This legend relates to the descent of the river Ganga
from the heavens into the earth.
The ruler of Ayodhya, King Sagar, an ancestor of Rama,
of the solar race performed the Aswamedha Sacrifice 99 times, where each time, the horse
that he sent around the earth, returned to his kingdom unchallenged. Indra the King of
Gods, in an act of jealosy, kidnapped and hid the horse in the hermitage of Kapila Muni -
when the 100th sacrifice was being performed.
The sixty thousand sons of Kapila came to the
hermitage of Kapila in their search for the horse, and mistaking Kapila Muni to be the
abductor, attacked him. An enraged Kapila Muni burnt the 60000 princes to ashes.
One of the grandchildren of King Sagar, hearing about
the plight of his father and uncles, came in search of Kapila Muni and asked him for a
solution to the problem, and was advised that the waters of the river Ganga would
miraculously bring back the dead princes to life.
His descendant Bhagiratha, continued his efforts to
bring the Ganga to the earth from the heavens to purify the ashes of his ancestors and
bring them back to life. Bhagirata's prayers were rewarded and the Ganges rushed to the
earth; however, the might of the river was too much for the earth to withstand. Fearing a
catastrophe, Bhagirata prayed to Shiva, who held out his matted hair to catch the river as
she descended, and thus softened her journey to the earth. The Ganga thus became an
attribute of Shiva. This manifestation of Shiva is known as Gangaadhara.
Bhagiratha patiently led the river down to the sea
from the Himalayas; however , being unable to locate the exact spot where the ashes lay,
he requested Ganga to follow her own course. The Ganga, therefore in the region of Bengal,
divided herself into a hundred mouths and formed the Ganges delta. One of these streams
washed the ashes, and offered salvation to the souls of the departed. The island with
which this incident is associated is referred to as Sagar
Island, where a bathe at the confluence of the river and the sea is
considered to be sacred on Makara Sankaranti.
Bhagirata's penance and the descent of the Ganges are
portrayed in stone at the Pallava heritage site Mahabalipuram near Chennai.