Millions Bathe in Ganges at World’s Biggest Festival

Ten million Hindu pilgrims and hundreds of ash-covered, naked holy men began streaming into the waters of the river Ganges on Wednesday at the world’s biggest religious festival.

The date, chosen by astrologers, is the “main royal bathing day” of the Kumbh Mela, a 104-day festival held in India every three years that is riot of colour and noise as well as a gigantic spectacle of religious piety.

Faithful Flock: A Hindu holy man amid Hindu worshippers.

Hindus assembled on 187 ghats – sets of steps leading into the water – for a dip in the fast-flowing and chilly river that they believe cleanses them of sin and frees them from the cycle of life and rebirth.

The highest-ranking holy men, the naked “naga sadhus”, consider themselves spiritual guardians of the Hindu faith and they were afforded the most auspicious moment midmorning to rush into the water.

Under the gaze of thousands of spectators, including foreign tourists, the bearded and dreadlocked holy men ran en masse into the water, brandishing tridents, swords and sticks as they went in up to their waists.

Sadhus are ascetics or wandering monks who renounce normal life and often live alone in India’s remote mountains and forests devoting themselves to meditation, but they emerge to lead the key Kumbh Mela bathing sessions.

“Everything is going very smoothly and there has been no problem with any unruly mobs,” Ashok Sharma, a press spokesman for the event, said. “More than one crore (10 million) have started to bathe today.”

But in one reported accident, two women pilgrims were killed after being run over by a speeding car carrying naga sadhus, the Press Trust of India news agency said, citing local police.

Dozens of one-way footbridges criss-cross the Ganges around Haridwar and a massive police presence of 16,000 was on hand to prevent crowd congestion that has triggered deadly stampedes in the past.

Hundreds were crushed to death underfoot in 1954 and dozens also died in 2003.

The festival rotates between four locations and this year is being held in the northern city of Haridwar, where huge temporary encampments have catered for the flow of faithful from across India.

“This is the highlight of my life, and being here on the main bathing day is very special,” said Nikunj Beriwal, 51, from West Bengal. “It is a difficult challenge with the crowds and queuing, but my family all wanted to come.”

Festival officials say that as many as 40 million people have bathed since January 14 in the 15-kilometre stretch of the river Ganges that is thought to be especially sacred during the Kumbh Mela.

Family groups, often containing many elderly and frail relatives, arrived at the 130-square-kilometre site after travelling in packed trucks, buses and trains.

The Mela attracts many of India’s bewildering array of Hindu tribes, castes and creeds, making it a colourful spectacle for foreign tourists who brave the journey to Haridwar and the massive throngs.

“It is confusing and chaotic and wonderful,” said Peter Hans, 22, from Germany, who has been sleeping in the open. “I think it is safe because the atmosphere is happy in a calm way, but the police are severe with the crowds.”

The ghat in the centre of Haridwar where the naga sadhus bathe is the central focus of the festival, attracting vast numbers of devotees who strip to their underclothes before entering the water.

Haridwar is the spot where the Ganges is said to leave the Himalayan mountains and start its long journey across northern India to the Bay of Bengal.

The city is also where, in Hindu mythology, a few drops from a pitcher containing the nectar of immortality fell during a fight between gods and demons.

Kumbh Mela means “Pitcher Festival” and other drops are believed to have fallen at Allahabad, Nasik and Ujjain – the three cities where the Kumbh Mela is also held.

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