charisma of holy waters

The mystique of holy waters

Exploring the stories behind some of India's most revered pilgrim rivers for a holy bath.

Sipping the holy water three times while repeating God’s name is believed to make one pure. It is the rite of achamana. Then, there’s jalaanjali, where a handful of water is offered to God to make its every drop holy. Performing jalajapam involves chanting mantras while standing in the holy waters; it is said to amplify the impact of the mantras. Jalaadhara is a kind of penance observed by standing under the strong flow of a waterfall; the water pressure on the head is said to remove evil thoughts from one’s mind.

Hindu customs are never devoid of water in their rites. Jala–water–is considered a pure and precious element in the Hindu culture, and is therefore likened to nectar, medicine and even amrit (drink of immortality). Flowing water–like in rivers–is considered particularly pure. Moving water is known to increase negative ions in the environment, which improves one’s  wellbeing. No wonder Hindus believe a bath in holy rivers can further one on their path to attaining moksha. Soulveda explores the stories behind some of the most revered pilgrim rivers for a holy bath.


Haridwar in North India is home to a significant landmark–Har Ki Pauri–that is considered holy by the Hindus. The site is on the bank of River Ganga, where Garuda (a mythical bird) is said to have dropped some amrit from a pitcher, after the Samudra Manthan, the mythical battle of the gods with asuras (demon clan) over the amrit. So, a dip in the waters of Ganga is known to bestow immunity and robust health upon devotees.

The name Har Ki Pauri literally translates to ‘Lord Shiva’s steps’. Yet another legend goes that Lord Vishnu (the preserver) and Lord Shiva (the destroyer) once visited the brahmakund (stepped temple tank) here. Devotees believe that the large footprint on a stone wall by the tank is Vishnu’s. Even Lord Brahma (the creator) is said to have visited the pond to perform a yagna (sacrificial ritual). So, a dip in Har Ki Pauri is considered all the more holy for the presence of the trimurti (divine trinity) energies, which can balance the mind, body and soul of the devotees.


The city of Surat in Gujarat was previously known as ‘Suryapur’, meaning the ‘City Of Sun’. It probably derives its name from the legend about the Tapti river that flows in its land. According to Hindu Puranas, Tapti is the daughter of Sun God Surya. They say Surya created Tapti to save himself from the intensity of his own heat, and that every solar eclipse, he meets with his daughter. Therefore, a holy bath in the River Tapti is considered especially auspicious during the celestial event.

As fate would have it, King Dasharatha experienced immense grief when he was forced to send his eldest son Lord Rama on exile. The king died before he could ever see his son again.


The city of Ayodhya needs no introduction. Believed to be the birthplace of Lord Rama and the setting of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Ayodhya is considered one of the holiest places in India. This city is also home to the river Sarayu, one of the sacred water bodies according to Hindu scriptures.

Legend has it that King Dasharatha (Lord Rama’s father) accidentally killed Shravan Kumar (a devoted son who was carrying his old and blind parents on a balance) by the river Sarayu. Even though Dasharatha apologised to the parents for his folly, their pain was too much to bear. And so, the old couple cursed the king with putrashoka (the grief of the loss of a son). As fate would have it, King Dasharatha experienced immense grief when he was forced to send his eldest son Lord Rama on exile. The king died before he could ever see his son again. Later, when Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya, he divided the kingdom between his sons Lava and Kusha, before submerging himself in the waters of the Sarayu. Therefore, devotees today believe a bath in this river can wash away their sins and provide them moksha.


Kudalasangama is a temple town in Karnataka, well-known for the temple of Sangamanatha. It is considered one of the most auspicious Shivalinga temples in the country, as the deity here is a swayambhu, a self-born linga (Shiva/masculine energy form) resting on a vyoni (Shakti/feminine energy form). Before devotees enter this sanctum of Shiva-Shakti union, they take a holy bath in the Kudalasangama, where the rivers Krishna and Malaprabha unite. It is also believed that the river Malaprabha originated to provide safety and wellbeing to the humankind. So, devotees make it a point to take a dip in this sangama (union of rivers) to cleanse their bodily impurities before seeking purity of mind from the Shiva-Shakti union.

The day of Ganga’s descent to earth is celebrated as Makar Sankranti, and hence, a holy bath in her waters on this day is said to cleanse one of all sins.


Gangasagar, also called Sagardwip, is a confluence of river Ganga and the Bay of Bengal. Its banks are home to the Kapil Muni temple, where thousands of Shiva devotees gather on the day of Makar Sankranti.

Kapil Muni, it is said, was no god, but a saint. According to a legend, Lord Indra once stole King Sagar’s sacrificial horse and hid it next to saint Kapil Muni’s ashram (spiritual hermitage). King Sagar sent his 60,000 sons to find the horse for him. Seeing the horse near the ashram, the sons accused Kapil Muni of stealing it. Angered by the false accusation, the sage burned them all and condemned their souls to hell.

However, upon learning of their error in judgement, Kapil Muni softened. Through deep meditation, the sage requested Goddess Parvati to descend to earth and perform the tarpan (last rite of mixing the ashes with the holy water) for the sons. He also requested Lord Shiva that Ganga descend to earth and help the sons attain moksha. While Goddess Parvati returned to Deva Loka (the dwelling of gods), Ganga stayed on earth. The day of Ganga’s descent to earth is celebrated as Makar Sankranti, and hence, a holy bath in her waters on this day is said to cleanse one of all sins.


Prayag (commonly called Allahabad), in North India, is particularly noted for its Kumbh Mela festival that occurs once every 12 years. It is said that Adi Shankaracharya, the founder of Advaita philosophy, started this festival in an attempt to unite people of all faiths. Even to this day, people from all walks of life dip into the triveni sangam (confluence of three holy rivers) of Ganga, Yamuna and the ‘invisible’ Saraswati rivers. They believe that in surrendering to the idea of oneness, they can cleanse their souls of all sins and attain moksha.


Bhagamandala in Coorg district in Karnataka is a holy site, owing to the presence of the triveni sangam of rivers Kaveri, Kanika and (the mythical) Sujyoti. The Tula Sankramana festival is also celebrated on the banks of this river. Pilgrims take a holy bath in this sangam before proceeding to Talacauvery for the Sankramana festivities. The water from the sangam is given to a family member at the time of their death. It is believed to ease their suffering and help them attain moksha.


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