Millions of Hindus wash away lifetime of sins

2013-01-14 14:04

Allahabad – Upwards of a million elated Hindu holy men and pilgrims took a bracing plunge in India’s sacred Ganges river to wash away lifetimes of sins today, in a raucous start to an ever-growing religious gathering that is already the world’s largest.

Once every 12 years, tens of millions of pilgrims stream to the small northern city of Allahabad from across India for the Maha Kumbh Mela, or Grand Pitcher Festival, at the point where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet with a third, mythical river.

Officials believe that over the next two months as many as 100 million people will pass through the temporary city that covers an area larger than Athens on a wide sandy river bank. That would make it larger even than previous festivals.

The ritual “Royal Bath” was timed to match an auspicious planetary alignment, when believers say spiritual energy flows to earth.

“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.

The festival has its roots in a Hindu tradition that says the god Vishnu wrested from demons a golden pot containing the nectar of immortality.

In a 12-day fight for possession, four drops fell to earth, in the cities of Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujain and Nasik. Every three years a Kumbh Mela is held at one of these spots, with the festival at Allahabad the holiest of them all.

More than 2 000 years old, the festival is a meeting point for the Hindu sadhus, some who live in forests or Himalayan caves, and who belong to dozens of inter-related congregations.

The sects have their own administration and elect leaders, but are also known for violent clashes with each other.

Some naked, some wrapped in saffron or leopard-print cloth and smoking cannabis pipes, the holy men hold court by fire pits in sprawling camps decorated with coloured neon lights, where they are visited by pilgrims who proffer alms and get blessings.

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