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30 million Hindus seek redemption with mass baths

A crowd the size of the entire population of Canada converged to bathe on the same small patch of riverbank in north India on Sunday.

And it went just fine.

Pilgrims came, and came, and came, in snaking tides of humanity that continued to the horizon in every direction, and they plunged into the water and were washed of their sins, and clambered back up the bank elated. And then they scooped up free snacks, sampled the teachings of a range of gurus, and shopped for neon-orange, plaster-of-Paris god statues and gold-painted Vishnu medallions, special price.

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Sunday was the most auspicious day of a two-month-long festival when, according to Hindu teaching, a person who bathes at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers – where they meet a third river, the Sarswati, which exists only in legend – will be cleansed of all the sins acquired in this life, and have a chance to break out of the karmic cycle of death and rebirth. The occasion comes once every 12 years. For millions of people who made it to the rivers on Sunday, it was the most important moment of their lives.

The crowd, police say, was the largest ever in a single day at the Kumbh Mela, and may, in the final count, exceed 30 million people. Authorities had a plan in place to seal off the city and stop the pilgrims 50 kilometres outside the limits of Allahabad, but it wasn't necessary as the waves of people moved steadily down to the water and away again. Grim news came after nightfall of a stampede at the railway station that left at least 37 people dead and injured many others. It was a tragic postscript to an extraordinary day of co-existence and shared emotion.

The Kumbh Mela is a monument to faith and the esoteric, and simultaneously to human industry and pragmatism. Some 100 million people (give or take nine million or so, by the cheerful admission of the authorities) will have descended on this normally sleepy north Indian city during its duration, between January 14 and March 10. And they will be housed, fed and otherwise accommodated in a vast temporary city that the government of Uttar Pradesh, India's most corrupt and dysfunctional state, erects on nearly 6,000 acres of flood plain with stunning efficiency in a matter of weeks. It has electricity and roads and fire stations and sanitation facilities and piped water and civic oversight that much of the country can but envy.

Today the Kumbh Mela is best known for the National Geographic-esque spectacle of the mass baths of the sadhus, or Hindu ascetics. Members of one sect, the naga sadhus, spend their lives naked and coated in ash; they run into the water with dreadlocks and marigold garlands flying. Other warrior sects dash down into the river brandishing spears and riding elephants and horses.

All that happened Sunday: the government carefully doles out the bathing times in shifts, trying to stave off fights for the most auspicious times. But down the riverbank, away from the spectacle of the sadhus, there was another gentler Kumbh. Here people laid blankets on the streets and on the straw-strewn riverbanks, and waited for dawn. A thick haze of smoke lay over the tent camp, from tens of thousands of small buffalo-dung cooking fires.

Older village women, wise in the ways of pilgrimage, tied the ends of their sarees to those of their sisters and daughters, so they all stayed together in the crowd. They made their way down, stepped off the sandbags into icy water, and amid the cacophony of police whistles and blaring announcements and millions of people calling out to their families, they raised their hands in a silent Namaste to the rising sun and Ganga Ma, the mother goddess river.

"I've washed away enough sins for seven lives," Shanthi Devi, a 45-year-old farmer from Bihar said, doing a quick calculation as she wrung out the end of her green saree. "And now for 12 more years I won't commit any more. I won't even eat non-vegetarian food, not even fish."

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Stray marigold petals, swept from a garland, clung to the damp hair around her face. She said she had saved her rupees for two years to come to the Kumbh Mela from her home in a village in central Bihar, and travelled two and a half days by bus.

"My daughter who is in Grade 12 said, 'Don't go to Kumbh, what will you get out of it?' " confided her travelling companion, Mira Devi. "I told her, 'I have to.' " The two women shook their heads at the foolishness of youth.

Most of the bathers were village people from north and central India, people who will spend the $20 for a week-long trip like this only once in their lives. But there were dippers from every strata of Indian society on Sunday – politicians whose VIP sedans nosed slowly through the crowd, and minor Bollywood actresses who clutched designer handbags to their chests; there were engineers from Delhi and soldiers' wives from Jammu in the far north. The only people missing were Dalits – the people once known as untouchable. The unspoken rules of the caste system keep most of them from attending the ritual, except in their caste-designated role as janitors.

The faithful plunge into the water here for cleansing, although in fact it is horribly polluted. While the Sarswati, the mythical river, may still be clean, the Ganges and the Yamuna are befouled with hundreds of thousands of litres of untreated sewage and industrial effluent each day. The environmental assessment at Allahabad, before the expected 30 million people stepped into the water, put the level of fecal matter and other pollutants at three times the absolute maximum recommended by the World Health Organization for bathing.

The faithful would not hear of it. "The only thing that pollutes this water is our sins!" sputtered Swami Sankara Sundara Nanda Saraswathy, a sadhu who came from Kerala in the far south. He stood naked but for a small sarong in the chill of the morning. "I was cold when I went in, but now a great heat is filling me!"

The massive cost of mounting the Kumbh Mela is covered by the Uttar Pradesh and national governments; the only sources of revenue are the rent paid by shops and restaurants allowed to set up inside the tent city. But the fair generates more than $2-billion in economic activity, the government says. Boatmen bring their craft to take dippers out to the middle of the rivers, the most sacred spot. Masseuses set up to rub heads throbbing from the constant blare of the loudspeakers. Astrologers tell fortunes. Flip-flop peddlers are ready to help anyone who lost one in the crowd. Beggars, many of them widows wrapped in grey, come in huge numbers too, seeking to benefit from the munificence of the newly cleansed. The orderliness of the crowd stuns most of the pilgrims, and until Sunday's tragedy the Kumbh Mela had been unscathed since 1954, when 500 people died in a stampede.

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At the riverbank Puja Yadav, a 20-year-old Bachelor of Science student from Jhansi 450 km across Uttar Pradesh, combed out her dripping hair and watched the throng, awestruck. "I feel wonderful," she said. "It's a question of faith and commitment. You have to believe to feel purified and satisfied. And if you don't have faith – you can't understand."

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