Many thousands of years ago lived a king called Sagara. He had two wives, Sumati and Kesini.
Through Kesini, the king had a son called Asmanjas and, through Sumati, 60,000 sons. Asmanjas was a wicked prince ,but his son Anshuman was virtuous and much loved by his father’s subjects.
And so it came about that King Sagara decided to conduct the Ashvamedha Yagna (horse sacrifice). But Indra, king of gods, was threatened by Sagara’s growing power and so he stole the sacrificial horse and hid it in Sage Kapila’s ashram in the netherworld.
When the king discovered that the horse had been stolen, he asked his sons to find it. Sagara’s 60,000 sons laid waste to the earth searching for the horse. Finally, they found the tracks of the horse and discovered it led to the netherworld. They dug a huge tunnel and reached the ashram of the sage. When they saw the horse there, they assumed that the sage was the thief and rushed at him. The enraged sage turned all 60,000 princes into ashes.
When the princes didn’t return, the king sent his grandson Anshuman to find his uncles. Anshuman followed the trail through the destruction his uncles had wrought and came to the tunnel. He reached the ashram and apologised to the sage for his uncles’ conduct. Mollified, the sage allowed him to take the horse. Seeing that he was troubled by his uncles’ fate, the sage advised him to try and bring Ganga down to earth. When her waters flowed over the ashes, he said, the sins of the princes would be washed away and they would reach heaven.
Anshuman went back to his grandfather with the horse. Sagara then crowned him king and retired to the forest. Anshuman’s efforts to bring the Ganga down to earth were not fruitful. His son Dilipa did not succeed either. But Dilipa’s son Bhagiratha was determined to succeed. He entrusted the kingdom to his ministers and went to the forests to practise austerities to bring the Ganga to earth.
Bhagiratha prayed to Lord Brahma for many years and, finally, Brahma agreed to allow Ganga to come down to earth. But there was a problem: The force of Ganga’s descent would wash away the earth. And so Bhagiratha prayed to Lord Shiva to help break her fall.
Thus when Ganga began to fall, Shiva trapped her in his matted locks and allowed only a gentle trickle to flow down to earth. She followed Bhagiratha but, on the way, she destroyed the ashram of Sage Jahnu. In his anger, the sage swallowed Ganga but relented when Bhagiratha pacified him. Since Jahnu released her, Ganga was also named Jahnavi.
Finally, Bhagiratha reached the ashram of Sage Kapila where his ancestors’ ashes still lay. As Ganga flowed over the ashes, the souls of the princes were redeemed. Since this was achieved by Bhagiratha’s efforts, Ganga is also called Bhagirathi.