An estimated five to 10 million people began plunging into the Ganges river at Allahabad from before dawn on Sunday, as Hinduism's huge pilgrim confluence, the Kumbh Mela, marked Makara Sankranti, the second of four auspicious days for the holy dip in this month, as the Sun enters Capricorn.
The first of these days, the previous Tuesday, was only a curtain-raiser for the following three, the Shahi Snans (royal cleansings), of which Sunday was the first. Coinciding, as it did, with an important cultural festival in much of India, it meant a rush of the devout to the banks of the Ganges, a dip in whose waters is sanctified in the faith for a mental and spiritual cleansing.
And so, from after quarter past five under the moonlit sky, they flocked on and into the silently flowing river, in all the diversity of Hinduismís millions: ascetics, robed and naked, from its various sects, and the people, rich and poor, men and women, old and young. Hundreds of thousands had just camped as near the bank as they could get for much of the previous week, just waiting for this hour, when they could reaffirm, by this act, a link with their ancestors, with a custom going back to pre-recorded history.
'It is done, it is fulfilled: the prayer of years,' cried Ram Asrey, a middle-aged villager, joyously jerking a metal pot he'd filled with river water to take back home. 'God's blessing is come.' The mood was representative: the banks near the Sangam, the confluence of the two holy rivers, Ganga and Yamuna, rang with the excited roars of pilgrims, as they hastily stripped in the chill and rushed in, quite a few shouting out of sheer exuberance.
Others were quietly ecstatic, smiling to each other, their eyes alight with the quiet joy of accomplishment. 'Om Namo, Om Namo (Hail , Hail the Divine),' was an oft-heard mutter, as the pilgrimage was accomplished and the realisation sank in.
Still others preferred to wait for the ecstatic morning rush to get over and have enough time for an unrushed dip. Streams of humans flowed down to the five-odd miles of sand banks through the day, pausing to take in the swish of the waters and the pale-blue horizons, before doing the walk of their dreams, into the lap of the Ganges. The flow of these hundreds of thousands being handled without display of firearms; rope barricades, in parts, and the occasional shouted instruction sufficed.
All motor traffic was banned from the five sq. mile area through the day and so it was humans jostling one another in a tangled mass, scurrying to the banks and back, in an unending flow, through the sand paths and slopes. When you stopped to think, it had been this way for millenia, generation on generation, playing out a shared belief. And the water took it all and is flowing on.
Evening at the Sangam
Bathers at sunset
Praying to the Ganges
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