Ardh Kumbh Mela festival

by AFP/Tripti Lahiri , Feb 6, 2007 | Destinations: India

Allahabad, India, Jan 19, 2007 - Ash-smeared Hindu holy men ran naked into the frigid Ganges before dawn Friday, kicking off the high point of a festival that organizers said would see more than 20 million people take a dip.

Friday marks "mauni amavasya" -- the silent new moon and the start of a new lunar month that will be observed by millions with silent prayers and a dip in the confluence of the holy Ganges and Yamuna rivers.

Hindus believe that bathing in the river during the Ardh Kumbh Mela, or the Half Pitcher festival, will relieve them of the cycle of birth and death they have to undergo because of their sins.

"People come with this hope that the Ganga makes them pure," said farmer Kamtanath Dubey, standing in blue swimming trunks.

"First we read in the papers that the water was dirty so I thought I wouldn't bathe ... but my friends motivated me to come," the 52-year-old said.

"You see so many people bathing and and all these people feel it's pure so in your heart you also feel it. Even if it is dirty, it so sacred. It was really nice -- very cold."

The  festival commemorates a mythical battle between gods and demons over a pitcher of the nectar of immortality. It marks the halfway stage between major Kumbh Melas celebrated every 12 years.

Five million people entered the nearby northern Indian city of Allahabad on Wednesday and Thursday alone,  festival organizer P.N. Mishra told AFP, adding that 20 million were expected to be in the water on Friday.

"This estimate is based on the records of passengers coming on trains and buses," he said.

When the current  festival ends on February 16, more than 70 million pilgrims are expected to have taken a dip in the river.

Friday is the main bathing day, when many religious orders bring new shaven-headed disciples into their sects. There is traditionally a tussle over who gets to bathe first.

"The system for who will bathe first and last has already been decided with their consent," said Mishra.

"If that is not decided there are Nagas and others who will fight. You will have bloodshed."

The Naga babas, or naked priests, have a warlike heritage dating back to their history as defenders of kings -- and many still carry spears and tridents as they proceed to the river.

Dreadlocked naga sadhus threw flowers at the thousands of devotees gathered behind security barricades as they splashed into the river.

Senior sadhus arrived sedately on floats decorated with the flags of their sects.

This year the first bathing rights went to the Maha Nirvani Akhara sect, which set off for the first bath at 5:15 am.

"It has been established that we are the best and most peaceful akhara so we will go first," said Swami Sivananda Giri.

"We have more educated people with us and we do not get intoxicated by smoking cigarettes or extras. No, no."

Muktananda Giri, who has been with the Nirvani sect for eight years, was set to graduate from disciple to guru during the day. "It feels good that after years of serving my guru I will become like him," he said.

Nagas are the most ascetic of sadhus, forswearing the worldly life, including clothes.

But many at the  festival were dressed, some in mock tiger print togas imitating the reclusive god Shiva, others in long tunics and woollen waistcoasts.

Temperatures on the Indian plains dropped to a couple of degrees above freezing this week.

"We have to wear clothes. We come in the cities. What would the women and young girls feel?" said Mahendra Puri, of the Juna Akhara sect, as he sat in a large group passing a hashish pipe around as another holy man played a drum.


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