Ganges in Kalidasa & Sangam Tamil Literature

(This is the fourth in the series of Kalidasa and Sangam (Cankama) Tamil literature- part of my thesis proving that the Date of Kalidasa was around First Century BC-Pre Sangam period-S swaminathan)

No river on earth commands so much respect and reverence as the Holy Ganga. We see this river in Rig Veda, the oldest religious scripture in the world, the great Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, Kalidasa’s works and in the ancient Sangam Tamil literature. The Tamils considered it the holiest river. Whenever they want to say something holy they always compared the Ganges. Just to exaggerate they used to say X or Y is holier than Ganga. All the rivers are considered mother in Hindu mythologies. But Ganga Matha( Mother Ganges)  has a very special place in the minds of Indians.

Ganges water was praised as the purest and cleanest water with miraculous properties even by the East India Company 300 years ago. When their ships were loaded with Ganges water for drinking purpose it never became stale (putrefy) even after several months where as other water loaded in different parts of the world went stale within a month. The Hindus knew its properties for thousands of years. The powerful Tamil kings went all the way to Himalayas and embossed their seals on the rocks there. When they came back they brought Ganges water after taking a holy dip. In the middle ages the Vaishnavite Alvars and the Saivite Nayanmars sang its praise in their hymns.

Cheran Senguttuvan of Sangam period brought stones from Himalayas twice for his mother Narchonai and another chaste woman Kannaki. Both the times he washed the stones in the Holy Ganges and made idols from them.

Even today Hindus fill in Ganges water in bottles and pots and bring them home to use it on special occasions. Even before bottling water became a roaring business, Ganges water was sold or distributed free of cost by the Hindu Charities. Everyday Madurai and Rameswaram temples use Ganges water for Abhishekam (bathing the gods). Truck loads of Ganges water come all the way from Himalayan destinations to these temples.

In Haridwar and Varanasi (Kasi), an evening Arthi is performed to Ganga Matha which is watched and worshipped by thousands of people. No river in the world has this type of daily worship. The world’s largest religious festival Kumbhamela attended by  twenty million people takes place every twelve years on the banks of river Ganges.

No wonder this mighty river finds a special place in every literary work of India. Kalidasa, the greatest of the secular Indian poets, even praises the Milky Way in the sky as Akasa Ganga (Ganges in the sky).

Hidden Treasure Under the Ganges

Tamil literature reveals some unknown, secret information about the Ganges. Poet Mamulanar in Akam 265 says that the Nanda Kings have hidden enormous treasure under the Ganges in Pataliputra (modern Patna in Bihar). He compares the mighty Himalayas and the enormous hidden treasure to the wealth the hero went after leaving the heroine all alone. Since there was no supporting information from other historical sources, the commentators also left us skeleton details only.

Kalidasa’s references to Ganges:

Mega 45, 65

Vikra. I -7 ,II 15, III-6, V-22

Kumara I-30, 54; VI 38, 57, 70; VII-41, 42;VIII-16

Ragu. II-26,IV 32, 36, 73,V 48, X 37, 63;XIII 20,54 to 57; XII-66;XIV-3, 52;XVI 33,34, 71;XVII 14

From Kumarasambhavam

“To her, those impressions were permanent, the lore  acquired in the past life, came at the time of instruction, as do the flocks of swans to the Ganges in autumn, or their own lustre to the medicinal herbs at the night” (1-30) I have already given the verse by Paranar (narri.356) where he sang about the Himalayas and the swans.

“O you, the most eminent of the twice born, I consider myself sanctified by these two only, by the fall of Ganges on my head, and water from your washed feet”(6-57)

“Just as Ganga is lauded by the foot of the supreme lord, so is she by you of lofty peaks, who are her second source” (6-70)

Ganga and Yamuna also, assuming visible forms and holding Chauries, served the god (7-42)

Mega. 51

The dark clouds at the top of the mountains look like dark elephants bathing in the Ganges.

The shadow of the dark clouds and the crystal clear Ganges water makes us think that river Yamuna mingles with the Ganges in a different place (Yamuna water is darker than Ganges).

Ragu 13-54 to 57

Kalidasa employs seven similes in this description of White Ganges and Dark Yamuna. The joining of the two rivers looks like a necklace of pearls and blue sapphires. Then it looks like a garland of white and blue flowers. In another place it is like white swans and black swans swimming together. In another place it likes the Rangoli on black agar wood with sandal paste. It also looks like the white moon light peeping through dark tree leaves. In another place it is like dark clouds floating in blue sky. Ganga and Yamuna together look like Shiva smeared with white ash with the snake around his neck (Ganges is Shiva and Yamuna is snake).

Paranar also follows Kalidasa and employs nine similes in Akam 178, but on a different theme.

Ragu 17-72

The clouds are praised for showering water on parched fields. But they are that generous only because of the sea. People forget the sea. King Athithi gave so much to the poets who in turn donated them to others. Though they were praised the original philanthropist Athithi was forgotten like the sea.

Tamil poets and Kalidasa knew that the sea was the source of clouds and rain. Kapilar in Puram 107 sings about it. People praise rain (Mari) when King Pari is more generous.

Tamil poets’ references to Ganges

Patti.190 (articles produced in the valleys of the Ganges and the Kavery)

Narr.369 (Nalvellaiyar);189 (Anonymous)

Puram 161 (Perunchittiranar)

Madu.696 Mankudi Maruthan (1000 branched Ganges)


Akam .265 (Mamulan)

Pari. 16-36

Post Sangam works: Silappadikaram mentions Ganges in 15 places; Manimegalai -4 places

Tamil literature uses Ganges as a simile for the generosity and philanthropy of kings and chieftains. They came to know about the river only from Kalidasa and other Sanskrit works.

Katiyalur  Uruttiran Kannanar (Perum. 429-431) says

As men who flee from peril slumber as they wait

For the boat that will ferry them across

The unfordable Ganga, scattering gold as it tears down

The lofty crest of the Himalaya where the gods dwell,

Lighting it up with its silvery billows (Perum. 429-431)

Vikramorvasiyam I-7 refers Ganges breaking its banks which is echoed by Tamil poet Perunchittiranar. He describes the mighty flow of Ganges in Puram. 161: the clouds raise from the sea, gather themselves, appear dark and huge like mountains in the sky, roar with thunder and pour the torrents; when such a rainy season is past and when the summer reigns supreme making the tanks and rivers everywhere dry, the Ganges flows full of water for the benefit of the whole of mankind. The poet compares Ganges to the generosity of Kumanan, a Tamil chieftain. The Ganges descending from the Himalayas is always overflowing its banks, he says.

Narrinai poet Madurai Nalvellaiyar (verse 369) used Ganges in a statement by a heroine. The heroine feels that her love is so powerful and influential that it over comes her self- control like the great floods in the Ganges that overflows the banks and smashes the dams in its course. Another anonymous poet says that the hero might have gone somewhere by a boat in the Ganges. Nal Velliyar just echoed Kumarasambhavam verse VIII-16 and Raguvamsam verse XII-66.

Tamils even knew that the Ganges branches into thousands of smaller streams just before entering into Bay of Bengal . Sangam poet Mankudi Maruthan compares the lively Madurai market to the Ganges. Saivite saint Appar also refers to it as thousand faced Ganges.

Milky Way

Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our Solar System. There are 200 to 400 billion stars. Astronomers estimate that there are ten billion habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy. If the night sky is clear we can see this galaxy with a lot of stars with a background of white light patch. Kalidasa refers to it in several places. In Tamil we come across it in Paripatal (16-36).

Ka lidasa refers to the Milky Way as Chaya Patham, Vyoma Ganga, Thri Marga, Thri Divasa and Akasa Ganga in Ragu I-78, XII-85, XIII-2, Kuma. I-28, IV-37.

NB: The Ganges has become more polluted in recent years. So readers are warned not to drink water  without boiling it. This is because of the industrial wastes mixing into it along its 1500 mile route. The medicinal qualities are still maintained at the source or very near the source in the Himalayas.

Supporting information from another website

The Ganges is 2525 kilometres long. Along its course, 27 major towns dump 902 million litres of sewage into it each day. Added to this are all those human bodies consigned to this holy river, called the Ganga by the Indians. Despite this heavy burden of pollutants, the Ganges has for millennia been regarded as incorruptible. How can this be?

Several foreigners have recorded the effects of this river’s “magical” cleansing properties:

  1. Ganges water does not putrefy, even after long periods of storage. River water begins to putrefy when lack of oxygen promotes the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which produce the tell-tale smell of stale water.
  2. British physician, C.E. Nelson, observed that Ganga water taken from the Hooghly — one of its dirtiest mouths — by ships returning to England remained fresh throughout the voyage.
  3. In 1896, the British physician E. Hanbury Hankin reported in the French journal Annales de l’Institut Pasteur that cholera microbes died within three hours in Ganga water, but continued to thrive in distilled water even after 48 hours.
  4. A French scientist, Monsieur Herelle, was amazed to find “that only a few feet below the bodies of persons floating in the Ganga who had died of dysentery and cholera, where one would expect millions of germs, there were no germs at all.

More recently, D.S. Bhargava, an Indian environmental engineer measured the Ganges’ remarkable self-cleansing properties:

“Bhargava’s calculations, taken from an exhaustive three-year study of the Ganga, show that it is able to reduce BOD [biochemical oxygen demand] levels much faster than in other rivers.”

Quantitatively, the Ganges seems to clean up suspended wastes 15 to 20 times faster than other rivers.

(Kalshian, Rakesh; “Ganges Has Magical Cleaning Properties,” Geographic, 66:5, April 1994.)

From Science Frontiers #94, JUL-AUG 1994. © 1994-2000 William R. Corliss


Tamil References:

நாள் தர வந்த விழுக் கலம் அனைத்தும்

கங்கை அம் பேர் யாற் கடல் படர்ந்தா அங்கு

அளந்து கடை அறியா வளம் கெழு தாரமொடு

மாங்குடி மருதன் (மதுரைக் காஞ்சி 695-697


இமையவர் உறையும் சிமையச் செவ்வரை

வெண் திரை கிழித்த விளங்கு சுடர் நெடுங்கோட்டுப்

பொன்கொழித்து இழிதரும் போக்கு அரும் கங்கைப்

பெரு நீர்ப் போகும் இரியல் மாக்கள் (பெரும்பா.429-432)


“நீண்டொலி அழுவம் குறைபட முகந்துகொண்டு;

ஈண்டுசெலல் கொண்மூ வேண்டுவயின் குழீஇப்

பெருமலை யன்ன தோன்றல் சூன்முதிர்பு,

உருமுரறு கருவியொடு, பெயல் கடன் இறுத்து,

வளமழை மாறிய என்றூழ்க் காலை,

மன்பதை எல்லாம் சென்றுணக் கங்கைக்

கரைபொரு மலிநீர் நிறைந்து தோன்றியாங்கு,

எமக்கும் பிறர்க்கும் செம்மலை யாகலின்” (புறம் 161)


மலர் மார்பிற் சோர்ந்த மலரிதழ் தா அய்

மீனாரம் பூத்த வியன் கங்கை நந்திய

வானம் பெயர்ந்த மருங்கொத்த லெஞ்ஞான்றும்

(பரிபாடல் 16-35/37 நல்லழிசியார்)


ஞெமையோங்கு உயர்வரை இமயத்து உச்சி

வா அன் இழிதரும் வயங்கு வெள் அருவிக்

கங்கையம் பேர்யாற்றுக் கரையிறந் திழிதரும்

சிறையடு கடும் புனல் அன்னவென்

நிறையடு காமம் நீந்துமாறே (நற்றிணை 369)


Appar :

நேர்ந்தொருத்தி ஒரு பாகத்து அடங்கக் கண்டு

நிலை தளர ஆயிரமா முகத்தினோடு

பாய்ந்தொருத்தி படர் சடை மேற் பயிலக் கண்டு

பட அரவும் பனி மதியும் வைத்த செல்வர் (அப்பர் தேவாரம்)


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  1. How listening to foreign languages can enrich your writing for Harvard's Nieman Storyboard - Shoba Narayan

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