The rivers in India play an important role in the lives of its people. They provide potable water, cheap transportation, electricity, and the livelihood for many people nationwide. This easily explains why nearly all the major cities of India are located by the banks of rivers. The rivers also have an important role in Hindu Religion and are considered holy by many Hindus in the country.[1]

Seven major rivers along with their numerous tributaries make up the river system of India. The largest basin system pours its waters into the Bay of Bengal; however, 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 following main watersheds:

  1. Aravalli range
  2. Eastern Ghats ranges
  3. Himalaya and Karakoram ranges
  4. Western Ghats ranges
  5. Vindhya and Satpura ranges and Chotanagpur plateau in central India

eastern Himalayan glaciers in the Indian subcontinent are broadly divided into three river basins, namely the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. The Indus basin has the largest number of glaciers (3500), whereas the Ganges and Brahmaputra basins contain about 1000 and 660 glaciers, respectively.[2] The Ganges is the largest river system in India. However, these rivers are just three among many. Other examples are Narmada, Tapathi, and Godavari.

The Indo-Gangetic plains

The Indo gangetic plains are known as Ganga-Satluj Ka Maidaan (गँगा सतलुज का मैदान), this area is drained by 16 major rivers. The major Himalayan Rivers are the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra. These rivers are long, and are joined by many large and important tributaries. Himalayan rivers have long courses from their source to sea (in India Arabian sea and Bay of Bengal).

Laxman Jhoola in Rishikesh

Aravalli Range River System

Following rivers flow from the Aravalli range, both northwards to Yamuna as well as southwards to Arabian Sea.

Ganges River System

The major rivers in this system are (in order of merging, from west to east)

Before entering Bangladesh, near Farakka in Malda District, Ganga leaves a distributary Hoogly, 450 kilometres (280 mi) which provides water for irrigation in West Bengal

Brahmaputra River System

The Brahmaputra river originates / starts from Tibet.

Main articles: Brahmaputra River and List of rivers by length

Indus River System

The Indus River originates in the northern slopes of the Kailash range near Lake Manasarovar in Tibet. Although most of the river's course runs through neighbouring Pakistan, as per as regulation of Indus water treaty of 1960, India can use only 20 percent of the water in this river. A portion of it does run through Indian territory, as do parts of the course. The rivers forming Panjnad are Chenab, Satluj, Jhelum, Ravi and Beas These tributaries are the source of the name of the Punjab of South Asia; the name is derived from the panch ("five") and aab ("water"), hence the combination of the words (Punjab) means "land with the water of five rivers". The Indus is 3,610 kilometres (2,240 mi) long.

The major rivers in Indus river system are (in order of their length):

Annual flows and other data

India experiences an average precipitation of 1,170 millimetres (46 in) per year, or about 4,000 cubic kilometres (960 cu mi) of rains annually.[9] Some 80 percent of its area experiences rains of 50 inches (1,300 mm) or more a year. However, this rain is not uniform in time or geography. Most of the rains occur during its monsoon seasons (June to September), with the northeast and north receiving far more rains than India's west and south. Other than rains, the melting of snow year round over the Himalayas feeds the northern rivers to varying degrees. The southern rivers, however experience more flow variability over the year. For the Himalayan basin, this leads to flooding in some months and water scarcity in others. Despite extensive river system, safe clean drinking water as well as irrigation water supplies for sustainable agriculture are in shortage across India, in part because it has, as yet, harnessed a small fraction of its available and recoverable surface water resource.[10] India harnessed 761 cubic kilometres (183 cu mi) (20 percent) of its water resources in 2010, part of which came from unsustainable use of groundwater. Of the water it withdrew from its rivers and groundwater wells, India dedicated about 688 cubic kilometres (165 cu mi) to irrigation, 56 cubic kilometres (13 cu mi) to municipal and drinking water applications and 17 cubic kilometres (4.1 cu mi) to industry.[9]

According to 2011 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, India's basin wise distribution of catchment area and utilizable surface water resources is presented in the following table:[9]

Basin number River basin unit Region Draining into Catchment area
(% of river
irrigated India)
Additional available
surface water
1.1 Ganges (GBM) North  Bangladesh 26.5 525.02 250
1.2 Brahmaputra (GBM) Northeast  Bangladesh 6 537.24 24
1.3 Meghna/Barak (GBM) East  Bangladesh 1.5 48.36
2 Other Northeast rivers Northeast  Myanmar,
1.1 31
3 Subernarekha East-southeast Bay of Bengal 0.9 12.37
4 Brahmani-Baitarani East-southeast Bay of Bengal 1.6 28.48 6.8
5 Mahanadi Central-east Bay of Bengal 4.4 66.88 18.3
6 Godavari Central Bay of Bengal 9.7 110.54 50
7 Krishna Central Bay of Bengal 8 78.12 76.3
8 Pennar Southeast Bay of Bengal 1.7 6.32 58
9 Kaveri South Bay of Bengal 2.5 21.36 6.9
10 East flowing rivers between Mahanadi and Pennar Central-east Bay of Bengal 2.7 22.52 19
12 East flowing rivers between Kanyakumari and Pennar Southeast Bay of Bengal 3.1 16.46 13.1
13 West flowing rivers between Tadri and Kanyakumari Southwest Arabian Sea 1.7 113.53 16.7
14 West flowing rivers between Tapi and Tadri Southwest Arabian Sea 1.7 87.41 24.3
15 Tapi Central-west Arabian Sea 2 14.88 11.9
16 Narmada Central-west Arabian Sea 3.1 45.64 14.5
17 Mahi Northwest Arabian Sea 1.1 11.02 34.5
18 Sabarmati Northwest Arabian Sea 0.7 3.81 3.1
19 West flowing rivers between Kutch and Saurashtra Northwest Arabian Sea 10 15.1 1.9
20 Rajasthan inland basin Northwest  India 0 Negligible 15
21 Indus tributaries Northwest  Pakistan 10 73.31 46
(per International Treaty)
100 1869.37

The peninsular river system

The main water divide in peninsular rivers is formed by the Western Ghats, which run from north to south close to the western coast. Most of the major rivers of the peninsula such as the Mahanadi, the Godavari, the Krishna and the Kaveri flow eastwards and drain into the Bay of Bengal. These rivers make delta at their mouths. The Narmada, Sharavati, Periyar and Tapti are the only long rivers, which flow west and make estuaries.

text chart showing confluence of rivers in India
This chart shows the tributaries and distributaries of major rivers of India. The merging of cells to the right side each time indicates getting supply from a tributary and vice versa. The bottom-most row shows other rivers with no major helping rivers (Saryu is an exception). Flow of the rivers is assumed to be from left to right.

See also


  1. ^ Sunil Vaidyanathan, Rivers of India, ISBN 978-8189738884, 2012
  2. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-05-14. Retrieved 2015-09-03.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) page no 361
  3. ^ Gupta, S.P., ed. (1995), The lost Sarasvati and the Indus Civilization, Jodhpur: Kusumanjali Prakashan
  4. ^ Cultural Contours of India: Dr. Satya Prakash Felicitation Volume, Vijai Shankar Śrivastava, 1981. ISBN 0391023586
  5. ^ "Sahibi river". Archived from the original on 2017-10-12. Retrieved 2017-06-18.
  6. ^ "Books: Page 41, 42, 43, 44, 47 (b) Sahibi Nadi (River), River Pollution, By A.k.jain". Archived from the original on 2023-07-16. Retrieved 2023-03-17.
  7. ^ Minerals and Metals in Ancient India: Archaeological evidence, Arun Kumar Biswas, Sulekha Biswas, University of Michigan. 1996. ISBN 812460049X.
  8. ^ "ganga - INDIA WRIS WIKI". India Wris Wiki. 24 August 2021. Archived from the original on 16 July 2023. Retrieved 7 September 2023.
  9. ^ a b c FAO, India - Rivers Catchment Archived 2014-04-11 at the Wayback Machine, Aquastat, United Nations (2011)
  10. ^ K.L. Rao, India's Water Wealth, ISBN 978-8125007043, 1979