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10 Million Bathe in Ganges
April 14, 2010

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It happens once every three years, but the participants number in the millions.

It is Kumbh Mela, or "Pitcher Festival," one of the biggest celebrations of all for Hindus in India. A full 10 million people bathed on one day, in the river Ganges, to mark the 104-day event. As of that "main royal bathing day," April 14, the number of people who have bathed in the Ganges specifically in conjunction with Kumbh Mela exceeds 40 million. The most people ever at a religious gathering was 60 million, at another Kumbh Mela, in 2001, in Allahabad.

Such staggering numbers of people would create population numbers for most cities, but Haridwar, a city in the north of India, had made extensive preparations. (After all, this is the kind of festival that does get repeated often enough and at the same places.) Massive temporary encampments stretching across 50 square miles house the pilgrims (in many cases whole extended families) who have come from miles and miles away, in many cases to stay for the three-month period. Police are ever-present, numbering in the tens of thousands themselves, trying to keep order among the throngs. Some reports told of a stampede that resulted in the deaths of a number of people.

Driving the process are a group of high-ranking holy men known as the naga sadhus. They have declared when and where are the best times to bathe in the Ganges, and the throngs have followed their example by stripping off their outer layers of clothes to take a quick dip in the cold water. (Chains are available for people who want to stand in waist-deep water and pray, so that they don't get swept away by the fast-moving river.) And, even though the Ganges is known to be one of the world's most-polluted waterways, Hindus by the millions continue to bathe and even drink from the sacred river. Many people have filled plastic bottles from the river to drink from on their way home.

The festival continues for another two weeks. It's not just one day that people bathe, either. Certain days are deemed "auspicious," meaning that people are expected to bathe in the Ganges on those days; but the bathing is so much a ritual of faith that it's a habit more than an exception to daily routine.

Haridwar is one of four cities that play host to the festival. The others are Allahabad, Nasik and Ujjain. At each site, Hindu mythology says, a pitcher spilled drops of nectar of immortality during a titanic struggle between the forces of good and evil.

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