The rivers of India play an important role in the lives of the Indian people. The river systems provide irrigation, potable water, cheap water transportation, electricity, as well as provide livelihoods for a large number of people all over the country. The rivers also have an important role in Hindu mythology and are considered holy by all Hindus in the country.

Seven major rivers along with their numerous tributaries make up the river system of India. Most of the rivers pour their waters into the Bay of Bengal. Some of the rivers whose courses take them through the western part of the country and towards the east of the state of Himachal Pradesh empty into the Arabian Sea. Parts of Ladakh, northern parts of the Aravalli range and the arid parts of the Thar Desert have inland drainage. All major rivers of India originate from one of the three main watersheds.

  1. The Himalaya and the Karakoram ranges
  2. Vindhya and Satpura ranges in central India
  3. Sahyadri or Western Ghats in western India


The rivers of India can be classified on the basis of origin and on the type of basin that they form

On the basis of origin[]

On the basis of origin, the rivers of India can be divided into Himalayan rivers and Peninsular rivers.

Himalayan rivers

The main Himalayan river systems are the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra river systems.

The Himalayan rivers form large basins. Many rivers pass through the Himalayas and have made spectacular gorges. These deep valleys with steep rock sides were formed by the down - cutting of the river during the period of the Himalayan uplift. These rivers are perennial as they get water from the rainfall as well as the melting of ice. They perform intense erosional activity up the streams and carry huge load of sand and silt. In the plains, they form large meanders, and a variety of depositional features like flood plains, river cliffs and levees.

Peninsular rivers

The main peninsular river systems include the Narmada, the Tapti, the Godavari, the Krishna, the Kaveri and the Mahanadi river systems.

The Peninsular rivers flow through shallow valleys. A large number of them are seasonal as their flow is dependent on rainfall. During summer, even the large rivers have highly reduced flow of water in their channels. The intensity of erosional activities is also comparitively low because of the gentler slope. The hard rock bed and lack of silt and sand does not allow any significant meandering. Many rivers therefore have straight and linear courses.

The Indus River System[]

Main article : Indus River

The Indus orginates in the northern slopes of the Kailash range in Tibet near the Mansarovar lake. It follows a north-westerly course through Tibet. It enters Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir. It forms a picturuesque gorge in this part. Several tributaries - the Zaskar, the Shyok, the Nubra and the Hunza join it in the Kashmir region. It flows through the regions of Ladakh, Baltistan and Gilgit and runs between the Ladakh Range and the Zaskar Range. It crosses the Himalayas through a 5181 m deep gorge near Attock, lying north of the Nanga Parbat and later takes a bend to the south west direction before entering Pakistan. It has a large number of tributaries in both India and Pakistan and has a total length of about 2897 km from the source to the point near Karachi where it falls into the Arabian Sea. The main tributaries of the Indus in India are Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej.


Main article : Jhelum River

The Jhelum originates in the south-eastern part of Kashmir, in a spring at Verinag. It flows into the Wular Lake, which lies to the north, and then into Baramula. Between Baramula and Muzaffarabad it enters a deep gorge cut by the river in the Pir Panjal range. It has a right bank tributary the Kishanganga which joins it at Muzaffarabad. It follows the Indo-Pakistan border flowing into the plains of Punjab, finally joining the Chenab at Trimmu. The total length of the river is about 450 miles.


Main article : Chenab River

The Chenab originates from the confluence of two rivers, the Chandra and the Bhaga, which themselves originate from either side of the Bara Lacha Pass in Lahul. It is also known as the Chandrabhaga in Himachal Pradesh. It runs parallel to the Pir Panjal Range in the north-westerly direction, and cuts through the range near Kishtwar. It enters the plains of Punjab near Akhnur and is later joined by the Jhelum. It is further joined by the Ravi and the Sutlej in Pakistan.


Main article : Ravi River

The Ravi originates near the Rotang pass in the Kangra Himalayas and follows a north-westerly course. It turns to the south-west, near Dalhousie, and then cuts a gorge in the Dhaola Dhar range entering the Punjab plain near Madhopur. It flows as a part of the Indo-Pakistan border for some distance before entering Pakistan and joining the Chenab river. The total length of the river is about 720 km.


Main article : Beas River

The Beas originates in Beas Kund, lying near the Rohtang pass. It runs past Manali and Kulu, where its beautiful valley is known as the Kulu valley. It first follows a north-west path from the town of Mandi and later a westerly path, before entering the Punjab plains near Mirthal. It joins the Sutlej river near Harika, after being joined by a few tributaries. The total length of the river is 615 km.


Main article : Sutlej River

The Sutlej originates from the Rakas Lake, which is connected to the Manasarovar lake by a stream, in Tibet. It flows in a north-westerly direction and enters Himachal Pradesh at the Shipki Pass, where it is joined by the Spiti river. It cuts deep gorges in the ranges of the Himalayas, and finally enters the Punjab plain after cutting a gorge in a hill range, the Naina Devi Dhar, where the Bhakra Dam having a large reservior of water, called the Gobind Sagar, has been constructed. It turns west below Rupar and is later joined by the Beas. It enters Pakistan near Sulemanki, and is later joined by the Chenab. It has a total length of almost 1500 km.

The Ganges River System[]

Early morning on the Ganga

Main article : Ganga River[]

The Ganga acquires its name after its two headstreams - the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi join at Devprayag. The Ganga enters the plains from the Himalayas at Haridwar. It is joined by a large number of tributaries from the north. Among them, the Ghaghara, the Gandak and the Kosi enter the northern plains of India from Nepal.

The Yamuna and the Son are the two main right bank tributaries of the Ganga. The Yamuna joins the Ganga at the Allahabad sangam. Beyond Farakka, the Ganga flows east-southeast and enters Bangladesh as the Padma. A bifurcation channel of the mainstream, called the Baghirathi-Hooghly, flows southwards through the deltaic plain the the Bay of Bengal. the mainstream, the Padma, runs southwards through Bangladesh and is joined by the Brahmaputra, known as the Jamuna here. Further down, it receives the Meghna and slows in the name of Meghna till it reaches the Bay of Bengal.

There is a treaty between Bangladesh and India over the sharing of Ganga water. The length of the Ganga is over 2500 km. In India, it has the largest basin. The Ganga river system drains most of north India.


Confluence of Yamuna and Tons rivers

Main article : Yamuna River[]

The Yamuna is a major river of northern India, with a total length of around 1370 km. It is the largest tributary of the Ganga. Its source is at Yamunotri, in the Uttaranchal Himalaya. It flows through the states of Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, before merging with the Ganges at Allahabad. The cities of Delhi, Mathura and Agra lie on its banks. The major tributaries of this river are the Tons, Chambal, Betwa, Sindh and Ken; with the Tons being the largest.


Main article : Chambal River

The Chambal (Hindi-चम्बल) is a tributary of the Yamuna River in central India. It is a perennial river. The Chambal river originated from the south slope of the Vindhya Range in Madhya Pradesh state, at Manpura , south of Mhow town , near Indore. The river flows north-northeast, running for a time through Rajasthan, then forming the boundary between Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh before turning southeast to join the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh state. The Chambal and its tributaries drain the Malwa region of northwestern Madhya Pradesh, while its tributary the Banas, which rises in the Aravalli Range, drains southeastern Rajasthan.


Main article : Betwa River

The Betwa (Vetravati) is a river in Northern India, and a tributary of the Ganga.It is being connected to the Ken in Madhya Pradesh as the first link in the ambitious river linking project in India.


Main article : Son River

The Son of central India is the largest of the Ganga's southern tributaries. The Son originates in Chhattisgarh state, just east of the headwaters of the Narmada River, and flows north-northwest through Madhya Pradesh state before turning sharply eastward when it encounters the southwest-northeast-running Kaimur Range. The Son parallels the Kaimur Range, flowing east-northeast through Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states to join the Ganges just above Patna. Geologically, the lower valley of the Son is an extension of the Narmada Valley, and the Kaimur Range an extension of the Vindhya Range. Its length is 784 kilometres (487 miles). Its chief tributaries are the Rihand and the Koel. The Son has a steep gradient (35-55 cm/km) with quick run-off and ephemeral regimes, becoming a roaring river with the rain-waters in the catchment area but turning quickly into a fordable stream. The Son, being wide and shallow, leaves disconnected pools of water in the remaining part of the year. The channel of the Son is very wide (about 5 km at Dehri) but the floodplain is narrow, only 3 to 5 km wide. The river has been notorious for its changing courses in the past, as it traceable from several old beds on its east, but has been tamed squarely with the anicut at Dehri, and now more so with the Indrapuri Barrage, a few kilometres upstream.


Main article : Ghaghara River

The Ghaghara, also called the Gogra or Saryug, is a river in Northern India, one of the largest affluents of the Ganga. It rises in the Southern slopes of the Himalayas in Tibet, at an altitude of about 13,000 feet (4,000 metres) above sea level. The river flows South through Nepal as the Karnali. In Uttar Pradesh State the Ghaghara flows in a Southeast direction to the town of Chapra, where, after a course of 570 miles (917 kilometres), it joins the Ganges. The river is one of the most important commercial waterways of Uttar Pradesh.


Main article : Gandak River

The Gandak is a tributary of the Ganga. Its source is in the Himalayas in Nepal where it is known as the Narayani. It then flows through India in Bihar, eventualy merging with the Ganges at Sonepur (also Known as Harihar Kshetra), near Patna.

Other tributaries[]

The other major tributaries of the Ganga include:

  • The Ramganga River
  • The Sarda River
  • The Kosi River
  • The Rapti River

The Bramhaputra River System[]

Main article : Brahmaputra River

The Brahmaputra originates in the Mansarovar lake, also the source of the Indus and the Satluj. It is slighty longer than the Indus, but most of its course lies ouside India. It flows eastward, parallel to the Himalayas. Reaching Namcha Barwa (7757 m), it takes a U-turn around it and enters India in Arunachal Pradesh. The undercutting done by this river is of the order of 5500 metres. In India, it flows through Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, and is joined by several tributaries.

In Tibet, the river is known as the Tsangpo. There, it receives less volume of water and has less silt. But in India, it passes through a region of heavy rainfall and as such, the river carries a large amount of rainfall and considerable amount of silt. The Brahmaputra has a braided channel throughout most of its length in Assam, with a few large islands within the channel.

The shifting of the channels of the river is also very common. The fury of the river during rains is very high. It is known for creating havoc in Assam and Bangladesh. At the same time, quite a few big pockets suffer from drought.

The Narmada River System[]

Main article : Narmada River

The Narmada or Nerbudda is a river in central India. It forms the traditional boundary between North India and South India, and is a total of 1,289 km (801 mi) long. Of the major rivers of peninsular India, only the Narmada, the Tapti and the Mahi run from east to west. It rises on the summit of Amarkantak Hill in Madhya Pradesh state, and for the first 320 kilometres (200 miles) of its course winds among the Mandla Hills, which form the head of the Satpura Range; then at Jabalpur, passing through the 'Marble Rocks', it enters the Narmada Valley between the Vindhya and Satpura ranges, and pursues a direct westerly course to the Gulf of Cambay. Its total length through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat amounts to 1312 kilometres (815 miles), and it empties into the Arabian Sea in the Bharuch district of Gujarat.

The Tapti River System[]

Main article : Tapti River

The Tapti is a river of central India. It is one of the major rivers of peninsular India with the lenth of around 724 km, and only the Tapti River along with the Narmada river, and the Mahi River run from east to west. It rises in the eastern Satpura Range of southern Madhya Pradesh state, and flows westward, draining Madhya Pradesh's historic Nimar region, Maharashtra's historic Kandesh and east Vidarbha regions in the northwest corner of the Deccan Plateau and South Gujarat before emptying into the Gulf of Cambay of the Arabian Sea, in the State of Gujarat. The Western Ghats or Sahyadri range starts south of the Tapti River near the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The Tapti River Basin lies mostly in northern and eastern districts Maharashtra state viz, Amravati, Akola, Buldhana, Washim, Jalgaon, Dhule, Nandurbar, Malegaon, Nashik districts but also covers Betul, Burhanpur districts of Madhya Pradesh and Surat district in Gujarat as well.

The principal tributaries of Tapti River are Purna River, Girna River, Panzara River, Waghur River, Bori River and Aner River.

The Godavari River System[]

The Godavari River

Main article : Godavari River

The second largest river in India, Godavari is often referred to as the Vriddh (Old) Ganga or the Dakshin (South) Ganga. The name may be apt in more ways than one, as the river follows the course of Ganga's tragedy. The river is about 1,450 km (900 miles) long. It rises at Trimbakeshwar, near Nasik and Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in Maharashtra around 380 km distance from the Arabian Sea, but flows southeast across south-central India through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, and empties into the Bay of Bengal. At Rajahmundry, 80 km from the coast, the river splits into two streams thus forming a very fertile delta. Like any other major rivers in India, the banks of this river also has many pilgrimage sites, Nasik, Triyambak and Badrachalam, being the major ones. It is a seasonal river, widened during the monsoons and dried during the summers. Godavari river water is brownish. Some of its tributaries include Indravati, Manjira, Bindusara and Sarbari. Some important urban centers on its banks include Nasik, Aurangabad, Nagpur, Nizamabad, Rajahmundry, and Balaghat.The Asia's largest rail-cum-road bridge on the river Godavari linking Kovvur and Rajahmundry is considered to be an engineering feat.

The Krishna River System[]

Main article : Krishna River

The Krishna is one of the longest rivers of India (about 1300 km in length). It originates at Mahabaleswar in Maharashtra, passes through Sangli and meets the sea in the Bay of Bengal at Hamasaladeevi in Andhra Pradesh. The Krishna River flows through the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

The traditional source of the river is a spout from the mouth of a statue of a cow in the ancient temple of Mahadev in Mahabaleshwar.

Its most important tributary is the Tungabhadra River, which itself is formed by the Tunga and Bhadra rivers that originate in the Western Ghats. Other tributaries include the Koyna, Bhima, Mallaprabha, Ghataprabha, Yerla, Warna, Dindi, Musi and Dudhganga rivers.

The Kaveri River System[]

Main article : Kaveri River

The Kaveri (also spelled Cauvery or Kavery) is one of the great rivers of India and is considered sacred by the Hindus. The headwaters are in the Western Ghats range of Karnataka state, and from Karnataka through Tamil Nadu. It empties into the Bay of Bengal. Its waters have supported irrigated agriculture for centuries, and the Kaveri has been the lifeblood of the ancient kingdoms and modern cities of South India.

The source of the river is Talakaveri located in the Western Ghats about 5000 feet above sea level. Talakaveri is a famous pligrimage and tourist spot set amidst Bramahagiri Hills near Madikeri in Kodagu district of Karnataka. Thousands of piligrims flock to the temple at the source of the river especially on the specified day known as Tula sankramana when the river water has been witnessed to gush out like a fountain at a predetermined time. It flows generally south and east for around 765 km, emptying into the Bay of Bengal through two principal mouths. Its basin is estimated to be 27,700 square miles, and it has many tributaries including Shimsa, Hemavati, Arkavathy, Kapila, Honnuhole, Lakshmana Tirtha, Kabini, Lokapavani, Bhavani, Noyyal and Amaravati.

The Mahanadi River System[]

Main article : Mahanadi River

The Mahanadi is a river of eastern India. The Mahanadi rises in the Satpura Range of central India, and flows east to the Bay of Bengal. The Mahanadi drains most of the state of Chhattisgarh and much of Orissa and also Jharkhand and Maharashtra. It has a length of about 860 km.

Near the city of Sambalpur, a large dam - the Hirakud Dam - is built on the river.

Rivers in Mythology[]


The Ganga is personified in Hinduism as a goddess: Maa Ganga (Mother Ganga). Hindu legend makes her the foster-mother of Karttikeya, who was actually a son of Shiva and Parvati. Several places sacred to Hindus lie along the banks of the river Ganga, including Haridwar and Varanasi. It is believed that taking a dip in the river will wash away one's sins, and that having one's ashes disposed of in the Ganga after death may improve one's next life or even allow Moksha to be attained sooner. Devout Hindus make pilgrimages to bathe in the Ganga and to meditate on its banks.

According to mythological legend, Brahma collected the sweat of Vishnu's feet and created Ganga. Being touched by two members of the Trimurti, Ganga became very holy.

Several years later, a king named Sagara magically acquired sixty thousand sons. One day, King Sagara performed a ritual of worship for the good of the kingdom. One of the integral parts of the ritual was a horse, which was stolen by the jealous Indra. Sagara sent all his sons all over the earth to search for the horse. They found it in the nether-world (or Underworld) next to a penitent sage Kapila. Believing that the sage had stolen the horse, they hurled insults at him and caused his penance to be disturbed. The sage opened his eyes for the first time in several years, and looked at the sons of Sagara. With this glance, all sixty thousand were burnt to death. The souls of the sons of Sagara wandered as ghosts since their final rites had not been performed. When Bhagiratha, one of the descendants of Sagara, son of Dilip, learnt of this fate, he vowed to bring Ganga down to Earth so that her waters could cleanse their souls and release them to heaven.

Bhagiratha prayed to Brahma that Ganga come down to Earth. Brahma agreed, and he ordered Ganga to go down to the Earth and then on to the nether regions so that the souls of Bhagiratha's ancestors would be able to go to heaven. The vain Ganga felt that this was insulting and decided to sweep the whole earth away as she fell from the heavens. Alarmed, Bhagiratha prayed to Shiva that he break up Ganga's descent.

Ganga arrogantly fell on Shiva's head. But Shiva calmly trapped her in his hair and let her out in small streams. The touch of Shiva further sanctified Ganga. As Ganga travelled to the nether-worlds, she created a different stream to remain on Earth to help purify unfortunate souls there.

Because of Bhagiratha's efforts Ganga descended on to earth and hence the river is also known as Bhagirathi, and the term "Bhagirath prayatna" is used to describe valiant efforts or difficult achievements.

Another name that Ganga is known by is Jahnavi. Story has it that once Ganga came down to earth, on her way to Bhagiratha, her rushing waters created turbulence and destroyed the fields and the sadhana of a sage called Rishi Jahnu. He was angered by this and drank up all of Ganga's waters. Upon this, the Gods prayed to Jahnu to release Ganga so that she could proceed on her mission. Pleased with their prayers, Jahnu released Ganga (her waters) from his ears. Hence the name "Jahnavi" (daughter of Jahnu) for Ganga.


According to legend the goddess of the river is the sister of the Hindu god of death, Yama and the daughter of Surya, the Sun god. The river Yamuna is also connected to the mythology surrounding the Hindu god Krishna.


In sanctity the Narmada ranks only second to the Ganges among the rivers of India in Hindu religion, and along its whole course are special places of pilgrimage, including Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh. The most meritorious act that a pilgrim can perform is to walk from the sea to the source of the river and back along the opposite bank. This pilgrimage takes from one to two years to accomplish.

The Narmada is closely associated with Lord Shiva. Naturally formed smooth stones called banas, made of cryptocrytalline quartz, are found in Narmada which are known as Shivalingas; the rare and unique markings on them are regarded by shaivaites as very auspicious. The Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, constructed by Rajaraja Chola, has one of the biggest Bana Shivalingas. Adi Shankara met his guru Govinda Bhagavatpada on the banks of river Narmada.


The Kaveri is known to devout Hindus as Dakshina Ganga, or the Ganges of the south, and the whole of its course is holy ground. According to the legend there was once born upon earth a girl named Vishnumaya or Lopamudra, the daughter of Brahma; but her divine father permitted her to be regarded as the child of a mortal, called Kavera-muni. In order to obtain beatitude for her adoptive father, she resolved to become a river whose waters should purify all sin. Hence it is said that even the holy Ganges resorts underground once in the year to the source of the Cauvery, to purge herself from the pollution contracted from the crowd of sinners who have bathed in her waters.

See also[]