Culture · Ganga

The Eternal Ganga: A Journey Through Artistic Depictions of India’s Sacred River

(Feature photo above: “… But I go on forever” The pristine Ganga flowing through the mountains (Rishabh Gagneja, June 2021))

Guest Article by Anantaa Ghosh

The Ganga, often termed as the ‘River of Heaven’ has always been deemed as the purest and most sacred of all rivers. In the west, Ganga was believed to be Phison, a river flowing in Eden. The river has found its place in the works of several famous authors, including Kalidasa who describes the river in words of unique grace.

Then in familiar Alaka find rest,
Down whom the Ganges’ silken river swirls
Whose towers cling to her mountain lover’s breasts,
While clouds adorn her face like glossy curls.[1]

By Kautilya’s time, this river had been given the place of a goddess. In Arthashastra, he mentions how in times of droughts, the river would be worshipped along with Lord Indra, the mountains, and the sea. Religion and mythology have presented the river to us as the deity who flows through the earth to wash off the sins of the mortals but Ganga has been represented in several art forms too since centuries, each of which can give an idea as to how people of different times have perceived her.

The Puranic story of Ganga’s descent can be found on rock cut panels in Mahabalipuram.

[1] Rock relief at Mahabalipuram depicting Gangavatarana

This open-air rock relief (relief is a sculptural method; it gives an impression of being raised above the background plane) is carved on two giant rock boulders and tells the story of how Ganga was brought down from the Heavens by Bhagirath’s penance. The river and the goddess thus, earned the name of Bhagirathi. This is one of the most ancient representations of Ganga and has been dated back to 7th century during the Pallava dynasty.

In the 5th cave of Udayagiri (near Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh), there is a sculpture of the Ganga and the Yamuna, created around 420-425 CE where both are ‘dvarpalas’ (doorkeepers) with both the goddesses mounted on their ‘vahanas’ or vehicles. Ganga is on ‘makara’ a mythical creature embodying all vegetal life and fearsome because of its similarity to a crocodile which has always connected the river to the seas (the known to the unknown).[2] Here too, the descent of Ganga has been projected but in a much miniature form. However, the narrative was so poetic that it inspired the tableau in Mahabalipuram.

[2] Ganga and Yamuna as ‘dvarpalas’

The sculpture of Ganga as the doorkeeper is quite prominent in several temple architectures, suggesting the goddess both purifies the spirit and adds to the holiness of the place. The sculpture of Ganga on the doorway of the 21st cave in Ellora stands with a dwarf or ‘gana’ suggesting growth.

[3] Ganga with a ‘gana’

But there is one sculpture where Ganga has been depicted as a man. The Fountain of Four Rivers or Fontana del Quattro Fiumi designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1651 stands in Piazza Navona, Rome and includes 4 sculptures of 4 rivers, one of them being Ganga. Ganga or the Ganges, representing Asia, is a male figure in this Baroque sculpture with a long beard, holding an oar in one hand and a dragon and few plants carved next to him. The oar suggests the navigability of a slow flowing river. [3] 

[4] Ganges in The Fountain of Four Rivers

Upon their arrival to India, Europeans were amazed by the landscape, the ghats of Benaras and Calcutta, the colourful performance of ‘nauch girls’, the marketplaces and temples. These kept popping up in their paintings, prints and even in the letters which they wrote back home to England. These paintings are filtered through the orientalist lens and capture India as the exotic, mysterious land of snake charmers and ‘uncivilized’ people. Some of the most famous artworks include the ghat paintings and that of the riverfront ports. William Daniell who had accompanied his uncle Thomas Daniell to India had documented the Manikarnika ghat in detail in the late 1780s. [4]

[5] Manikarnika Ghat by William Daniell (oil on canvas)

Both the Daniells, William Hodges, James Princep and several others focused on the ghats, the people, the ships and the growing settlements with the river flowing in front suggesting the utility of the ancient body in terms of living, commerce and beautification. [5]

[6] Old Fort Ghat in Culcutta by Thomas Daniell (coloured etching with aquatint)
[7] Dusaswurmedh Ghat by James Princap (lithograph)

German artists like A. H. Muller have depicted the descent of Ganga but she looks more like a juxtaposition of an angel and a mermaid with beautiful flowing hair in the paintings, rather than an Indian river goddess. The makara is replaced by a lotus here suggesting the beauty and fertility of the goddess.

[8] Descent of Ganga by A.H. Muller (oil on canvas)
[9] Ganga Avtaran by A.H. Muller (oil on canvas)

The makara can be seen in the Kalighat paintings of the goddess Ganga, painted in the 19th century for pilgrims visiting the temple. The appearance of the goddess is somewhat akin to the Hindu goddess Kali here with four arms and each palm painted red. [6]

[10] Kalighat painting of the goddess Ganga from 19th century Calcutta

Raja Ravi Verma’s paintings on goddess Ganga deserves special mention here. The famous painter was well known for his paintings and prints on mythological figures who he painted with living women in his mind. In the painting below, Ganga, the mother, wife, and the goddess appears very realistic with a life-like face radiating purity and selflessness while drowning Bhisma. She is being imagined and presented to us in the form of an earthly woman for the very first time.

[11] Shantanu trying to stop Ganga from downing their eighth child by Raja Ravi Verma (oil on canvas)

Mukul Dey, one of the first artists to introduce the ideas of dry point and etching techniques in India, had created several prints of the Ganga. As a student of Abanindranath Tagore, Dey developed several prints of the river front, the city of Calcutta and Bengali women. He would etch on metal plates and transfer them onto paper. His prints on the river presents to us the finer details not just of the flowing river but the overall landscape and how people from different walks of life are dependent on the body.

[12] On the Ganges, Calcutta by Mukul Dey (etching print)

There have been several artists since the late 1900s to the early 2000s who have painted the river. Jayasri Burman’s recent paintings of Ganga presents her not just as a mythological figure but as a goddess of feminine energy, much like Durga. Ganga here is resilient and powerful and with whom the artist shares a personal connection. Her series titled Jahnavi is particularly enthralling which includes sculptures of Ganga as well as paintings with themes relevant to our times. Ganga here is the resilient river who does not cease to flow despite the number of corpses dumped on her during the Covid pandemic.

[13] Jahnavi II (acrylic & charcoal on canvas) by Jayasri Burman

The elephant, the peacock, and the makara are recurrent motifs in her work enriching the already existing moral allegory. [7]

[14] Jahaavi I (Bronze) by Jayasri Burman

From being a deity to a supreme force of femininity and patience, somewhere down the line the Ganga has lost her own identity. Of course, for us her identity was only what we conferred upon her because after all, she is a river who cannot speak, unlike us and hence, cannot fight for her own rights. Art has always been able to present all that the human mind was struggling to process and put into words. But when thoughts have succumbed to centuries of anthropocentric worldview it is difficult to portray any non-living entity from a non-humanistic lens. For us a river exists only for our needs. What a river is or can be independent of us and our needs is unthinkable to most of us.

What is important to remember here, is that the myths and symbols which we attach to the river bodies are different from the river who exists as a body in real. By associating and seeing a river as per the metaphors only normalises the various wrongs that we commit on the river. Ganga is well known for her purity and holiness but that is the mythological figure that we are talking about. The mighty river does not have the responsibility to wash our dirt and sins. Mukul Dey is probably the only one to depict the river as she is and how she is perceived by people of various sections of the society.

[15] Ganga by Mukul Dey (etching print)

It remains to be seen how artists visualise the river in the coming times: as a body just existing or as an object serving our needs.

Anantaa Ghosh (


[[1]] Darian, S. (1973). The Ganges in Indian Art. East and West23(3/4), 307–325.

[2] Ganga on Makara: River on the Doorways. Available at:

[3]FEHRENBACH, F. (2013). Impossibile: Bernini in Piazza Navona. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 63/64, 229–237.





For images:

[1] [2] and [3] collected from Ganga on Makara: River on the Doorways. Available at:

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Further readings:

Ganges in Indian Sculpture and Literature: Mythology and Personification by Nalini Rao. Available at:

The Ganges in Myth and History by Steven G. Darian. Available at:

The Ganges in Indian Art by Steven Darian. Available at:

On the banks of the Ganga: when wastewater meets a sacred river by Kelly D. Alley. Available at:

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