Sisters of the Sacred River: The Trailblazing Ganga Girls


Last year marked the beginning of a breathtaking journey that stirred my soul and ignited a fire within me. It all started with pioneering the Ganga Girls all-girls kayak expedition, a first in India. Ganga Girls was the start of what is my ongoing dream: creating a space for vulnerable women to experience kayaking on the holy waters of Ganga with the support of other women. As we geared up for the second edition this spring, I never anticipated the extraordinary turn it would take: the birth of Nari Nauka, India’s inaugural all-female guide course.

The ten of us had spent months honing our kayaking skills together and journeying to the far reaches of Arunachal Pradesh for the Tawang Chu Festival. As the second event approached, we donned our Ganga Girls t-shirts, ready to conquer the waves.

The eve of our expedition was anything but smooth sailing. My head ached, a souvenir from an untimely collision with a wall, and our media crew had lost contact with the drone mid-flight. Not every woman felt ready for the rapids ahead. Still, we pressed on, commencing our journey with a traditional puja: six girls set to make history.

The Ganga Girls is a force to be reckoned with–a collective of fierce, indomitable women who thrive amidst the roar of the river. From the heart of Rishikesh to the far-flung corners of the globe, we hail from diverse walks of life, bound together by a common aspiration: to carve out our own destinies. For many of us, becoming river guides was a dream we never dared to entertain. The rafting and kayaking community in India has long been marred by a gender gap, but here was our chance to bridge that chasm, one bold stroke at a time.

We would spend the next three days descending the Ganges from the Koteshwar Dam to NIM Beach by kayak alongside three female paddlers from overseas. Never before had a group of women paddled this stretch, and its crystal blue waters would be no walk in the park. Even camping was challenging!

That first night, we had to cross the river and climb a small rock hill to reach our food and accommodation, organized by ShivShakti, in a small village called Kandi. I wasn’t sure if we would make it until I saw Jak Fantastic on her crutches, helping other girls to the top.

That evening, we discussed how far we’d already come. Sheetal and Beena reflected on the opportunities they’d had since the first Ganga Girls Expedition and how seeing their success had made their families believe in them more. Kashish, who was on her first expedition ever, expressed a sense of hope and the desire to continue being on the river.

Sunrise found us meditating on the banks of the Ganga River. Today, we’d face our fiercest rapids yet, The Wall and Dennel Dip. But first, a hike up to our favorite waterfall to help calm our minds. A sense of empowerment surged as we navigated the swirling currents. Each decision made and obstacle overcome reinforced our belief in ourselves and our capabilities, our self-belief bolstered by the camaraderie that bound us.

We finished the day by practicing our skills, flipping on purpose, ferrying across currents, and catching eddies, always with bigger and bigger smiles. Sat in a circle that evening, we shared our triumphs and fears, offering support and encouragement in equal measure. We were sisters of the river, the depth of our connection increasingly evident.

A mixture of excitement and nerves percolated as we braced ourselves for the commercial section. Despite our growing confidence, today we’d need to navigate raft traffic and the biggest rapids of the trip. We all felt a twinge of fear in the first big rapid—it was high water! But all went well. Next was Crossfire, the most technical rapid in the entire section.

Crossfire begins with some fun waves before it curves into a big wall with a very strong eddy of boilers and whirlpools where nobody wants to get stuck. We snuck through from the middle line, but watching the girls charge through was definitely nerve-wracking! At Body Surfing, we tried to get on top of the waves, some avoiding the big surf wave at the top left. The next few rapids were absolute fun.

As I led the last big rapid, I felt overwhelmingly proud. The way we had come together and looked after each other was incredible. Everyone reached the take-out triumphant. This expedition had a profound impact on each of us, and we looked to the next chapter—Nari Nauka—with hearts full of hope and dreams as boundless as the river itself.

Driving to the sacred confluence of the Bhagirathi and Alakananda Rivers, which together form the Great Ganga River at Devprayag, the excitement was palpable. It was really happening! The first women’s whitewater guide training in India was heading to put-in (at one of the most sacred places on Earth)!

Elisha, our ACA instructor, briefed us on how the day would go. Chatter filled the bus as we drove, and I gleamed with joy to see so many girls come together, so many girls willing to take on the unknown and defy the status quo. Despite our success kayaking, everyone was a little nervous—me included.

At the put-in, it was time for the first lesson: how to pump, rig, and pack our rafts. We had two paddle boats, one oar boat, and two more oar boats with all our food, rowed by our senior Sehdev bhai and Bhupi, our cook and helper. Some girls went with Julie and Jeremy on the paddle boats, while two of us joined Elisha in the oar boat.

We spent the morning getting familiar with the boats and strokes, prying and drawing, pushing and pulling our way through the flats. Being around such a rad group of ladies was the best feeling ever. I couldn’t help shouting, “Oh my god! I can’t believe I’m actually in a raft being guided by a girl!!!” Soon, a different refrain would echo throughout the canyon: “I can’t believe I’M guiding a raft!!!”

At Byas Ghat, our first camp, we divided jobs among the crew, filling water tanks, setting up toilet tents, and helping set up the kitchen, etc. That evening, we gathered under the setting sun. Elisha led the daily debrief and I served as translator. There were plenty of laughs and emotions, and I could see the start of a strong connection between the women. Elisha’s debrief would become our favorite part of each day, a chance to reflect, learn, to offer praise and support.

The following morning began with a river hydrology session led by Julie and Elisha. Once on the river, Elisha demonstrated strokes that we did our best to copy. Some of the girls confronted their fear of heights, our joy echoing down the canyon as they leapt from a cliff into the water below. Later, during River Hydrology Part 2, our shouts of encouragement carried over fierce winds as we caught each eddy at our campsite.

Day three started with practice throw bagging, raft flips and re-flips while some girls worked on their swimming confidence. We had the largest rapids ahead of us, and everyone was excited to take the raft through what we had kayaked a few days earlier. At the largest rapid, the Wall, we scouted and discussed who wanted to guide. Excitement and nerves warred in my stomach: I was going to guide the oar boat.

I watched the paddle boats enter the rapid, unsure if I wanted to repeat their line. My heart beat faster as I approached the first big drop. I had kayaked the Wall dozens of times, but rowing felt entirely different. I pushed and pulled as the waves blinded me, relying on feel and instinct.

Looking back at the rapid, I couldn’t stop the grin that spread across my face. Julie and Elisha joked they could physically see our confidence growing as we sat taller, called commands a little louder and fought for the guide seat.

We reached the take-out proud of what we had accomplished but knowing more challenging days were still to come. Tomorrow, we’d repeat the day section doing everything by ourselves, from rigging to guiding the rapids—minus the Wall Rapid. Then, the next day was our final test. It would also be our final chance to pass the raft flip and re-flip, which felt impossible at times.

All day on the river and during practice that evening, words of encouragement sounded as we cheered each other on. We went to bed tired but satisfied. That day, we had all done something we once thought wasn’t meant for us.

Our final test would begin at the regular put-in Shivpuri; we’d have 16 km of Class III-IV to demonstrate our skills. We started with SRT basics: Swiftwater swims, river crossings, live bait, etc., before moving downstream.

Without Julie and Elisha coaching, we were quieter, more focused, and alert, all determined to nail each line. Pulling up at the take-out together a final time, I felt a wash of emotion. We had done it. We had found a river family, we found a home, and we had become the first ACA-certified Ganga Girls in India.

In the heart of every great change lies a passionate individual with a vision and a belief that they can make a difference. Nari Nauka was born out of a deep-seated desire to see a transformation on the sacred waters of the Ganges. When Jeremy saw the absence of female guides in India, she knew she had to act.

“I believed that I could create an avenue for change, a pathway to empowerment through the river,” says Jeremy. Crucial support and partnership came from local outfitter Red Chilli Adventure, who shared her vision for change.

“For me, getting women on the river as guides is not just a goal, but a necessity. There’s no reason why guiding should be a male-dominated profession. The river is a place of connection and belonging, and everyone who feels its pull should have the opportunity to guide.”

Jeremy considers the opportunity to receive instruction from fellow women essential. “Gender-specific skills and approaches play a crucial role in women’s success in whitewater adventures. Creating a nurturing and supportive environment is key, especially in an industry historically dominated by males,” she continues.

The time for change in the rafting industry on the Ganges is now. This initiative marks a significant evolution. Nari Nauka isn’t just about guiding on the river. It’s about empowerment, community, and the endless potential of women on the water. The impact is undeniable–economic opportunities, a connection to the global whitewater community, and an unparalleled chance to recognize and own one’s strength. The floodgates are open, and the possibilities are endless.

These women are hungry for knowledge, growth, and opportunity. Their reasons for joining the Nari Nauka course are as varied as their backgrounds and experiences. Some came with dreams of building a career on the river they loved. Others sought to support their families. For some, it was about being a part of history or making history themselves.

“This week has been powerful beyond measure, and the transformation I witnessed among the Nari Nauka participants was nothing short of remarkable,” agrees Elisha. A single mom who fought to find her place on the river, Elisha believes that, “the more we open women’s eyes to their own power and help them claim that power, the more they are able and inspired to help other women to do the same, and those ripples can travel indefinitely.”

Nari Nuka is just the first drop in the ocean.


Guest contributor Naina Adhikari is India’s number-one female kayaker and the founder of the Ganga Girls. A Class IV ACA-certified raft guide, Naina’s dream is to open an NGO that creates a space for survivors of abuse and human trafficking to experience her home river, the Ganges, and the empowerment that comes from navigating its holy waters. 

Editor’s note: The Ganga Girls Expedition wouldn’t be possible without the support of Team4Adventure Kayak School for logistics, ShivShakti Yogpeeth for lodging, and media by Simplifly Sports. Nari Nauka wouldn’t be possible without the support of Red Chilli Adventure, and of course, Jeremy, Julie and Elisha.

Photography courtesy of Kent Christensen, Naina Adhikari, Aryan Panwar and Abhishek Bhandari.