Ganges draws millions for fest
Haridwar - Millions of Hindu pilgrims gathered in makeshift camps on the banks of the river Ganges in India on Tuesday ahead of the climax of the world's largest religious festival.
The Kumbh Mela, which is held every three years and rotates among four Indian cities, attracts huge crowds of devotees who believe a dip in the river cleanses them of their sins and frees them from the cycle of life and rebirth.
Statistics behind the three-month event are staggering. Forty million people have bathed in the Ganges at Haridwar and at neighbouring Rishikesh town since January 14, Ashok Sharma, a senior press official at the Mela, said.
He said 6.7 million had already assembled for the "main royal bathing day" on Wednesday, when 10 million people are expected to immerse themselves in a stretch of river 15km.
The attendance figures are impossible to verify and some observers suggest they are exaggerated by the host city, but previous Kumbh Mela events are thought to have attracted similar numbers.
"There is no such thing as special treatment for anyone here," Sharma said. "All people have to come to the river on foot. You can't drive or fly to the river by helicopter, no matter who you are."
Wild holy men
The Kumbh Mela (Pitcher Festival) draws Hindus from across India, who arrive carrying cooking utensils and thin blankets, and who stay in makeshift encampments to make repeated trips into the sacred water.
Central to the colourful proceedings are the Naga Sadhus, wild holy men who leave their Spartan lives in India's remote mountains and forests to lead bathing on the four main Kumbh Mela days chosen by astrologers.
Naked, sporting long dreadlocks and covered in blue-grey ash, they will enter the Ganges on Wednesday morning at the Har Ki Pauri ghat - steps leading down to the river - in the centre of Haridwar.
The ghat is the exact location where the river is said to leave the Himalayan mountains and start its long journey across the plains of north India before flowing into the Bay of Bengal.
It is also where, in Hindu mythology, a few drops from a pitcher, or pot, containing the nectar of immortality fell during a fight between gods and demons.
The other drops fell at Allahabad, Nasik and Ujjain - the other Kumbh Mela cities.