HARIDWAR ~ Hundreds of thousands of Hindu devo tees took a ritual bath in India’s holy Ganges river before daybreak on Thursday as the world’s largest religious gathering got underway.
Braving chilly weather, hordes of pilgrims rose before sunrise in and around the northern town of Haridwar and made their way in darkness to the banks of the river to immerse themselves in the sacred waters.
They have come from all over India: families and couples, wealthy and poor, businessmen and farmhands, and itinerant “sadhus” or holy men draped in saffron-coloured robes.
For Hindu devotees, the three-month Kumbh Mela festival offers them the chance to wash away their sins and break the karmic cycle of life and rebirth.
Even in a country where mass events are commonplace, the sheer size of the Kumbh Mela sets it apart.
Several million people were set to take part on Thursday on the first of four particularly auspicious bathing dates, with millions more expected to pass through the sprawling festival encampment over the next 12 weeks.
“Your soul will be cleansed and you will be free from disease if you take such a bath during this period,” Sushant Rajsaid, a professional astrologist, said as he emerged from his own dip.
“The water is cleaner and has more natural power in the early morning,” he added.
Groups of women clustered on the final step of the “ghats” leading down to the river, unravelling their saris in the cold weather and using copper bowls to collect the water and pour it over their naked torsos.
As the sun rose, many stepped further into the river, immersing their entire bodies.
One women in a bright red sari followed her ablutions by throwing necklaces of bright marigolds into the river where they were taken downstream by the current.
“The water was really cold,” said Bhawna Agri, 14, who travelled with her family from the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh to attend her first Kumbh Mela.
“I only washed my hair and face and I’m still freezing,” she said, shivering on the ghat steps.
The festival commemorates a mythical battle between gods and demons over a pitcher of the nectar of immortality.