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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 August, 2003, 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK
Millions take Hindu holy bath
Millions of Hindu pilgrims took a "royal bath" on Tuesday as the Kumbh Mela festival in western India reached its climax.

Sadhus (Hindu holy men) taking the 'royal bath'
Many of the holy men were naked and covered with ash

The bathing ceremony near the city of Nashik is one of the holiest occasions of the gathering.

The "royal bath" or "Shahi Shan" takes place at the spot where the river Godavari first emerges after its source in the Brahmagri hills.

Estimates said 20,000 sadhus (Hindu holy men) took part in an early morning dip at Trimbakeshwar near Nashik which started festivities.

Devotees and common people were allowed to bathe once the priests had completed their rituals.

The sadhus entered the water led by their religious leaders chanting "Har Har Mahadev" - victory to Lord Shiva.

"I am truly blessed today as I jumped in this holy water and became one with God," Sri Chaitanya, a priest from the Indian state of Haryana told AFP news agency.

"This is God's chosen land and to bathe here is like washing away all your sins and starting life again," he said.

Hindu mythology

Bathing continued all day.

The colourful Kumbh Mela (Grand Pitcher) festival opened in Nashik on 30 July.

The festival is held four times every 12 years alternately in four holy sites - Nashik, Ujjain, Hardwar and the main one at Allahabad.

The significance of the ceremonies stem from a Hindu myth that gods spilt four drops of the nectar of immortality at four points in India during a fight with demons.

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