India's Maha Kumbh Mela festival begins

Monday 14 January 2013 17.29
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Pilgrims run into the water to mark the beginning of the festival
Pilgrims run into the water to mark the beginning of the festival
A boy reacts as his family pour water over his head at the water's edge
A boy reacts as his family pour water over his head at the water's edge
A Sadhu, Hindu holy man, pours water from a conch shell as he prays on the banks of the Ganges
A Sadhu, Hindu holy man, pours water from a conch shell as he prays on the banks of the Ganges
Devotees light a candle on an offering at the water's edge
Devotees light a candle on an offering at the water's edge
A naga sadhu bathes in the waters of the holy Ganges
A naga sadhu bathes in the waters of the holy Ganges
A devotee has river water poured over his head at the waters edge at the Sangham
A devotee has river water poured over his head at the waters edge at the Sangham
Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev throws garlands to devotees during a procession ahead of Kumbh Mela
Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev throws garlands to devotees during a procession ahead of Kumbh Mela
A family arrives for the Kumbh Mela festival
A family arrives for the Kumbh Mela festival

Over one million elated Hindu holy men and pilgrims took a plunge in India's sacred Ganges river to wash away lifetimes of sins, 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.

The festival takes place 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 100m people will pass through the temporary city on a wide sandy river bank.

That would make it larger even than previous festivals.

After a slow start, police chief Alok Sharma said the crowds had swelled to over 1.5m people.

Two dreadlocked men riding horses emerged from thick camp smoke before dawn, followed by a crowd of ash-smeared and naked holy men, or sadhus.

At exactly 6.05am (12.35am Irish time), they yelled and dashed dancing into the river.

That the ancient festival grows in size each time it is held partly reflects India's expanding population, but is also seen as evidence that spiritual life is thriving alongside the new-found affluence of a growing middle class.

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

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.

To cope with the flow of people, authorities in the state of Uttar Pradesh have installed 35,000 toilets, laid 550km of water pipes and 155km of temporary roads at the riverbank site.

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