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Devotees pray and wash as they attend the first Shahi Snan, or grand bath. Up to 100 million worshippers will gather at the Kumbh Mela over the next 55 days to take a ritual bath in the holy waters, believed to cleanse sins and bestow blessings. (Reuters/Landov)

'Biggest Gathering On Earth' Begins In India; Kumbh Mela May Draw 100 Million

Jan 14, 2013

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Mark Memmott

Imagine one-third of the entire U.S. population — 100 million or so people — visiting Dallas in the next 55 days.

That gives you a sense of what began today in Allahabad, India, a northern city of about 1.1 million people. Over about the next eight weeks it is expected to host nearly 100 times its population in pilgrims (not all at once, obviously). They're coming for the Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela, which happens every 12 years.

Today alone, the BBC reports, at least 10 million pilgrims were expected to come to bathe "at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers." That's about five times more people than attend Mecca's annual six-day hajj for Muslims.

According to the BBC:

"The Kumbh Mela has its origins in Hindu mythology — many believe that when gods and demons fought over a pitcher of nectar, a few drops fell in the cities of Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar — the four places where the Kumbh festival has been held for centuries. ...

The Times of India says that the nectar promises immortality. By 8 a.m. local time today, the newspaper adds, police estimated that 1.5 million people had already gathered "with more on their way."

And, the Times reports:

"At the riverbank, men with dreadlocked beards to their feet vied for media attention with yogis supporting heavy weights with their genitals, while others holding golden umbrellas, flags and swords rubbed sand on their bodies after the dip. ...

"More than 2,000 years old, the festival is a meeting point for the Hindu sadhus, some who live in forests or Himalayan caves, and who belong to dozens of inter-related congregations. The sects have their own administration and elect leaders, but are also known for violent clashes with each other.

"Some naked, some wrapped in saffron or leopard-print cloth and smoking cannabis pipes, the holy men hold court by fire pits in sprawling camps decorated with coloured neon lights, where they are visited by pilgrims who proffer alms and get blessings."

According to the BBC, "14 temporary hospitals have been set up with 243 doctors deployed round-the-clock, and more than 40,000 toilets have been built for the pilgrims. Police checkpoints have been set up on all roads leading to Allahabad and about 30,000 policemen and security officials have been deployed to provide security during the festival."

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