Thu, Jan 25, 2001 - Page 1 News List

Hindu festival reaches its pinnacle

WATER RITE Yesterday marked the high point of the Kumbh Mela festival in India, with about 20 million devotees bathing in the Ganges to wash away their sins


The banks of the Ganges in northern India witnessed an eruption of devotional rituals yesterday, the holiest day of the world's largest religious festival, as an estimated 20 million Hindu pilgrims bathed in its waters.

Even for a pilgrimage that breathes superlatives, yesterday's mass bathing was on a staggering scale.

Kumbh Mela police chief Alok Sharma said the event had passed off peacefully as of 12am but the crush of humanity took a toll, leaving at least two elderly men from a monastic sect dead.

"Both were in their 80s and had been queuing up for hours for a dip in the Ganges when they died of cold," said Dayanand Baba of the Juna Naga (unclothed) sect.

Hindu devotees surged ahead, brushing aside the suffocating overcrowding and journalists at the site saw men and women with fractures and serious bruises being treated by mobile medical teams.

Allahabad city's chief administrator Sadakant said such incidents were bound to happen despite the months of "pain-staking" planning for organizing the fest.

The bathing ritual was led in a dramatic fashion by the Nagas, the most revered of sadhu (Hindu sage) sects, marching in colorful processions from about 5:15am yesterday.

The first to bathe at 5:45am were 1,000 Nagas from the "Maha Nirvani" sect, who threw off their marigold garlands and charged naked and shouting into the waters at the sacred "Sangam" -- the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers.

The group included both the dreadlocked older Nagas and shaven-headed initiates, who were taking their first plunge after their initiation into the sect.

In sharp contrast to the pomp and drama surrounding the bathing of the Nagas was the picture of the millions of ordinary Hindus, who make up the vast majority at the 12-yearly Maha Kumbh fair, taking a dip in the Ganges.

Hundreds of boats were seen ferrying devotees to the "Sangam," which has a capacity to allow 20,000 pilgrims to bathe at a time.

Kumbh Mela administrator Jeevesh Nandan said at first estimates 15 million Hindu devotees had taken the soul-salvaging dip since 7pm on Tuesday.

Bottlenecks at either end of the pontoons bridging different sections of the bathing areas saw thousands, including elderly women and young children, pressed into a rib-breaking mass.

The 13 "akharas" or regiments of the Nagas were followed by colorful processions led by other groups of sadhus, seated on chariots decorated with marigolds and pulled by tractors.

Thousands carrying swords, tridents and saffron flags marched in front of the chariots all the way down to the river.

More than 30 million people were expected to bathe before the auspicious hours ended at 5:15pm yesterday.

Rajat Singh, who travelled from the desert state of Rajasthan, said he felt immense peace after bathing.

"I feel as if all my problems are washed away after bathing in the Ganges. Last year, our village suffered a terrible drought and I came here to ask for a good monsoon and harvest and I feel my prayers have been answered," Singh said.

More than 10,000 policemen, dog squads and bomb disposal teams were deployed to prevent untoward happenings.

Yesterday was the second of the festival's four "royal" bathing days when the elixir of immortality -- dropped during a mythical struggle between gods and demons -- is believed to be present in the waters.

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