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SOURCES OF THE GANGES [ Orgin of Ganga River , Ganges Ancient History & Facts ]

Source off Ganges

IN presenting to the Asiatic Society, the interesting narrative of a journey to explore the sources of the Ganges,, I shall prefix to it a few introductory observations to explain 'the grounds, on which the undertaking was proposed by the late Lieut. ColonelCOLEBROOKE, by whom it .would have been performed in person, had he not been prevented by the illness, which terminated in his death. 

On examining .the authority, upon which the course of the Ganges above Haridwar, has been laid down in the geographical charts now in use, it appeared to Lieut. Colonel COLEBROOKE, that the authority was insufficient, and the information wholly unsatisfactory. The early course of the river, as delineated in all the modern maps of Asia and India, is taken from D'ANVI LLE'S correction of the Lama's map, modified, however, in RENNELL'S construction, upon information collected by the missionary TIEFFENTH ALLER. That the. Lama's delineation of the Ganges was totally undeserving of the confidence, which has been placed in it, will be apparent from a brief review of its history. 

A map of Tibet, which .had been constructed by persons in the retinue of a Chinese envoy, was put into the hands of Father REGIS, one of the missionaries at Pekin, in 1711. Upon his report of its defects, the places being laid down from common estimation, without any actual measurement of distances, the Emperor KANGHI resolved to procure one more accurate and satisfactory. With this view, he sent into Tibet two Lamas, who had studied geometry and arithmetic in a Chinese college, patronized by his third son. They were ordered to prepare a map of the country, from Si-ning to Lasa, and thence to the source of the Ganges and were enjoined to bring some of the water of that river.

The map, which they executed, was delivered to the missionaries for examination in 1717 and from this, compared with itineraries and other information, the missionaries prepared the map of Tibet which is published in Du HALDE'S description of China.

While the Lamas here engaged in their survey, a revolution took place in Tibet, which was invaded with temporary success by the king of the Edutlu. The country of Lasa was ravaged. The temples were plundered and all the Lamas, who were found, were put into sacks and thrown upon camels, to be transported into Tartary. The two Lama.s employed in making the map of Tibet, narrowly escaped the fate of their brethren. On the first rumor of the incursions of the ravagers, they hastened the conclusion of their work  and they contented themselves with making a map of the source of the Ganges and the countries around it, upon oral information, received from Lamas inhabiting the neighboring temples, and upon written notices found at the grand Lamas at Lasa.

 They omitted however to take the latitude of mount Kentaisse or Kanteshan, (so the. Chinese name the chain of mountains which runs to the west.) They even omitted the latitude of the temple where they halted, and whence they inquired the course of the Ganges, which flows from the western side of that mountain. The Jesuits, therefore considering this as a capital defect, were desirous that the map should be re-examined by a learned geographer in Europe and that task was accordingly undertaken by D'ANVILLE

In the prosecution of the task, he was led by obvious reasons, to remove the head of the Ganges, from latitude 29.5°, which is its place in the Lama's map, as published by Du HALDE, to a more northerly position, and carried it as high as 32° nearly. But he preserved and even enlarged, the sweep has given to the river in the Lama's delineation of its course, and carried the northern branch of it still higher, to latitude 36° nearly. 

In Major RENNELL'S first map of Hindustan, D'ANVILLE'S construction was in this instance copied almost exactly. Major RENNELL, however, was not insensible to the unsatisfactory character of the authorities, which D'ANYILLE followed  and  in his memoir published in 1783, declared his distrust of those materials, which, for want of better, he had been under the necessity of employing  and intimated a suspicion, that the Ganges does not make so large a sweep to the north-west as has been given to it.

ANQUETIL DU PERRON had previously in 1776 pronounced Lama's work to be faulty, erroneous, and in short unworthy of credit. It is needless to repeat his arguments; which are forcible and convincing, arising naturally out of the account given of Luma's survey by its publishers. It is indeed evident that the sources and subsequent course of a river could not be laid down by the ablest geographer, with any approach to accuracy, from oral information, collected on the opposite side of a mountain, or rather chain of lofty mountains, in which it was said to take its origin. 

That such information  hastily gathered by inexperienced geographers as the Lamas were, must be grossly inaccurate, seems indisputable. They do not pretend to have seen any part of what they here describe. Their route, as traced in Du HALDE'S map of their survey, does not approach nearer to their celebrated lake Mapama than a quarter of a degree, and terminates at a mountain marked M. Kentais which  as before remarked  is the name of a chain of mountains, known to the Chinese as the western range in Tibet, and which is exhibited in Du HALDE'S map, and in the still ruder copy of the Lama's original delineation, .published by SOUCIET, as intervening between their last station and the lake in question. In short, all that is fairly deducible as authentic information, is, that the Lamas reached the chain of mountains which forms the south-western boundary of Tibet  and halting at the foot of the range, learned, from the inquiries which they there made, that the Ganges takes its the rise in the opposite side of that chain of mountains. 

But the whole of their sketch of the river's course, from the 36th degree of longitude (from Pekin) where their route terminates, to the 43 degrees, in which they make the two furthest branches of the Ganges turn due south after a westerly course, and thence return by an easterly course to the same longitude, with little difference of latitude, must be deemed vague and imaginary, being at best founded on oral information, and very imperfect notices, hastily collected in a season of danger and perturbation.

ANQUETIL DU PERRON, who, as before observed,  rejected, on good grounds, the Lama's authority for the sources of the Ganges, published in 1784, the result of the geographical researches of father TIEFFENTHALLER, a Jesuit missionary in India. With the usual partiality of a first publisher, he places great faith in the accuracy of the missionary's itinerary and maps. They were certainly not undeserving of attention. But TIEFFENTHALLER had not .surveyed in person, either the Sarayu, of which he gives the course from the Lake Manasarovar to the plains of Hindustan nor the Ganges above Devamprayaga, ' the course of which he delineates to the Gangotri. I shall subsequently adduce proof of the latter part of this assertion. The former part of it has never been doubted. 

Major RENNELL on the erroneous supposition that TIEFFENTHALLER did himself visit Gangotri, has relied on the position assigned by him to that place. In the doubt even whether TIEFFENTHALLER might not actually have taken the latitude of Gangotri by observation. Major RENNELL did not venture to alter the parallel in which the missionary has placed it (33°,) though he conjectured it to be too far north  and proceeded to adjust to that position the supposed course of the Ganges, from the Lama's lake Mapama imagined being the same with the Manasarovar, to the cataract described by TIEFFENTHALLER at Gangotri.

It is strange that Major RENNELL should have ever supposed, that the missionary had visited Gangotri in person. ANQUETIL DU PERRON, who was in correspondence with him, says positively, that he did not.  It appears likewise, from TIEFFENTHALLER'S Own statement, that the route above Haridwar was not surveyed with a compass. He says so in express words, regarding the road from Haridwar to Devaprayag, of which he gives the estimated bearings  (very erroneously, however, as will be hereafter shown ) and he states no bearings for the remainder of the way to Srinagar, Badrinath  and Mana, which, from the general correctness of his information respecting names of places on this route, he might be supposed to have actually traveled. The route which he gives from Srinagar to the cow's mouth, contains few names of places, and no indication of his having traveled it  and towards the close, he expressly refers to the information of others .which he would not have done, if he had personally visited the spot, as supposed by Major RENNELL.

At the period of the publication of the second edition of his memoir, in 1792, Major RENNELL was possessed of correcter information, concerning the position of Srinagar, (visited in 1789, by Captain GUTHRIE and Mr. DANIEL which enabled him to detect the gross error committed by TIEFFENTHALLER, who placed Srinagar N. N. W. instead of E. N. E. from Haridwar. He was thence led to entertain a very just distrust of other information, resting on the same authority and to expect, from future researches, the acquisition of more correct knowledge. 


Reviewing the information than before him Major RENNELL concluded, that the Bhagirathi. and Alaknanda, the one from the N. the other from the N. E. join their streams at Devprayag, and then form the proper Gange of Hindustan, which afterward issues through mount Shivalik at Haridwar. That the Alaknanda is the largest of the two streams, and has its source in the snowy mountains of Tibet, and is traceable to Badrinath, nine journies above Srinagar. 


That the Alaknanda is probably the same river which appears in Du HALDE, under the name of Menchu. That the Bhagirathi has a source far more remote than the Alaknanda. Major RENNELL adds, as to the head of the Ganges itself .we cannot forget the particulars communicated by the Lamas, sent by CAMHI . whose report, although defective in geometrical exactness, has not ' fallen under any suspicions of error or misrepresentation, in plain matters of fact; and their report was, that the Ganges issues from the lake Mapama,  and runs westward afterward turning to the south and south-east.


In conformity with this notion, maps, which have been since published (as ARROWSMITH'S map of Asia in 1801, and of India in 18O4 ) continue to represent the Ganges within the chain of snowy mountains, flowing for many hundred miles, according to the Lama's notion of its course, from lake Mapama to Gangotri


This appeared to Col.COLEBROOKE, as to myself, to rest on very slender foundations. We thought it very improbable, that a stream. less than the Alaknanda  as the Bhagirathi was represented to be should have its source so much more remote than the larger stream and that flowing for many hundred miles through a mountainous region. it should receive no greater accessions from mountain torrents. It seemed very extraordinary  that the missionaries DESIDERI and FREYRE who visited Ladak where they resided nearly two months and who traveled for twenty-six days in the snowy mountains from the ascent of mount Cancel, (fourteen days from Kashmir,) to the town and fort of Ludak  and who describe the horrid aspect of the country, and its eternal 'winter should make no mention of so remarkable a circumstance as that of the Ganges flowing near to the town and for a considerable part of the way at very little distance from their route. 


Yet such js the course of the river and position of Ladak, according to the Lama's map. The Lama report too so far from being unimpeached  as is argued by Major RENNELL seemed on various accounts and for reasons long ago set forth by ANQUETIL DU PERRON, liable to great suspicion of error and misrepresentation.


 The information collected by them on the eastern side of a chain of mountains, concerning a river not seen nor identified by them, and said to flow on the western side of the same chain, was likely to be replete with error and  misrepresentation  and at best was assuredly lees to be depended on, than information procured on the hither side of the mountains, and insight of the river to be identified. Now, it is acknowledged by Major RENNELL, that until the result of the expedition sent by the emperor CAMHI (KANG-HI) was known in Europe, it was believed on the faith of the Hindus that the springs of the Ganges were .at the foot of mount Himalaya.


'The Hindus when questioned, do indeed refer to the fabulous accounts, which are to be found in their mythological  poems, entitled Purana`s, and which have been thence copied into graver works, including even the writings of their astronomers and according to those accounts, the Ganges has a long previous course from the Manasarovar or from another lake called Bindusarovara, before it issues from the Himalaya. But these are too much mixed with fable, and too full of contradictions and inconsistencies, to be considered as intended for grave geographical information and no Hindu has pretended, that the course of the river could now be traced between the cow's mouth and the sacred lake. 

Even PRAN-PURI who professed to have visited Manasarovara, and who attempted to assign the relative positions of Kailasa and Brahmedanda to which he referred the sources of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda declared that the river at Gangotri which was visited by him on his return from Kashmir, is there so narrow, that it may be leaped over. 


In his account of the Manasa lake, this pilgrim may have adapted his communications to leading questions which had been previously put to him and in what he affirmed concerning the rivers Sarayu  and Satadru issuing from the Manasarovar  as well as respecting the fountains of the Ganges on the mount Cailisa ( Mount Kailash), he may have been guided by the Pauranic fables. But regarding Gangotri, he professedly described what he saw and what he thus describes is incompatible with the notion of a distant source of the river. For a stream, so narrow that it may be crossed at a single leap, is a mere rivulet or brook, whose remotest fountain can be but few miles distant. 


To this reasoning might be objected the tenor of the Hindu fables, which assign to the Ganges along course from the lake to lake and from mountain to the mountain before its final descent from the snowy cliffs of Himalaya. I answer, that a legend, which makes the Ganges gush from heaven on Mount Meru and there dividing into four streams and falling from the stupendous height of Meru rest in as many lake from which it springs over the mountains through the air, just brushing their summits is undeserving of serious consideration.


 If it is proposed to receive fabulous accounts as entitled to some notice because they must be supposed to be grounded on a basis of truth, however false the superstructure which has been built on it. I reply, that no presumption can be raised on the ground of an acknowledged fable. After every gross impossibility has been rejected, what remains is merely possible, but not therefore probable. It is more likely to be false than true since it was affirmed by evidence demonstrably unworthy of credit.

The utmost then, which can be conceded, is that the conjectural basis of a geographical fable maybe used with very little confidence however as a guide to inquiry and research. Upon this principle it might not be unreasonable to institute researches with the view of ascertaining whether any lake exists within the snowy mountains, imperfect knowledge of which may have been the foundation of the fables concerning the Manasa and Vindusarovara lakes of the Hindu poets and the Mapana and Luncadeh of the Lamas and if any such lake exist  whether a river issue from it as generally affirmed  and whether that river be the Alaknanda as hinted not only in Puranas but in the astronomical work of BHASCARA, or the Sarayu as intimated in other Puranas and as affirmed both by PRANPUR  and by TIEFFENTHALLER'S emissary.

On a review of the whole subject, it appeared that the Ganges had been traced from Hindustan, by Hindu pilgrims, into the snowy mountains, which ' run in a direction from N. W. to S. E. on the frontier of India and had been approached on the side of Tibet by Lama surveyors whose route terminated at mount Kentaisse, a range of snowy mountains on the west and south of Tibet. The intervening space seemed to be the region of conjecture, of fable, and of romance. Whether a vast tract of alpine country intervenes, or  simply a ridge of lofty mountains, clothed in eternal snow, could not be judged from the uncertain positions at which the routes terminate, neither of which had been ascertained to any satisfactory degree of geographical precision. 


However, the latter position seemed the more probable conjecture, from the proximity of Badrinath to the termination of the Lama's route. For the temple of Badrinath was placed  by TIEFFENTHALLER at an estimated distance of 57 miles and by Colonel Hardwick at nine journies, from Srinagar  which is situated according to RENNELL in 30,1/4 °  N. and 79° E. and the route of the Lamas surveyors ends in the 36th degree of long  W. of Pekin, (81° E. of London) and lat. 29.5° according to Du HALDE'S map. Still, however, there was room for the supposition of a lake interposed, out of which a branch of the Ganges, perhaps the Alaknanda, might really issue conformably with the whole current of popular belief. 

This view appeared to present an object of inquiry, deserving the labor of the research. An actual survey of the Ganges  above Haridwar  (where it enters the British territories)  to the farthest point to which it had been traced by Hindu pilgrims and  to its remotest accessible source was an undertaking worthy of British enterprise. Perhaps the national credit was concerned not to leave in uncertainty and doubt a question which the English only have the best opportunity of solving  and one at the same time so interesting as that of exploring the springs of one of the greatest rivers of the old continent  and whose water fertilize and enrich the British territories, which it traverses in its whole navigable extent. 

These considerations partly the suggestions of his own mind and partly pressed his attention by me induced Lieut. col. COLEBROOKE to undertake the proposed enterprise for which the sanction of government was accordingly solicited and obtained.  But in consequence of illness, as already intimated, the execution of it devolved op his assistant Lieut. WEBB, who was accompanied on the journey by Capt. RAPER, and Cpt. HEARSAY. The journal of Capt. RAPER has furnished the narrative which is presented to society. 

The result of the survey is briefly stated in a letter from Lieutenant WEBB to my address. 

 Should you deem the intelligence collected in this tour worthy of communication you . may perhaps wish that in addition to the map I should give a summary of the geographical information required and these with the account which I formerly sent you of the trade carried on with the transalpine countries compose my exclusive share 'of the communication.


 Considering the most important information gained to be a knowledge that the sources of the Ganges are southward of the Himalaya . 1 subjoin my reasons for adopting this opinion.

It had been universally experienced during our journey that the supply of water from springs and numerous tributary streams was sufficient in a course of eight or ten miles  to swell the most minute rivulet into a considerable and unfordable stream at vice versa. Now the course of the Bhagirathi  and Alaknanda rivers was followed  till the former became shallow and almost stagnate pool  and the latter a small stream  and both having  in addition to springs and rivulets, a considerable visible supply from the thawing snow. it is therefore concluded by analogy, that the sources of these rivers could be little, if at all, removed from the stations at which these remarks were collected. 

The channel of a great river is usually a line to which the contiguous country gradually slopes  and perhaps on this account in the mountainous country  (as information and experience have taught me ) the sides of a river always furnish the most practicable road in the direction of its course. Now, if the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers had a passage through the Himalaya .it should follow that the channel of its stream would form the Ghatti by which the snowy range became passable. But, since this  principle holds good in practice and since it is utterly impossible to cross the snowy range in a direction which the channel of these rivers might be supposed to assume, I consider that at least all former reports are determined fictitious. 

I have conversed with two or three intelligent natives  whose information I have found correct in other instances  and who have in pilgrimages and on business traversed the northern skirt of the Himalaya and 1 have their assurances that no river except one, exists westward of the Manasarovar lake that this stream is called the Saturuz (Satluj)river and that it turns southerly west of Jamoutri

The extreme height of the Himalaya is yet a desideratum  but by a mean of numerous altitudes of a conspicuous peak took at different hours of the day with an excellent instrument  its distance being previously ascertained by observation from the well-determined extremities of a sufficient base  in the level country of Rohilkhand, and allowing an eighth of the intercepted arch, which is supposed to exceed the mean of' terrestrial refraction its height is calculated at twenty-one thousand feet above those plains.

 The usual rise of the rivers at Devprayag ascertained by measuring with a line the distance between the water's limits on a perpendicular scarp is about forty-five or forty-six feet the nature of the channel not admitting of' any increase in breadth. They are subject to irregular and temporary swells  of sometimes ten feet perpendicular in heavy or sudden falls of rain.

I entirely subscribe to the arguments of Lieutenant WEBB, which to my apprehension are conclusive. No doubt can remain that the different branches of the river  above Haridwar  take their rise on the southern side of the Himalaya  or chain of snowy mountains  and it is presumable that all the tributary streams of the Ganges including the Sarayu (whether its alleged source in the Manasarovar lake be credited or disbelieved) and the Yamuna  whose most conspicuous fountain is little distant from that of the Ganges also rise on the southern side of that chain of mountains. 


From the western side of the mountains, after the range taking a sweep to the north, assumes a new direction in the line of the meridian arise streams tributary to the Indus and perhaps the Indus itself. 

From the other side of this highest land  (for it is hardly necessary to remark  that the remotest fountains of rivers mark the highest ground ) a declivity to the north or west gives to the mountain torrents  and finally to the rivers which they compose  one or other of these directions. It is probably true  that the sources of the Sampoo or Brahmaputra  and its tributary streams are separated only by a narrow range of snow-clad peaks from the sources of the rivers which constitute the Ganges or which serve to swell its stream and the whole province of Ladak elevated and rugged as it is most likely declines from its southern limit to both the north and west.  



This notion is supported by the information received from traders who traffic between Hindustan and Tibet as Lieut. WEBB has remarked  and it is countenanced by routes from Cashmir (Kashmir ) to Ladak with which Major WILFORD furnished me and which were collected by him From merchants accustomed to traveling between these countries.



In short, it can scarcely be doubted that the snowy mountains are seen from Hindustan and especially from Rohilkhand is the highest ground between the level plains of India and the elevated regions of southern Tartary. Whether the altitude of the highest peaks -of Himalaya be quite so great as Lieut. W.EBB information and observation I will not venture to affirm. The possible error from the uncertainty respecting the quantity of the refraction is considerable  and, owing to disappointment in the supply of instruments  no barometrical observation could be made to confirm or check the conclusions of a trigonometrical calculation. Without however supposing the Himalaya to exceed the Andes there is still room to argue  that an extensive range of  mountains  which rear  high above the line of perpetual snow, in an almost tropical latitude, an uninterrupted chain of lofty peaks, is neither surpassed nor rivaled by any other chain of mountains but the Cordilleras of the Andes.






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Web resultThis view appeared to present an object of inquiry, deserving the labour - of. the research. An actual survey of the Ganges, above Ha~idtoifv, (where it enters the B')"itish territories,) . to the farthest point to which it had been traced by Hindzb pil~rins, and , to its remotest accessible source, was an undertaking worthy of British entGrprise. Perhaps the national credit was concerned, not to !cave in qnceflainty and doubt a question which the Engliuh only have the best opportunity of solving : and one at the same time sa interesting, as that of explarinq the springs of.one of the greatest rivers af the old continent, and whose wabers fertilize and ,enrich the British territoiies, which it traverses in its whole navigable exten

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