NEW DELHI – Thousands of Indians braved a cold, January morning and flocked to the banks of the Yamuna River at Wazirabad in the Indian capital on Sunday to take a holy dip and mark the year’s first major Hindu festival.
Makar Sankranti, a festival during which devotees offer prayers to the Sun god, also marks the end of winter and the beginning of longer days in the country.
“This is the first big festival of the year, and one must bathe in the holy river first thing in the morning and on an empty stomach. We hope someday to visit the Gangasagar – confluence of the Ganges and the Bay of Bengal – on Makar Sankranti,” Mahesh Maharath, a young devotee in his early 20s, told EFE.
Gangasagar is one of India’s most coveted pilgrimages and every year millions of devout Hindus travel to the Gangasagar fair – the largest annual gathering of devotees in India and the second largest overall among Hindus, after the Kumbh Mela – on the Sagar Island, in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.
“According to government estimates more than 1.3 million people have already taken bath at Gangasagar, and another 500 thousand are expected to bathe by the end of the day,” said Siddhartha Chakraborty, sub-divisional information and cultural officer at Diamond Harbor (near Sagar Island).
He added 500 CCTV cameras and 12 satellite phones were being used by the police to monitor the crowds, and the operation is being overseen by senior officials even at the ministerial level.
Makar Sankranti falls during “an auspicious” astrological transit and taking a bath in holy rivers “at the sacred hour bestows huge benefits, and washes away all sins,” said Suresh Chandra Sharma, priest of a Hindu temple in New Delhi’s Yusuf Sarai area.
Makar Sankranti is also celebrated as Pongal in southern India, Uttarayan in western India, Lohri in northern India and Poush Sankranti in eastern India.