Haridwar: Braving bone-biting chill, over 10
lakh devotees today took a holy dip in the freezing waters of
the Ganga here heralding the start of the three- month-long
Maha Kumbh, the world`s largest religious congregation that
takes place once in 12 years.
The ritual bathing begins sharp at the stroke of midnight at Brahma Kund, a large pond at Har Ki Pauri, a Shiva temple.
As the sun rose at about 0645 hours, hordes of pilgrims
and sadhus, who had lined up along the streets of Haridwar,
started their dips at various ghats along the river whose
sacred waters they believe will wash away their sins.
The bath taken today on the occasion of `Makar Sankranti`
marks the first of the 11 key dates for holy dips which will
fall over the next three months ending April 28. Makar
Sankranti, also known as Uttarayan, is a day when the sun
starts to move northwards marking the decline of winter.
Men, women and children outnumbered the sadhus, who are
expected to throng the temple town only after January 26 as
the official entrance of the `akharas` (Hindu religious
orders) will begin then.
The first `shahi snan` or the royal bath is scheduled for
February 12 when akhara chiefs will take the dip. They will be
led by ash-smeared Naga sadhus, who are Lord Shiva devotees.
"Over 10 lakh pilgrims have taken bath in the Ganga since
early this morning till late afternoon," Chief Mela Officer
Anand Bardhan told PTI.
By the time the mega festival ends, officials say it would have drawn at least 60 million men, women and children from the length and breadth of India and abroad -- a sharp climb from the nearly 10 million who came here during the last Maha Kumbh in 1998.
The tents that house most of the sadhus and other devotees are already spilling well beyond Haridwar, one of the most important spots where Hindus worship the Ganga, the river they hold sacred.
The other key dates for the baths are January 15 (Mauni
Amavasya and solar eclipse), January 20 (Basant Panchami),
January 30 (Magh Purnima), February 12 (Maha Shivaratri),
March 15 (Somvati Amavasya), March 16 (Nvasamvatsar), March 24
(Rama Navami), March 30 (Chaitra Purnima), April 14 (Mesh
Sankranti) and April 28 (Baishakh Adimasaha Purnima).
The bathing hours will last throughout the day. The ritual is believed to cleanse the bathers of sins and rid the world of misfortune.
For many sadhus who have renounced the world and live in the mountains, the Kumbh Mela is one of the few occasions when they meet lay people. The mela started centuries ago as a theological discussion among various Hindu sects.
The Maha Kumbh has a sharp message this year - protection of the environment.
This year the Naga sadhus are campaigning for the environment. At a recent press conference in Kolkata, the head of a Naga sect, Soham Baba, lamented that the pristine lakes and water bodies in the Himalayas and across the world are disappearing.
"Sadhus who go up the higher reaches of the Himalayas to meditate know how bad the situation is," Soham Baba said. "The Kumbh Mela will be an ideal place to protest," he added.
The pollution of the Ganga will be a major issue at the fair this year. Almost all spiritual sects and the administration have pledged to protect the river.
The Uttarakhand administration has divided the Kumbh Mela region encompassing Haridwar, Rishikesh and Dehradun into 31 health sectors, each equipped with a hospital to prevent any outbreak of swine flu or other commmunicable diseases.
The Haridwar administration has cordoned off the area around Har Ki Pauri so that it is free of lay visitors. At least 200 securitymen, including the Rapid Action Force, have been deployed to guard the area.
Traffic in Haridwar will be regulated Thursday and the public transport will ply on the highway. The rest of the temple town - including the bathing ghats - will be free of traffic.