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The descent of the Ganges

Ganga Dussehra is celebrated to mark the birth of the descent of river Ganges to earth. The mother Ganges is the most sacred river in India and Dussehra means the 10th tithi that this festival is celebrated on. Ganga is the only living goddess in the country apart from other living gods being the Sun and the Moon. It is the goddess we can see and connect with. This festival lasts ten days beginning on the Amavasya (dark moon night) when the Sun is in Taurus to the Shukla Dashami Tithi (10th Lunar Day) all in the month of Jyeshta (usually around May last or in June). River Ganga is worshipped as a mother and a Goddess by people of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal through which the river flows but also revered across the country and the world even in places far from its course.
The legend has it that initially Ganga only flowed in the heavens from Vishnu’s left toe. She was brought down to earth by the severe Penance of the Sage Bhagiratha and that is why she is also called Bhagirathi. There are number of legends connected to the descent of Ganges. According to one of the main myths, demons were harassing the hermits by disturbing them in their ascetic spiritual practices. During the day, they would be chased into the ocean but they would emerge at night and begin harassing the hermits again. In desperation the hermits appealed to Rishi Agastya who drank all the water of the ocean, thereby consuming the demons too. Although this was done in good faith, it resulted in depriving the world of the water needed for sustenance and the earth became parched and dry.
Bhagiratha was the great grandson of King Sagar of the Ikshvaku dynasty ruling and to understand why he performed the tapas for Ganga to descend we should know the story of King Sagar and his two queens, Keshani and Sumati. Both were childless. Sagar performed severe austerities before his wives could produce sons. Keshani gave birth to a son called Asmajas and Sumati bore 60,000 sons. Later King Sagar performed the Ashwamedha yagya to declare his sovereignty over the neighbouring kingdoms.
According to the custom, a sacrificial horse was let loose and allowed to wander into the neighbouring kingdoms. If the horse was caught, a battle ensued and the outcome decided who would be the ruler of that kingdom. The 60,000 sons of Sagar were following the horse when they saw him enter a cavern where Sage Kapila was meditating. Not seeing the horse in the cavern, they presumed that Kapila had captured it. They did not kill Kapila as he was a sage but they started disturbing his meditations. Annoyed at being disturbed, Kapila burnt the 60,000 sons of Sagar with a curse. Bhagiratha, the great grandson of Sagar chanced to come across the bones of his dead ancestors. He wanted to perform the Shraddha of his ancestors but there was no water available for the ceremony. Due to Agastya having drunk all the waters of the ocean, the country was passing through a severe drought. Bhagiratha prayed to Brahma, to end the drought. Brahma asked him to pray to Vishnu, to allow the heavenly Ganga to come down to earth. Vishnu agreed, but asked him to request Shiva, to allow the torrential rain to fall on his head before it came to the earth. As Ganga was very forceful and if she were allowed to come down unchecked, her fall would split the earth. Shiva agreed to take the gigantic weight of the cascading Ganga on the matted hair piled high on his head. In meandering through his hair, Ganga lost its force and then gently descended to the Himalayas from where it flowed to the plains bestowing its waters on the parched earth and allowing Bhagiratha to finish his Shraddha. And that is why the anthropomorphic image of Ganga is shown in the matted hair of Shiva who is also called Gangadhara. Being born in the Himalayas, Ganga is considered the elder sister of Parvati, who is also a daughter of the Himalayas.
The first 10 days of June are very well justified to honour the presence of Ganga river. The name Dussehra comes from ‘Dus’ which means ten and ‘Hara’ which connotes defeat. Thus, it is believed that praying on this day can help you attain salvation from 10 sins.
Ganga Dussehra is celebrated at major ghats such as Varanasi, Allahabad, Garh-Mukteshwar, Prayag, Haridwar and Rishikesh. Amidst hundreds and thousands of pilgrims, the priests perform aartis to goddess Ganga. Another priest beside him poured water on his heavily cloth wrapped hand, which protected him from the burns. All one can hear is pilgrims and pundits praising and singing goddess Ganga. The air around had the fragrance of flowers.
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