Fri, Jan 15, 2010 - Page 5 News List

Largest religious festival on Earth under way in India

AFP , KOLKATA AND HARIDWAR, INDIA

Devotees take a holy dip in the Ganges River early yesterday morning on the first day of the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar, Uttarakhand, India. For Hindu devotees, the three-month Kumbh Mela offers the chance to wash away sins with a ritual bath in the holy waters of the river. Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage and It occurs every three years and rotates among four locations.

PHOTO: EPA

Hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees took a ritual bath in India’s holy Ganges River before daybreak yesterday as the world’s largest religious gathering got under way.

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 sadhu or holy men draped in saffron-colored 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 yesterday 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 said.

Groups of women clustered on the final step of the ghat leading down to the river, unraveling 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 woman 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 traveled with her family from the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh to attend her first Kumbh Mela.

“I only washed my hair and face and I’m still freezing,” she said, while shivering on the ghat steps.

The festival commemorates a mythical battle between gods and demons over a pitcher of the nectar of immortality.

During the struggle, a few drops of nectar fell in four different places: Allahabad, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Haridwar in Uttarakhand, Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and Nasik in Maharashtra.

The Kumbh Mela alternates between these four places and takes place every three years. Once every 12 years, an even larger Maha Kumbh Mela is held. The next will be in Allahabad in 2013.

The triennial festival also marks the only public gathering of hundreds of Naga sadhu, who otherwise live in relative isolation in mountains, caves and communes in the Himalayas and other regions of India.

Naked and generally covered in a layer of gray ash, they are regarded by devotees as earthly representatives of the gods because of their self-sacrifice and denial of the material world.

The Naga, carrying ritual swords and tridents, will lead ceremonies on the most auspicious bathing day of all on April 14 when the Mela draws to a close.

Soham Baba, considered the leader of the Naga, told reporters recently in Kolkata that they planned to use this year’s Kumbh Mela to highlight the issue of global warming.

“Sadhu like us who go up to the higher reaches of the Himalayas to meditate have a clear picture of how bad the situation is,” he said. “Pristine lakes and waterfalls that existed till a few years ago have dried up.”

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