Daily Mail, January 14,2013
by Daily Mail Reporter
Millions of Hindus followed naked holy men into the cold waters of the Ganges today as part of the world’s largest gathering of people.
The ceremony in the Indian city of Allahabad came on the most auspicious day of the Maha Kumbh Mela, a 55-day religious festival which is expected to attract well over 100million bathing pilgrims.
A top festival official said nearly 3million people had bathed by late morning and 11million were expected to enter the frigid water by the end of Monday.
More than 110million people are expected to take a dip at the Sangam, the place where three rivers – the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati – come together at the edge of this North Indian city.
There are six auspicious bathing days, decided by the alignment of stars, when the Hindu devout bathe to wash away their sins and free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth.
A sea of humanity assembled on the river bank as people waited patiently for their turn to step into the water. Men in underpants, women in saris and children – naked and clothed – chanted from Hindu scriptures as they walked into the icy-cold water.
The bathing process was initiated by religious heads of different Hindu monasteries who reached the bathing points, called ghats, riding silver chariots. Some were carried on silver palanquins, accompanied by marching bands.
Applause rose from tens of thousands of pilgrims waiting behind barricades as the religious heads set off the ceremony.
The heads of the monasteries threw flowers on the devotees as they shouted ‘Har har gangey’ – ‘Long live Ganges’.
The biggest spectacle was that of the Naga sadhus, or ascetics, who raced to the river wearing only marigold garlands in a cacophony of religious chants.
About 50,000 policemen have been deployed to keep order at the festival, fearing everything from terrorist attacks to the ever-present danger of stampedes of pilgrims.
Several squads of policemen on horseback regulated the flow of pilgrims to and from the bathing ghats.
‘I wash away all my sins, from this life and before,’ said wandering ascetic Swami Shankranand Saraswati, 77, shivering naked in the cold.
He said he gave up a career as a senior civil servant 40 years ago to become a holy man, travelled on foot and for decades ate only nuts and fruit.
‘I feel pleasure,’ grinned Digambar Navraman Giri, who said he had not sat down for a year – even sleeping on foot. ‘This is why I became a sadhu.’
Despite their asceticism, the sects are moving with the times. Swami Avdheshanand Giri Ji, who leads one of the main groups, has a Facebook page.
Some gurus advertise on billboards and posters to attract followers, while others drive trucks and chat on cellphones.
According to Hindu mythology, the Kumbh Mela celebrates the victory of gods over demons in a furious battle over a nectar that would give them immortality.
As one of the gods fled with a pitcher of the nectar across the skies, it spilled on four Indian towns – Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwa.
The Kumbh Mela is organised four times every 12 years in those towns.
Hindus believe that sins accumulated in past and current lives require them to continue the cycle of death and rebirth until they are cleansed. If they bathe in the Ganges on the most auspicious day of the festival, believers say they can rid themselves of their sins.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims slept the night on the vast festival grounds in more than 1million tents – green, blue, and brown – erected all over, while many huddled together under trees.
Some 20,000 makeshift toilets have been have been erected, while 10,000 sweepers have been deployed to keep this tent town clean.