It is not just a chance at unique spiritual experience, but also an opportunity to make a quick buck

Braving the chilly sea-breeze at daybreak, under the dimming street lights, a spectacle unfolded at the Gangasagar festival here on Saturday as devotees lined the embankments (ghats) at the confluence of the river Hooghly and the Bay of Bengal. With their ‘belongings' bundled and gingerly balanced atop their heads, they offered flowers and incense to the holy waters even as some took a plunge, hoping to wash away their sins.

As lakhs thronged the 1,500-metre stretch on the Sagar Island for a holy dip, the strains of hymns from distant loudspeakers blended with songs in praise of “Ganga Maiya” (Mother Ganga), rendered by women, and chants from the nearby Kapil Muni temple.

“This pilgrimage is the gateway to moksha [Salvation]. I have saved for months and also borrowed some to come here,” said septuagenarian Shandilya Prasad from Varanasi.

Hundreds of sadhus, some smeared with ash and some with vermillion and sandalwood paste, started preparing for the day-long rituals, performing yogasanas and various mudras in the long row of tents lined near the temple.

A Naga sadhu — wearing only a garland of human skeletal remains — said he had been coming to the festival since the past 17 years. “Every year about 500 sadhus from our community visit the festival. This is an annual event we await eagerly,” he said.

Besides the devotees and the sadhus, hundreds of priests, alms-seekers and even some petty thieves have flocked to the island — the largest inhabited island in the Sundarbans. For them, the Gangasagar Mela is not just a chance at a unique spiritual experience, but also an opportunity to make a quick buck. It offers opportunities for the enterprising too.

Surendra Pandey, a priest from Bihar's Gaya district, says he has borrowed cows from the adjoining villages for two days to enable him to perform the “Godan” (giving a cow as offering) ritual. He wanders amongst the devotees at the ghat, looking for devotees who may want to give the offering.

“The cows come on a rent of Rs. 800 for two days. I have also rented the cot I will sleep on for these two days. Hundreds of priests have come with me in the hope of making some profit,” he said.