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The BBC's Jill McGivering
"The sheer size of the crowds is overwhelming"
 real 56k

Jill McGivering
"Seven million people bathed in the Ganges today"
 real 28k

Sunday, 14 January, 2001, 18:50 GMT
Millions take holy dip
Hundreds of thousands gathered by the Ganges
Crowds of pilgrims gather for Royal Bath day
Millions of Hindu pilgrims, led by dreadlocked, naked holy men plunged into the sacred Ganges river in northern India on Sunday in one of the high points of the Kumbh Mela festival.

Around seven million devotees are thought to have taken a purifying dip on what is known as Royal Bath Day.

Bathing started in the early hours of Sunday morning when thousands of holy men, representing some of the most important religious orders in Hinduism took to the water.

The bathing ritual started a little after midnight Saturday and is in full swing,

Jeevesh Nanda, administrator
Hindu astrologers regard Sunday as particularly auspicious for washing away past sins.

In past Kumbh Melas, clashes between two rival warrior sects have led to fatal stampedes.

But there was no trouble on Sunday, thanks to an agreement by representatives of the two Hindu sects about who would go first.

Holy site

The bathing took place at what is considered to be one of the holiest spots in India - the confluence of the Ganges with the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.

child dipping
A child experiences her first Royal Bath Day
Two of India's four Hindu high priests were carried to the river bank by their devotees, protected by giant red and gold parasols as pilgrims threw garlands of flowers at their cortege.

Other holy men staged colourful and noisy processions as they approached the waters' edge, some on horseback, others riding elephants.

Some of the bathers carried small containers, which they filled with water to take back to their homes.

Ritual by Ganges
Rituals performed as pilgrims bath
Thousands of police have been deployed to maintain order since the Maha Kumbh Mela - or Great Pitcher Festival - began earlier in the week.

Organisers estimate that as many as 70 million people may attend the festival by the time it reaches its climax early next month.

Health risks

Millions of dollars have been spent 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.

The river is absolutely fit for bathing

Lalji Tandon
Minister for Urban Development
The pilgrims have not been deterred by the bitterly cold weather or the freezing waters.

Nor have they been put off by the pollution that plagues India's most sacred river - from which many also collect water for cooking and drinking.

To minimise the risk to health, the authorities have diverted sewage from Allahabad that normally drains into the river miles downstream.

"The river is absolutely fit for bathing," Minister for Urban Development Lalji Tandon told reporters, adding that tests had found pollution to be minimal.

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