Millions take dip of faith in Ganges

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The Independent Online

Brandishing swords and tridents, thousands of naked Hindu warrior monks plunged into the freezing Ganges River today, as some 22 million people went into the waters for a holy dip on the most sacred day of the Kumbh festival.

Brandishing swords and tridents, thousands of naked Hindu warrior monks plunged into the freezing Ganges River today, as some 22 million people went into the waters for a holy dip on the most sacred day of the Kumbh festival.

Drawn by an auspicious planetary arrangement their priests say occurs only once in 144 years, the millions of Hindu pilgrims want to fulfill lifelong ambitions of bathing in the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers to wash away sins and have prayers answered.

The 43-day festival began January 9 and the crowds of worshippers have swelled, leading up to the most auspicious Royal Bathing Day, which stretched from yesterday to this afternoon.

Awe-struck devotees, eager for a view of the holy men who were the first in the water at dawn today, crushed in the darkness against barricades made of tree trunks. Police on horseback patrolled to keep back the crowds, who tossed marigold garlands at the holy men marching toward the river bank.

Monks from various Hindu orders, with matted hair and ash-smeared bodies, waved swords and tridents as they proceeded to a slope above the river, followed by tens of thousands of supporters, praying and chanting hymns.

Gurus, leaders of the various sects, were carried on palanquins with gold-tinted umbrellas and trappings. Others arrived in chariots pulled by tractors, after organizers of the festival banned the elephants and buses that had been used earlier.

The monks then raced down the slope and stopped at the riverbank to urinate on a mat so they would not dirty the river. Some held hands and danced on the sand.

They jumped into the water shouting slogans and punching their fists and weapons into the air, frolicking in ecstasy, and tossing their garlands into the air.

Raucous bands of drummers and horn players, normally used in Indian weddings, played tunes as the thousands of devotees sang. There were Hindu nuns and monks with shaven heads, holding brown rosary beads and wearing saffron robes. The twinkling of thousands of oil lamps floating on the water mixed with the flames of camp fires, lighting up the 1,400 hectare (3,460 acre) festival grounds.

Meanwhile, festival administrators have banned close photography of Wednesday's bathing after complaints from some Hindus about news photo and film coverage of the naked holy men, and women in wet saris.

Some of the holy men, however, happily posed for pictures before entering the water and onlookers clicked away with their cameras. But when the oldest and largest order, the Juna, prepared to enter the water, police physically stopped photographers from taking pictures, yanked them out of their positions and threatened to break their cameras.

One policeman told photographers they were "dirtying the name of India and Indian culture."

Organizers of the festival predict about 70 million people will attend by the time it ends February 21, making it the largest known Kumbh Mela.

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