Gangasnan outside the Ganges

Thousands of Hindus take a dip in the holy river to emerge from it with a cleansed body and soul. Bathing in the Ganges, especially at holy sites goes on through the year but takes on added significance during special festivals.

Haridwar in Uttarakhand and Allahabad’s Triveni Sangam in Uttar Pradesh are two of the holiest sites, among dozens of others.

However, both the bathing sites have another thing in common. At neither do the devotees bathe in actual Ganges waters.

Triveni Sangam, Allahabad

Although Triveni Sangam is the confluence of three rivers including the mythical Saraswati, which many say is now underground, the water flow mainly comes from the Yamuna.

It is in the bluish currents of the strong Yamuna that devotees perform their holy Gangasnan — which means bathing in the Ganges. About 200km downriver from Kanpur, the Ganges is all but a trickle at Allahabad’s Triveni Sangam, which happens to be among the most sacred Hindu bathing sites.

While the Ganges looks frail, the mighty Yamuna is full of vigour and pours into the Ganges, rejuvenating it.

The two rivers present a stark contrast with the dark Yamuna flowing strong and swift, swirling the muddy waist deep waters of mother Ganges.

Rajesh Tiwari, a boatman in his 50s, who has been rowing devotees around the river for most of his life, said the Gangasnan actually happens in the Yamuna. “Because we don't have enough water in Ganges.”

But he recalls a time when it was different. That was before many of the dams and barrages had come into operation. “About 40 years ago it was not so bad and Ganges used to be fuller then.”

The Triveni Sangam remains alive mainly due to the Yamuna.

Around .2 million people bathe here every day. But during the Kumbh Mela in the Bengali month of Magh (mid January to mid February), the number goes up to 3 million.

Hari-ki-Puri, Haridwar

A similar situation arises at one of the three holiest sites for Gangasnan according to Hindu mythology. Although it is commonly said that hundreds of thousands bathe in the Ganges at Haridwar, in essence it is in an artificial canal off the Ganges.

Among the largest barrages of the Indian government, the Bhimgoda diverts water from the holy river through the Upper Ganges Canal.

It is on that canal at a place called Hari-ki-Puri where thousands of devotees gather at an open field adjacent to the canal and easily accessed by transport due to nearby roads and bridges.