Millions of pilgrims began bathing on the first official day of India’s Kumbh Mela on Tuesday, the world’s largest religious festival where politics play an important role ahead of a general election this year.
During the eight-week festival at Prayagraj in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, up to 150 million people, including a million foreign visitors, are expected to bathe at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and a mythical third river, the Saraswati. Devout Hindus believe bathing in the waters of the Ganges absolves people of sins and at the time of the Kumbh Mela, or the “festival of the pot”, it brings salvation from the cycle of life and death.
A highlight is the appearance of the Naga sadhus, or ascetics, who worship Shiva and bathe on the first day of the festival. Many sadhus belong to monastic orders called Akharas and some live in remote caves, stepping out only for the Kumbh Mela, generally held once every three years in four cities across India.
Shortly before dawn on Tuesday, the first naked, ash-smeared ascetics, the Panchayati, plunged into the water amid cries of “har har Mahadev”, or “everyone is Mahadev”, another name for Shiva. “It is out of this world,” said Varun K Seth, a saffron-clad sadhu. “When you get in the water, you feel like you are alive.” Members of the largest monastic order at the festival, the Juna Akhara, raced down to the water carrying tridents and spears as police held back throngs of spectators. “The river gives us immortality,” said a naked sadhu from the Juna Akhara as he reapplied a coating of ash on his body after bathing.
While the festival is best known for the reclusive sadhus, the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was ever-present. Giant cardboard cutouts of Modi, the Hindu-nationalist leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party who faces a tough test in a general election due by May, adorned the sacred site. (RTRS)