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The Ganga is the lifeline of Varanasi. Legend recounts how the water-goddess, Ganga, was persuaded to come down to earth from her abode in heaven. There was a time, according to legend, when Ganga was exclusively the river of the gods, located in their heavenly abode. She was brought down to earth by the rigorous penance of a mortal king, Bhagiratha. The story begins with Raja Sagara, who was childless, propitiating Siva, seeking his blessings. Siva appeared before Sagara and granted him his prayer - that he might have many sons. Soon, Sagara's two wives, Sumati and Keshini, conceived. Sumati gave birth to 60,000 sons and Keshini to one son. While Sumati's sons grew to be brave, but arrogant young men, Keshini's son, Asamanja, was a cruel and wicked prince who was banished from the kingdom by Sagara. Asamanja's son, Ansuman, unlike his father, was kind and courageous. So, when Sumati's 60,000 sons were burnt to ashes by Sage Kapila, whose wrath they had invited by their arrogant and audacious behaviour, Sagara sent Ansuman in search of them. When Ansuman learnt of the fate of his uncles, he was heartbroken, but determined to rescue them from their suffering in hell. Sage Kapila advised him to persuade the gods, through penance, to send Ganga down to earth and wash over the ashes of his uncles, for only the river goddess could wash their sins away.

Ansuman performed penance in various forms, as did his son, Dilipa, after him. But neither could succeed in bringing Ganga down from heaven. Eventually, the task was accomplished by Dilipa's son, Bhagiratha, who donned the garb of a mendicant and vowed that he would ascend the throne only after Ganga flowed on earth. Bhagiratha won the gods over after several years of rigorous penance and Ganga came down to earth to redeem the souls of the sons of Sagara. And to this day, people believe that she purifies all those who bathe in her waters, cleansing them of all their sins.

The 2500 km long River Ganga was once a great waterway and the entire requirements of Banaras trade was transported on this river. Vessels do not ply in this trade route any longer, but the Ganga is still propitiated as the most sacred river in India and the ghats of Varanasi are ever-crowded with pilgrims who believe implicitly in Ganga's power of purification.