Millions of Hindus Wash Away Their Sins

The Associated Press
Monday, January 15, 2007; 2:05 AM

ALLAHABAD, India -- Hundreds of Hindu holy men, naked but for the ash smeared on their bodies and an occasional marigold garland, led a sea of humanity to the waters of the Ganges River Monday to wash away their sins at the apex of a weekslong pilgrimage.

By midmorning Monday, some 3 million people had immersed themselves in the waters near the north Indian city of Allahabad, said festival organizer P. N. Mishra.

The number was expected to top 5 million by the end of the day _ declared a royal bathing day by astrologers and the most auspicious of the 45-day festival that started Jan. 3.

The holy men, or sadhus, were followed into the waters by the heads of Hindu monasteries, many of them pulled into the waters on elaborate silver chariots or palanquins. Marching bands accompanied them as they initiated the bathing by scattering flowers over the waiting faithful and chanting "Har Har Gange" (Long live Ganges).

Nearly 70 million Hindus are expected to participate in the 45-day "Ardh Kumbh Mela" or Half Grand Pitcher Festival, one of the largest regular gatherings in the world. They wash themselves in the waters of the Ganges, believing it absolves their sins and ends the process of reincarnation.

While pilgrims dip themselves in the chilly waters at the spot where the Ganges meets the Yamuna River throughout the festival, Monday was declared by astrologers as especially auspicious after the sun entered the Tropic of Capricorn late Sunday night.

According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons fought a celestial war, spilling nectar at Allahabad in a pitcher, or Kumbh. A larger festival, the "Maha Kumbh Mela," or the Grand Pitcher Festival, takes place every 12 years.

© 2007 The Associated Press