PRAYAGRAJ, India – Millions of Hindu pilgrims took a holy dip on Monday, one of the most auspicious days of the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious congregation that is underway in the north Indian city of Prayagraj, previously known as Allahabad.
Indian Hindus believe that bathing at the Sangam, which is the confluence of three rivers of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, at the outskirts of the city, will wash away their sins and grant them moksha, or salvation from the cycle of life and death.
Arvind Duwarma, a pilgrim who had just come out of the water after taking a holy dip, said he believed all his sins have been washed away.
Many of the pilgrims also carry back the holy water home to be used in daily worship or for special, auspicious occasions.
The river’s edge, in the past few weeks have been transformed into a valley of tents, where Hindu pilgrims from across India, and from other parts of the world have been congregating.
Spread over an area of 32 square kilometers, the festival is a melting pot of modernity and traditions, common people and ascetics.
Apart from religious activities and discourses, the Kumbh also hosts a variety of food and tea shops and traveling salesmen selling warm shawls to kitchen tools, inflatable cushions to vegetables to the pilgrims.
The Uttar Pradesh government are expecting around 150 million people to attend the festival, which began on Jan. 15 and will end on March 4.
The Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj is also known as the Ardh-Kumbh, or the half Kumbh, and is held after every six years, while the main Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years.
With less than four months to go for the general elections, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have been accused by opposition parties of using the festival for political gains.
However, common pilgrims at the Mela seemed untouched by such concerns.
A 34-year-old pilgrim, Sharam, told EFE that he had come in a group to attend the fair and they were impressed by the arrangements and were enjoying the experience.
The Kumbh is also a place where holy men from 13 sects – or ‘akharas’ – of the most important ascetics of India congregate to meditate and meet their devotees.
Apart from pilgrims and holy men, many people also come to the gathering to serve the cause of humanity.
AS Kumar, a 53-year-old from Rajasthan, heads a group that serves around thousand free meals a day free of charge.
“In the evening we give out thousands of cups of milk (...) here we serve everyone,’ said Kumar.