HARIDWAR, India (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of devotees took a dip in the icy waters of the Ganges river in one of northern India’s holiest cities Thursday, marking the start of a monthslong Hindu festival expected to attract more than 10 million people.
Under the watchful eyes of platoons of policemen, groups of men, women and children entered the fast-moving waters of the river, in a holy ritual at the Kumbh Mela, touted as the largest religious gathering in the world.
The festival, which is celebrated every three years, rotates among four Indian cities.
On Thursday, it came to Haridwar, a temple-filled town at the foothills of the Himalayas where the sacred Ganges river enters the sprawling plains of northern India.
Braving rain and cold weather with night temperatures dipping below 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius), the devotees have been pouring into Haridwar in cars, buses, trains and tractor-driven carriages from all over India.
Shyam Lal, 55, arrived from New Delhi to participate in the festival — his fifth since the early 1980s. “It is Hindus’ belief that bathing in the Ganges river on the occasion purifies one’s soul. It also helps in controlling one’s desires in a materialistic world,” he said.
The plunges in cold water began before sunrise Thursday, Anand Vardhan, a top state government official, told The Associated Press.
Thousands of police— equipped with closed-circuit television and metal detectors — were on alert for terrorist attacks, stampedes and crime among the pilgrims, who will crowd into tents or sleep outside during the more than 100-day festival. Authorities mad constant announcement on loudspeakers asking people to move in orderly lines to the specially marked out bathing areas along the river banks.
Hundreds of green, blue and brown tents have been spread out over a vast 80-square-mile (130-square-kilometer) area where more than 15,000 makeshift toilets have been erected and 10,000 people employed to keep the tent city clean, Chandra Shekhar Bhatt, one the festival organizers told The Associated Press.
“The pilgrims have been advised to carry identity cards” due to terrorist threats, said Alok Sharma, the area’s deputy inspector general of police, adding that closed circuit television will monitor the entire festival area.
The festival has no history of terrorists attacks, but police are taking precautions. Stampedes are also a danger with so many people in the area.
Dheerajbhai Phuladia, a farmer from distant western Gujarat state, shivered as he emerged from the river. “It wasn’t as cold as I had feared,” he said as he pulled on woolen clothes. “The cold is nothing if you have faith. This experience is worth the discomfort,” he said speaking in the Hindi language.
About 3 million people will bathe in the sacred river Thursday, the first of 10 auspicious days over the next three months when devout Hindus believe a dip will cleanse them of their sins and free them from the cycle of life and rebirth.
“Why complain of the cold when we have come to wash away our sins. A dip in Ganges would have a soothing affect on body and soul,” said devotee Avnish Rastogi.
The Kumbh Mela, or Pitcher Festival, derives its name from a mythical fight over a pitcher of holy nectar.
According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons waged a war over the nectar they needed to achieve immortality and victory. Four drops spilled, landing in the four cities that host the festival: Allahabad, the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythic Saraswati rivers; Nasik, in the western state of Maharashtra; Ujjain, in central India, and in Haridwar.
Associated Press reporter Biswajeet Banerjee contributed to this report from Lucknow, India.