Hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims plunged into the icy waters of the Ganges River before dawn today, hoping to wash away their sins during a religious festival that occurs once every 12 years.
The Kumbh Mela is believed to be one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. It is expected to draw up to 65 million people before it ends Feb. 21.
The Times of India said pop diva Madonna and Hollywood stars Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, Pierce Brosnan and Richard Gere could join what is billed as the world’s largest spiritual gathering.
In the 2 a.m. darkness, with temperatures dipping to 3 degrees Celsius (38 Fahrenheit), devotees folded their hands in prayer. They daubed ash or sandalwood paste on their foreheads, handed money or food to beggars waiting on the shore, and rushed into the frigid water.
“This has become a family ritual and tradition,” said 95-year-old Malti Agarwal, who came from the eastern city of Calcutta with her family of 40. “We do it at every Kumbh festival.”
Devotees continued to surge toward the waters after dawn broke today. Officials said nearly 2 million people were estimated to have bathed in the first six hours. The festival administrator, Jivesh Nandan, said he expected 4.2 million to bathe in the river by the day’s end.
Washing Away Sins
The 43-day festival takes its name of Kumbh Mela from Hindu mythology when the gods seized a pot of nectar that made them invincible in their war against the demons.
One of the gods made off with the pot, spilling drops on 12 spots, four of them in India and the rest in the heavens. One drop is said to have fallen where the Ganges joins the Yamuna River and the mythical Saraswati River.
Hindus believe that bathing at the confluence of three sacred rivers on an auspicious day will absolve them of sin and speed them to nirvana after death.
“Most of the people think that the sins we have created are washed away here,” said Mohan Sharma, as she stood in the cold water, fully clothed in a bright sari.
Naked men with long hair and beards, members of a warrior sect of holy men called Naga Sadhus, marched toward the river banks holding hands or flailing spears and long poles. Orange-robed priests walked alongside women who led children to the water by the hand.
Hundreds of buses, trucks and cars heading to the festival grounds led to chaos on all the four roads approaching Allahabad, about 360 miles southeast of New Delhi.
Thousands of soldiers and police — equipped with closed-circuit television and bomb detectors — guarded against terrorist attacks, stampedes and crime among the pilgrims crowding in tents or sleeping outside in the winter cold.
In 1954, about 800 pilgrims died when the Kumbh Mela was held in Allahabad. In 1984, about 200 people were killed in a stampede in the Hindu holy town of Hardwar.
Adding to fears of unrest, a Hindu nationalist organization affiliated with the governing Bharatiya Janata Party said it planned to use the festival to announce the date for building a controversial temple on the site of a demolished Muslim mosque.
The demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya, 340 miles east of New Delhi, in December 1992 by Hindu nationalists sparked religious riots that killed 2,000 people across India.
Every three years, Kumbh Mela festivals are rotated among the four spots where nectar from the gods’ pot was said to have spilled: Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain and Hardwar. But the event in Allahabad is considered the holiest.
Commercial activity — except for the sale of vegetarian food — is banned during the festivities. Sales were brisk, however, for flowers the devotees offered in temples, the vermilion they dotted onto their foreheads, and for watches that purported to tell the best bathing times.