HARIDWAR: An estimated five million people have thronged the holy town of Haridwar for a dip in the Ganga on Thursday in ritual bathing believed to cleanse them of their sins and to herald the Maha Kumbh, a religious fair that occurs once in 12 years.
The ritual bathing begins sharp at the stroke of midnight at Brahma Kund, a large pond at the ancient Har Ki Pauri on the banks of the Ganga.
The Maha Kumbh, which will end on April 28, has 11 bathing dates, beginning Thursday. By the time the mega festival ends, officials say it would have drawn at least 60 million men, women and children from the length and breadth of India and abroad -- a sharp climb from the nearly 10 million who came here during the last Maha Kumbh in 1998.
The tents that house most of the sadhus and other devotees are already spilling over well beyond Haridwar, one of the most important spots where Hindus worship the Ganga, the river they hold sacred.
The most important bathing dates according to a fair official are January 14 (Makar Sankranti), February 12 (Mahashivratri), March 15 (Somvati Amavasya) and April 14 (Mesh Sankranti and Baisakhi).
Ash-smeared Naga sadhus -- stark naked devotees of Lord Shiva -- will lead the procession to the main bathing spot on Thursday decked in wreaths of marigolds and carrying staves, tridents, swords and saffron flags. For many sadhus who have renounced the world and live in the mountains, the Kumbh Mela is one of the few occasions when they meet lay people. The mela started centuries ago as a theological discussion among various Hindu sects.
The Maha Kumbh has a sharp message this year: protection of the environment. The Naga sadhus are campaigning for the environment. The Uttarakhand Administration has divided the Kumbh Mela region encompassing Haridwar, Rishikesh and Dehra Dun into 31 health sectors, each equipped with a hospital. - IANS