Millions swarm to Ganges for Indian religious festival

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Millions of Hindu pilgrims gathered on the banks of India's river Ganges on Tuesday ready to plunge into the holy waters at the climax of the world's largest religious festival.

The Kumbh Mela, which is held every three years and rotates among four Indian cities, attracts huge crowds of devotees who believe a dip in the river cleanses them of sin and frees them from the cycle of life and rebirth.

The statistics behind the three-month event are staggering: 40 million people have bathed in the Ganges at Haridwar and the neighbouring town of Rishikesh since January 14, Ashok Sharma, a senior press official at the Mela, told AFP.

He said 6.7 million had already assembled for the main "royal bathing day" on Wednesday, when 10 million people are expected to immerse themselves in a stretch of river 15 kilometres (nine miles) long.

The attendance figures are impossible to verify and some observers suggest they are exaggerated by the host city, but previous Kumbh Mela events are thought to have attracted similar numbers.

At dawn on Tuesday, the riverbanks of Haridwar were packed with families from every branch and caste of Hinduism. Many were elderly and frail, but undaunted by the fast-flowing chilly water.

"The river is a spiritual force which I feel inside me," Pradip Ghosh, 62, from Kolkata, told AFP.

"I am here with a group of 2,000 fellow devotees of (19th-century Hindu leader) Ramakrishna. We took four months to plan this trip and it is fantastic."

The Kumbh Mela ("Pitcher Festival") draws Hindus from across India, who arrive carrying cooking utensils and thin blankets and stay in makeshift camps to make repeated trips to the sacred water.

Central to the colourful proceedings are the Naga Sadhus, wild holy men who abandon their Spartan lifestyles in India's remote mountains and forests to lead the bathing on the four main Kumbh Mela days chosen by astrologers.

Naked, sporting long dreadlocks and covered in blue-grey ash, they will enter the Ganges on Wednesday morning at the Har Ki Pauri ghat - steps leading down to the river - in the centre of Haridwar.

The ghat is the exact location where the river is said to leave the Himalayan mountains and start its long journey across the plains of northern India before flowing into the Bay of Bengal.

It is also where, in Hindu mythology, a few drops from a pitcher containing the nectar of immortality fell during a fight between gods and demons.

The other drops fell at Allahabad, Nasik and Ujjain - the other Kumbh Mela cities.

Dozens of one-way footbridges criss-cross the Ganges around Haridwar and a massive police presence of 16,000 men and women was on hand to prevent crowd congestion that has triggered deadly stampedes in the past.

Hundreds were crushed to death underfoot in 1954 and dozens also died in 2003.

"There is no such thing as special treatment for anyone here," Sharma said. "All people have to come to the river on foot. You can't drive or fly to the river by helicopter, no matter who you are."

The site of the festival, which finishes on April 28, covers 130 square kilometres (50 square miles) where pilgrims eat, sleep, perform rituals and listen to teachings given in tents by cross-legged gurus.