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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 August, 2003, 17:46 GMT 18:46 UK
Hindus take plunge at special Kumbh

By Zubair Ahmed
BBC correspondent in Nashik

More than a million Hindu pilgrims have taken a ritual purifying dip in western India's sacred Godavari river as the Kumbh Mela festival in Nashik reaches its peak.

Sadhus (Hindu holy men) before they take the plunge
Many of the holy men were naked and covered with ash
Tuesday was one of the five most auspicious days in the festival, a highlight of the Hindu religious calendar.

The dip is considered especially significant by pilgrims because it is called the first "shahi snan", or "royal bath", of the new millennium.

The festival takes place in Nashik, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) from India's commercial capital, Bombay (Mumbai), once every 12 years.

At 0400, the stage was set for the sadhus (Hindu holy men) to take the dip at Trimbakeshwar, one of the two holy towns on the river bank.

Organisers told the BBC that more than one million ordinary pilgrims mingled with Hindu holy men on the banks of the Godavari.

'Best yet'

Despite the swelling crowd of devotees, no major problems were reported, which many believe is a sign of the growing professionalism with which the Kumbh Mela is now being managed.

Sadhu Parbat Giri

The administration has deployed more than 3,000 policemen to guard the two holy towns of Nashik and Trimbakeshwar.

As the auspicious moment for the ritual dip drew closer, sadhus rushed towards the waters, chanting sacred passages, shouting religious slogans and singing and dancing, before throwing themselves into the river.

One woman said she felt so spiritually charged, she wanted to jump right into the water.

The assembled holy men or sadhus represented various religious orders but the dreadlocked, naked Naga sadhus were the most visible.

Indifferent to their appearance, they offered prayers and sang and danced joyously before jumping into the water.

One well-known sadhu, Parbat Giri, from Ahmedabad in the western Indian state of Gujarat, said the Mela was important because of the sense of community it gave holy men from different orders.

I met Parbat Giri, who commands a huge following, the night before the auspicious day of the dip.

"I have attended the last three Kumbh Mela but the joy this time is unmatched," he said.

By noon, more than 50,000 sadhus had taken the dip. And it was still not time for the ordinary devotees to have their turn.

The Trimbakeshwar area is so narrow that the throng of ordinary devotees appeared to be finding it hard to perform the ritual.

'Free of sin'

By late afternoon, the frenzied action had shifted to the banks of the Godavari in Nashik.

Hundreds of thousands of men and women could be seen diving into the fast-flowing river.

Sadhus (Hindu holy men) bathing in the Godavari at Trimbakeshwar
It is a chance for Hindu priests to socialise
Wherever one looked, there were men and women, attired in colourful clothes, chanting religious slogans.

"I have taken the dip and now I feel free of sin. I'm a new woman now," said Gita Patel of Madhya Pradesh.

Another devotee said: "It comes once in 12 years. I was looking forward to it. My entire family has come."

Nashik's administration chief, Mahesh Zagade, said he had been preparing for the festival for the last two years:

"What's absolutely required to be done has been done. We were ready to take the load of up to two million people.

"We have been preparing for the last two years in terms of widening the roads, providing parking spaces, the development of the ghats [steps], water purification and creating the village for the sadhus."

The make-shift village of white tents for the holy men is located just outside Nashik.

And it is here that thousands of pilgrims could be found at most times with sadhus and their followers taking part in yet another of the Kumbh Mela's unwritten rituals.

The pilgrims thronging the Kumbh are here from all over India and some boast that they have travelled the 200 km on foot from Mumbai.

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30 Jul 03  |  South Asia
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26 Jan 01  |  Science/Nature
Millions take holy dip
14 Jan 01  |  South Asia
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13 Jan 01  |  From Our Own Correspondent
In Pictures: Maha Kumbh Mela
09 Jan 01  |  South Asia

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