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Hindus revere the river Ganga as sacred and personify it as a Goddess who descends on the Earth to rinse away the sins of mankind. The epitome of goodness, purity and cleanliness, the river Gaṅgā is worshipped reverently and is considered a tirtha which means a crossing point between Heaven and earth. Many places of religious significance lie along the banks of the Ganges including Gangotri, Haridwar, Allahabad and Varanasi.
Goddess Ganga is represented as fair complexioned, wearing a white crown and sitting on a crocodile. She is endowed with four hands holding a water pot, a lily, a rosary and has one hand in protective mode. Ganga’s themes are cleansing, health and mercy. Ganga represents purification, wellness and benevolence. She also represents piety and purity and enriches the spiritual life of millions of Indians for whom the river is Divine.
The Ganga is also the mother of Hindu worship and culture, accepting all and forgiving all. She is also a mother to other Gods. She accepts Shiva's incandescent seed from the Fire-god Agni, which is too hot for this world, and cools it in her waters. This union produces Skanda or Kartikeya, the God of war. In the Mahabharata, she is the wife of Shantanu, and the mother of heroic warrior-patriarch, Bhishma.
In Hindu mythology the Ganges river was created when Vishnu, in his incarnation as the dwarf Brahmin, took two steps to measure the universe. He extended his left foot to the end of the universe and pierced a hole in its covering with the nail of his big toe. Through the hole, the pure water of the Divine Ocean (Divine Brahm-Water) entered this universe as the Ganga River. Emanating from the lotus feet of Bhagavan (God), It finally settles in Brahmaloka abode of Lord Brahma before descending to planet Earth at the request of Bhagiratha and held safely by Lord Shiva on his head to prevent destruction of Bhumi Devi (Mother Earth). Then, the river Ganga was released from Lord Shiva's hair to meet the needs of the country.
People offer flowers and lamps placed on leaves which float on the surface of the river in a bid to wash away the sins of departed souls. On occasions, ropes of saris hundreds of feet long are pulled along the river in boats and flowers are strewn alongside as a gesture of devotion. After dipping three times in the Holy waters, devotees make their way to the stone Temple that sits above the river. Here, Prayers are recited with flowers and earrings being presented to her Image form.
Hindus believe that bathing in the river cleanses the soul and facilitates Moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death). A dip in the Ganga is considered auspicious as it washes away all physical and spiritual impurities. Immersing the ashes of the deceased in the Holy Ganga is considered to bring the spirit closer to moksha. Bathing in the river Ganga is believed to cleanse the body and mind (from sins) from past and present lives and make one divine.