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The BBC's Jill McGivering
"This year's event looks set to be the biggest gathering in its history"
 real 56k

Tuesday, 9 January, 2001, 23:55 GMT
Millions join holy dip
Pilgrims were undeterred by the bitterly cold weather
Officials in the northern Indian city of Allahabad say an estimated 2.5 million people have bathed in the Ganges on the first day of the Hindu religious festival, the Kumbh Mela.

Some pilgrims hired boats to take them to the spot where the river converges with the Jamuna rivers and where the water is considered very holy.

The sins that we have created are washed away here

Pilgrim Mohan Sharma
But most were content to pray and bathe close to the shore in an area carefully cordoned off by the authorities.

Clusters of sadhus, or holy men, sat cross-legged on the sands, their faces painted with thick streaks of colour, sounding conch shells and reading from sacred texts.

The Maha Kumbh Mela, or Grand Pitcher Festival, takes place every 12 years and sees millions of devotees bathe in the Ganges to purify their sins.

Ganges bank
Thousands flocked to the river from first light
"This has become a family ritual and tradition," said 95-year-old Malti Agarwal, who was visiting with her family from the eastern city of Calcutta.

"The sins that we have created are washed away here," said another pilgrim, Mohan Sharma.

The pilgrims were not deterred by the bitterly cold weather or the freezing waters.

"It's chilly when you get in at first but you forget that quickly in the excitement," one man said.

International flavour

Many foreign tourists mingled with the crowds and more are expected.

"It's the sheer scale of the whole thing that is so mind-boggling. It's extraordinary to witness this sort of mass spiritual communion between so many people and the river," Briton Ross Anthony said.

Kumbh Mela
Occurs once every 12 years

24 Jan - main bathing day

10,000 police officers deployed

5 computer centres, 30 electronic display boards

104 shops, 6 petrol stations opened

13,000 tonnes of flour, 7,800 tonnes of rice, 5,000 tonnes of sugar ordered
The organisers have spent millions of dollars to put in place infrastructure and security to ensure the festival runs smoothly.

A temporary city set up to accommodate the pilgrims has its own essential supplies such as water, electricity and sanitation, as well as security measures aimed at preventing stampedes.

Mounted police kept a close watch on pilgrims on the sand dunes to ensure there were no uncontrollable surges.

The Kumbh is held at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, and Hindu scriptures say this is one of four places on which the Gods spilt a drop of the elixir of immortality.

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See also:

09 Jan 01 | South Asia
Hindu festival goes high-tech
07 Jan 01 | South Asia
Millions flock to Hindu festival
08 Jan 01 | South Asia
In Pictures: Maha Kumbh Mela
08 Jan 01 | South Asia
Pilgrimage to Maha Kumbh Mela
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