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Wednesday, 24 January, 2001, 12:25 GMT
An extraordinary show of faith
Naga sadhus
The first to bathe were the Naga ascetics
From the early hours, millions of Hindus headed out to the holy site of the Kumbh Mela by the riverbank.

A keen wind sharpened by the chill of the night did nothing to deter those determined to be the first to bathe on this, the most auspicious of days in the month-long festival.


We have the right to be the first to march in procession to the confluence... and we guard that right jealously

Naga sadhu Anand Baba
The focus as always was the sangam - the confluence of three rivers, the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati.

Here, ordinary pilgrims had to make way for the processions of sadhus or holymen, traditionally led by the Nagas.

They are one of the most revered holy sects, ascetics who are naked or partly clad with matted hair and ash-smeared bodies.

Pray
A special day for the ordinary pilgrim
They fiercely guard their identity as protectors of Hinduism and frequently dispute the order of precedence for bathing on these days.

"We always lead the bathing procession. We have the right to be the first to march in procession to the confluence... and we guard that right jealously," Naga sadhu Anand Baba said.

Procession

As the Nagas marched through the darkness, awe-struck devotees rushed to view the spectacle.

Mounted police kept a close watch, keeping the crowd well behind specially created barricades.

They were followed in procession by other holy orders, many sitting on richly decorated floats wearing garlands of marigold flowers.


I feel as if all my problems are washed away after bathing in the Ganges

Pilgrim Rajat Singh
But this most important of days does not belong particularly to the religious orders.

It belongs to the ordinary men, women and children who came to Allahabad from all over India and from many other parts of the world.

Many of the pilgrims are villagers who travelled here to bathe in the hope of a special blessing.

At peace

Hundreds of boats ferried them to the sangam, which allows 20,000 devotees to bathe at a time.

The faithful believe that a holy dip here will absolve them of their sins and bring blessings on their lives.

Rajat Singh, who travelled from the desert state of Rajasthan, said he felt a sense of peace after his dip.

"I feel as if all my problems are washed away after bathing in the Ganges.

"Last year, our village suffered a terrible drought, and I came here to ask for a good monsoon and harvest and I feel my prayers have been answered," he said.

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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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