12 January 2013
Last updated at 21:58 ET
Millions of Hindu holy men and pilgrims have started arriving in the northern Indian city of Allahabad to take part in the 55-day Kumbh Mela festival beginning on Monday. Most, like Mahant Ram Naresh Giri ji, are there for religious reasons. He says: “Kumbh Mela is always special, but when the stars align like they are at present, it’s a rare occasion and bathing in the river here at this time will rid you of all your sins and give you salvation.” (Text and photos: Geeta Pandey)
Chhote Lal, a farmer from Madhya Pradesh, has been in Allahabad for the last few days and has been coming everyday for a bath at the Sangam – where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet the mythical Saraswati river. “My life’s nearly over, but I wish well for my family and I’m here to pray for them. Millions of people visit the Kumbh festival, they must be coming here for something,” he says.
Yamuna Kokane, a housewife from Maharashtra, is visiting Allahabad with her husband for the first time. “Bathing here has a special significance. Our god, Ram, came here after killing the demon king Ravana, and washed his sins. In the same way, we are here to pray to the Goddess Ganga (the Ganges river goddess) to forgive us and show us the way so that we don’t make these mistakes again,” she says.
Many Hindus believe that bathing at the Sangam cleanses them of their sins and clears the path for their salvation. Bihari Lal, a retired Indian army soldier, is seeking moksha or salvation.“I have come to pray to the river goddess and ask for forgiveness for my sins in this life so that my next life will be better,” he says. Mr Lal, who fought in the 1965 and 1971 wars against Pakistan, says it is important to correct mistakes.
Originally from South Africa, Sita Giri says she feels more at home in India. “I was brought up a Catholic, but I always had a fascination with (the Hindu god of destruction) Shiva and felt a deep desire to come to India.” So when she got an opportunity five years ago, she grabbed it with both hands. Sita Giri lives in Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges river. “Ganga is our mother, it’s about giving and living. I think I have Ganga water flowing through my veins instead of blood.”
Akanksha Shukla is a 17-year-old student from Lucknow city, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh. She is visiting friends in the city and they have decided to come to the Sangam. She says. “I do believe that bathing in the Ganges will cleanse me of my sins, but I won’t be coming here for a bath during the Kumbh festival because it will be very crowded."
Student Puja Tiwari feels privileged to actually live in Allahabad and although her parents visit the river for a holy dip very often, she never accompanies them because on all religious days, the riverside is packed with bathers. “I believe in the sacredness of the river, but for me, it’s enough to see it. My mother says your sins will get cleansed if you set sight on the holy waters, immersing yourself in the waters is not necessary,” she says.
Nirmala Devi and Bharat Singh are on the river bank to pick the best spot for bathing on 14 January. Mr Singh says: “Our religion tells us that bathing at the Sangam is very important, but I believe that most important is the purity of heart.” He says Kumbh is a belief, “it’s our religious tradition and you don’t look at logic everywhere". If you look at logic, he says, then the river is polluted and bathing in it “will be bad for our health and we will never take a dip here.”
Har Simran Das, from the northern state of Haryana, owns 300 cows. Until two years ago when he became a sadhu (ascetic) and joined an akhara (religious commune), he dabbled in village-level politics. "Ever since my childhood, I wanted to serve the people. Now my children are all grown up and living their own lives, I thought this was the time for me to fulfil my dream.” Mr Das says he is attending the Kumbh on orders from his guru, but he doesn’t believe that bathing at the Sangam will cleanse him of his sins. “If we worship god morning and evening, but do bad deeds for the rest of the day, then I’m not a true disciple.”
"I come here with my family two-three times a week.” says Urvashi Singh, a housewife who lives in Allahabad. Mrs Singh feels happy when so many people visit her city for a festival. “Look, the city is all spruced up, it’s clean and the water looks clean too. We definitely plan to come here for a holy dip during the Sangam.”