37 killed in stampede at Hindu festival in India: but still 110 million risk their lives to bathe in the Ganges

Bathing in this polluted river makes you clean… that’s faith

Allahabad

Soukilal Naik waded into the water, tossed a coconut in front of him and pressed his
palms together. Once, twice, he submerged himself in the river, his arms
outstretched, his mouth rapidly forming the words of a prayer.

It was around 4am and in the darkness the water was freezing. But everywhere around the farmer from the Indian state of Orissa, people were doing the same – plunging and praying, splashing and smiling. Up to 30 million people joined Mr Naik in immersing themselves in the River Ganges and washing away their sins.

The Kumbh Mela, or Pitcher Festival, held every three years at one of four towns, is said to be the largest gathering of humanity.

Over the course of 55 days, more than 110 million people are expected to visit the festival, held to mark an incident in Hindu mythology when deities battled demons and won the right for nectar that granted them immortality.

Hindus believe that if they bathe on the most auspicious day, which fell on Sunday, a lifetime of sin – or indeed the sins accumulated over the course of many lives – can be washed away. And of all the locations for the festival, this spot in Allahabad, where the sacred Ganges and almost-equally sacred Yamuna rivers merge with the mystical Saraswati, is said to have no equal.

This shot at redemption explains why so many people from across the breadth of India are willing to embark on an often exhausting journey, sleep by the roadside until their chance to bathe, and then turn home again the very same day. Many of those who visit, perhaps most, are from India’s small towns and villages.

Mr Naik’s journey had taken him 20 jolting hours. The previous day, a group from the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, explained that their journey by bus had taken three days. From this group, a father, his wife and their young daughter bathed together, grinning throughout.

“The whole family has come. It is a part of Hindu life,” said the young man, Gorav Chandran.

And yet the mela carries with it real dangers. Today, officials in Allahabad were facing criticism over arrangements made for travellers after a stampede at the railway station left 36 dead and many injured. In 2003, around 45 people were crushed to death when the festival was held in Nasik.

India’s railway minister, Pawan Kumar Bansal, announced an inquiry but said: “There were just too many people on the platforms.”

There are other less perilous risks associated with the festival. Several Bollywood films have been devoted to the problem of people getting lost amid the crowds. Centres are established to try and reunite people and all day loud-speakers crackle with details of children and adults who have shown-up lost. Some larger groups of people tied themselves to one another with pieces of string or else the end of a sari.

Siddeshwar Prasad had been doubly unfortunate. He arrived from Bihar as part of a group of eight. On Saturday two friends had become separated and on Sunday morning, after their visit to the Ganges, he had lost another three. He was now sitting in the shade of under a tree. “Even if we don’t  find them we are going to return today,” he said.

If the central purpose of the festival is religious, then the mela is also part country fair and part massive bazaar. Hawkers selling everyone from clothes to religious icons line the sides of the dusty roads that spread over 4,500 acres, while the evenings pound with the sound of religious chanting. One vendor, Mehboob, offered a black, gelatinous herbal substance – a purported natural sexual stimulant – that he said would have immediate benefits. He was asking R100 (84p) for 50g.

Among the various Hindu holy men lured by the festival, it is the naked, ash-smeared ‘Naga’ sadhus who earn the most attention from both genuine devotees and curious gawkers. Many of them appeared to spend much of their time sitting around fires and smoking unidentified substances from small clay chillum pipes, collecting donations and generally soaking in the rock star treatment. One of them, Shri Panchdas Naam, from Mathura, declined to be interviewed unless The Independent agreed to “compensate him” for lost time. Much friendlier was Someshwar Giri, a guru from Himachal Pradesh, who toured the festival with his right hand held aloft, some of his fingers apparently fused together. One of his followers claimed the holy men had borne his hand in this position for the last five years. Asked how Mr Giri managed to sleep, the devotee said: “He has not slept for the last five years.”

One guru confronted one of the great ironies of the festival, indeed one of the ironies of Hindu India, namely that while the Ganges and Yamuna are utterly revered they are among the world’s most heavily polluted rivers.

With a line of a followers queuing to prostrate themselves at his feet, Swami Avimukteshwaranand broke off from juggling calls he was receiving on three phones to demand the authorities take action to protect a river into which is dumped 750 million gallons of sewage every day.

“There is nothing else in the world that could draw such a large crowd,” he added. Yet few appeared to spend too much time worrying that the river might not be all that clean. Many believe the water can clean itself.

Mr Naik, who hoped bathing in  the Ganges would help him ensure  he could get enough labourers to  harvest his rice crop, did not pause as he made his way through the crowds to the river’s edge.

“I feel great,” he said, a few minutes later, as he clambered from the marigold-strewn water. “I hope this will bring prosperity and good health.”

Then he started to dry himself off.

Sport
Brazilian fans watch the match for third place between Brazil and Netherlands
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: Dutch pile on the misery in third place playoff
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?