Kolkata


Pilgrims tonsure their head at Gangasagar


Sundown over the Bay of Bengal on the eve of Makar Sankranti, at Sagar Island, South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal

The End

Silvery gentle waves washed my bare feet as I stood motionless, summoning the memories of the past few months. A pale curtain of red and purple hanging from above separated the day from the night. Surrounded by the vastness of burbling water, a sea of humanity wandered about the wet sand. Many among them tonsured their heads while others floated their offerings away to the expanse of water in the front. An intense feeling of having lost a dearer companionship filled my heart. The river had been a constant presence in my life for the last few months. There was hardly a day without an encounter with her in one way or another. Somewhere behind, she had found her destiny. I was yet to discover mine. I knew our tryst was coming to an end. The mood swings of the tidal waves, whether they were high or low, made it impossible to locate precisely the confluence of the river and the sea. I had a simple solution. At the beginning of our journey, I filled a small bottle with melted ice streaming out of the ice field. Three and a half months and 2,500km downstream, I pulled it out and waded through the waves. Standing in knee-deep water, I poured a few drops out of the bottle and watched them create tiny ripples below. The river and the sea became one. There was one more thing left in the itinerary. Filling my lungs with salty air, I took a dip. Cold water mixed with sand and sediments rushed from all sides, sweeping all the thoughts away.


In 2019, a couple of months after turning 33, I embarked on a journey along the banks of the Ganga River. The idea, proposed by my friend and journalist Sumit Usha in 2016, was to cover the entire length of the river on foot. However, immediately after starting the expedition, we realised that walking while carrying backpacks of around 20kg each wouldn’t be viable physically or economically. After hiking for a month along the mountainous stretch in Uttarakhand, we switched to cycling. The 2,500-km journey — spanning five states — took us through diverse geographical and cultural landscapes. Besides walking and cycling, we hitchhiked in trucks and tractors and travelled in trains, boats and barges. My friend Aditya Varma joined us for a considerable stretch, from Kanpur to Malda. Three-and-a-half months after starting from Gangotri Glacier,
we bid adieu to the river at Sagar Island, West Bengal, on the Hindu auspicious day of Makar Sankranti in January 2020.

First print edition in 2023 by
Albumen Books, New Delhi


bottom of page