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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 January 2007, 16:35 GMT
Spiritual cleansing at Ardh Mela
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Allahabad

Bathers at Sangam
Thousands of bathers have gathered at the Sangam in Allahabad

At Sangam, the boatman points out the muddy waters of Ganges merging into the greenish Yamuna river.

The third, Saraswati river, is mythical and runs underground, he says.

This is one of Hinduism's holiest places, the confluence of three holy rivers where people come to wash away their sins.

At Sangam, thousands of boats jostle for space.

They are carrying tens of thousands of devotees who are here to bathe in the river during the six-week long Ardh Kumbh Mela or "half pitcher festival".

Here, the cacophony of hundreds of gulls flying overhead merges with devotional songs blaring on the loudspeakers amid constant announcements for those who have been separated from their families.

Spiritual journey

It is easy to lose your way here. There are thousands queuing up at any time of day or night for a dip in the waters.

Among them is Deepika Burman who has just emerged from the Sangam and is towelling dry her long hair.

Women attending the Mela
All the members of the group agree that a dip in Ganges bring them peace

For this teenager, a resident of Allahabad, religion is not what has drawn her here.

"There's no particular reason why I'm here. I just tagged along because my family was coming. It's nice," she says.

Deepika is not the only one drawn by the fun element.

A group of giggling young girls jumps into the water from their boat. Their giggles soon turn into shrieks as the cold of the water hits them.

But there are many who are drawn here by more religious reasons.

Sindhu Narayan Rao Khadse has come from the western state of Maharashtra. She has come in a group of 22, most of them women.

A Hindu holy man attending the festival
Bathing in the Ganges fulfils your life's desires, says Aman Chainpur
They have been here for a week now and have been bathing at Sangam every day. All the members of the group agree that a dip in Ganges bring them peace.

"We have seen the Mela, we go and hear the religious discourses given by holy men," says Khadse.

"Even if we can't speak to the holy men and saints, we can at least see them. They show us the right way," she says.

Heads nod in agreement.

Enlightened

Suresh Khaparkar who has brought Khadse and his fellow villagers to the Mela says: "Anyone who comes to Allahabad goes back enlightened. It's the holy land, the land of enlightenment."

Enlightening them are thousands of sadhus, or Hindu holy men, some saffron-robed, others totally naked, and some smeared in ash.

Woman at Sangam
Forty million people are expected to arrive for the festival

Many carry tridents and spears, but most carry kamandals - small brass or copper pitcher for carrying the holy Ganges water.

One such holy man is Aman Chainpuri. Dressed in saffron robes, this old man with a long salt and pepper beard has been a regular visitor at Kumbh festivals for many years. This year too, he is spending a month at the Mela.

On being asked about his age, he seems somewhat uncertain.

"I'm standing before your eyes. You decide how old I am," he says.

He may not be sure about his age, but he is clear about the reasons that bring him to Allahabad and Sangam every Kumbh Mela.

"Whoever comes here and takes a bath in the Ganges, his desires are fulfilled. Those who come with good feelings get what they want," he says.

Aman Chainpuri has quite a following in the Mela grounds. His discourses are popular with those surrounding him. "Why is it that someone gets flowers while others get thorns? It's because as you sow, so you reap," he says.

Heads nod in agreement.

"Millions come to take a bath at Sangam, but only those who come with the right feelings are the real bathers. Those who have bad feeling, only get pain," he says.

After bathing at sangam, people fill up plastic bottles, jars, and pots with the river water to take it home with them.

Ramji, a priest at the riverside, explains: "You can keep Gangajal - the Ganges water - for 1,000 years, or even 10,000 years. It never goes bad."

But there is some concern that the river water is too polluted.

Millions come to take a bath at Sangam, but only those who come with the right feelings are the real bathers
Aman Chainpuri, Hindu Holy man
Aman Chainpuri says although care should be taken to avoid effluents from entering the holy river, the controversy over the Ganges pollution is being blown out of proportion.

And the tens of thousands of bathers at Sangam seem to agree with him.

Vachchala Mughe, 70, says: "Ganga is flowing, it's not dirty. I've been having a bath here for the past one week, every day. It's the holiest of all rivers. If anything dirty falls into the river, even that gets purified."

Purification is what everyone here is seeking.

It is believed that taking a dip in the river cleanses the soul and purifies the body. It washes away all the sins.

Renu Tai, 65, says: "I'm old, I may not be able to come here again. With a dip in the Ganges, I've washed away all my sins."

Have you sinned a lot, I ask her? Her response is a toothy grin.

Clean slate

On being pressed further, she says, "Even if you step on an ant by mistake, that too is sin."

So does a dip in the river mean her slate is now clean?

"Yes, but it's wiped out only the sins committed to date. For the new ones I commit, I'll have to come back to wash them away again.

"And if I can't do that, then I'll have to carry them into the other world with me," she says.


SEE ALSO
Hindu Kumbh festivals
15 Jan 07 |  South Asia
Millions bathe at Hindu festival
03 Jan 07 |  South Asia
The man who reunites families
23 Dec 06 |  South Asia
Hindus take plunge at special Kumbh
12 Aug 03 |  South Asia

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