Hindus Defy Pollution to Bathe in Ganges Festival
ALLAHABAD, India -- Hindu holy men brandishing spears and tridents charged into the sacred Ganges on Monday, after threats to boycott the world's largest religious festival over pollution failed to dent devotees' fervour.
The ritual bathing kicked off the most auspicious day yet in the six-week Ardh Kumbh Mela, or Half Pitcher festival, where tens of millions of pilgrims gather to wash away their sins and free themselves from the earthly cycle of reincarnation.
Chanting battle cries to Lord Shiva, holy men dressed in saffron robes and other naked and ash-smeared "sadhus" ran into the river to the sound of drums for the first "Royal Bath" as dawn broke over the Ganges.
"The water is dirtier than last time. It's like neglecting my mother. This river is the source of all life," Naga Baba Triveni Puri, a naked holy man whose dreadlocked hair had not been cut in 18 years, said as he smoked cannabis after a dip.
After thousands of holy men had threatened to boycott a festival that records show is more than 2,000 years old, authorities last week released fresh water from an upstream dam to clear up what many locals said was filthy and greenish water.
Industrial discharges, sewage, pesticides and the rotting remains of dead bodies have increased pollution levels in the Ganges over the years despite government promises to clean-up India's most sacred river.
WASHING AWAY SINS
Families from across India gathered well before dawn in Allahabad by the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and a mythical third river, the Saraswati, to bathe and speed their way to the attainment of nirvana or the afterlife.
Thousands of pilgrims fought for space on the crowded, sloping river banks, many filling metal pots with the sacred water to take home for ill or dying relatives.
Some 15,000 police stood guard and 50,000 officials kept control of crowds expected to top five million on Monday.
"Do not dispose of dead bodies in the river," warned one poster by the environment ministry.
"The Ganges is so dirty -- how can you wash your hands in this?" proclaimed graffiti on an old fort overlooking the river.
Indian holy man Hari Chaitanya had led a campaign to clean the Ganges and had taken his case to court.
"It is not just water but divine nectar," Chaitanya told Reuters late on Sunday in his temple grounds as followers came by to kiss his feet and make him offerings of fruit.
For many of the millions that bathed, pollution was of little concern.
"All I have is a hut and I live off alms. I'm tired but very happy," said Ram Iqbal Singh, a jobless and polio-ridden villager who hobbled on crutches for three hours to reach the river.
The festival is held roughly every three years in one of four sites, with the "Maha Kumbh Mela" festival or the Great Pitcher Festival held every 12 years in Allahabad.
The last one in 2001 drew some 50 to 70 million pilgrims.
This year a tent city sprung up in the 4,000 acre (1,600 hectare) festival area to house pilgrims, with facilities from temporary railway ticket offices to missing peoples' departments for the thousands of people who get lost.
Stalls selling statuettes of Hindu deities competed for customers. Many poor farmers dressed only in cotton slept in the bitter cold huddled up with families to keep warm.
Wealthier Indians from politicians to high court judges have their own tent compounds with servants, Internet cafes and television.
The city of Allahabad is one of four sacred spots where Garuda, the winged steed of Hindu god Vishnu, is said to have rested while battling demons over a pitcher of divine nectar of immortality. (Additional reporting by Sharat Pradhan)