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The BBC's Mike Wooldridge
"This has been the most auspicious of days"
 real 56k

Festival administrator Jivesh Nandam
"There has been some coverage which is going against Indian culture and tradition"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 24 January, 2001, 22:51 GMT
Millions plunge into holy Ganges
Naga sadhus
Naga sadhus led the holy bathing
Millions of people have been bathing in the Ganges river to cleanse away their sins at the climax of India's Kumbh Mela religious festival.

Kumbh Mela pilgrim
Pilgrims and tourists alike joined the throng
Officials estimate that some 30 million pilgrims took part in the ritual in what is considered to be the most auspicious day for Hindus in the past 140 years.

If their estimates are accurate, this is a new world record for the largest ever public gathering.

BBC correspondent Jill McGivering says that despite the vast crowds and logistical difficulties, the atmosphere has been very peaceful.

Congregation

The procession started before dawn, as different religious groups began marching through the crowds towards the water's edge.

Some of the pilgrims sat on richly decorated floats, many of them wearing saffron robes and bright garlands of flowers.

Wednesday's holy bathing was led by one of the most revered sects of Hindu sadhus (holy men), the Nagas - naked, dreadlocked ascetics who fiercely protect their status.


On the ground it feels like chaos, but we are managing to keep people moving and there have been no reports of any serious incidents so far

Festival police chief
They were joined by poor villagers, rich businessmen and their families, faith healers, Indian expatriates who have flown in especially and foreign tourists.

Hundreds of boats ferried devotees to the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and a third mythical river, the Saraswati.

Indian astrologers say the configuration of the planets is extremely auspicious now, which for many pilgrims means that the river waters have special powers of absolution.

Drowning fears

Managing such huge numbers has been a daunting task. Roads have been closed to traffic and a one-way system set up for pedestrians.

Ten thousand police officers have been brought in to regulate the crowds.

Boat on the Ganges
A day when the planetary configuration is most auspicious
The bathing area, too, is being strictly controlled.

The most popular site, close to the confluence, can hold an estimated two million bathers at a time.

Barricades have been set up in the Ganges to restrict the bathing area to water about waist-deep.

Two people drowned here in the first weeks of the Mela.

Months of preparation

"This is the moment we have been preparing for for months," festival police chief Alok Sharma said.

"On the ground it feels like chaos, but we are managing to keep people moving and there have been no reports of any serious incidents so far," he said.

Heavy security is in place because of fears of terrorist attacks.

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See also:

22 Jan 01 | South Asia
Sonia Gandhi takes holy dip
09 Jan 01 | South Asia
Millions join holy dip
12 Jan 01 | South Asia
Hindu ire over luxury resort
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