ALLAHABAD – Tens of millions of Hindus gathered Sunday for a holy bath in India’s sacred Ganges River on the most auspicious day of the world’s largest religious festival.
Ash-smeared naked holy men led the ritual bathing before dawn — which is said to cleanse pilgrims of their sins — with millions following them into the swirling waters at the festival site in Allahabad, northern India.
The city’s population of 1.2 million had swollen to about 40 million by Sunday, with about 20 million people packed inside the vast sealed-off bathing area on the banks of the Ganges, city spokesman Ashok Sharma said.
Amid the crush, the thousands of volunteers on duty and police were urging pilgrims to take one short dip and then leave the freezing waters to make space for the unending flow of humanity waiting behind them.
The Maha Kumbh Mela, which began last month and ends in March, takes place every 12 years in Allahabad. Smaller, similar events are held every three years in other locations around India. The bathing takes place at an area called Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna and a third mystical waterway called the Saraswati.
Devotees believe entering the mighty rivers cleanses them of sin and frees them from the cycle of rebirth. The festival has its origins in Hindu mythology, which describes how a few drops of the nectar of immortality fell on the four places that host the festival: Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar.