Flowing some 1,569 miles from India's western Himalayas, across northern India, into Bangladesh and out into the Bay of Bengal, more than just a symbol of India, the Ganges is the lifeblood of millions of Indians who live along its banks, home to endangered Ganga river dolphins, and the most sacred river in Hinduism, worshipped as the Hindu goddess Ganga. Hindus bathe in its waters, paying homage to both ancestors and gods as they cup the holy river water in their hands, lifting it and letting it fall back, offering flowers and rose petals, and floating shallow clay dishes filled with oil, and lit with wicks. Every three years, Kumbh Mela - a mass Hindu pilgrimage, and the most sacred - is one of the world's largest festivals, as millions of Hindus flock to certain sites on the river banks for ritual bathing, religious discussions, devotional singing, and mass feeding of holy men and women and the poor, to remember the triumph of good over evil during a battle between Hindu gods and demons over a pitcher (or kumbh) which had been filled with the nectar of immortality. During the fight, the pitcher broke, scattering drops of nectar in the four cities of Nashik, Ujjain, Haridwar, and Allahabad, the very cities along the Ganges where pilgrims flock to during Kumbh Mela, although the precise location rotates.
Many Ganges river cruises offer round trips from the bustling city of Kolkata, which began life as an East India Company trading post and served as India's capital under the British Raj between 1773 and 1911, and is today known for its grand colonial architecture, cultural festivals, and Mother Teresa's tomb in the headquarters of Missionaries of Charity, which she'd founded. Visiting former British and French colonial outposts, Bengal's terracotta temples, and remote, rural villages, Ganges river cruises also commonly visit the 'Temple City' of Kalna which, with 108 elaborate structures devoted to the god Shiva in the Rajbari complex, boasts the region's densest concentration of temples, as well as Patna, and a Ganges river cruise will also often be combined with Delhi and India's famous 'Golden Triangle', either before or after the cruise itself. British colonial steamer services used to operate between Kolkata and Patna, sometimes going further up north, and today improved navigation means that Patna can be reached year-round, and the holy city of Varanasi is accessible at certain times too. Some river cruises include India's spiritual capital of Varanasi, too.