The Maha Kumbh Mela – identified as one of the most spectacular shows of faith – observed once in 12 years, began in Allahabad in India, Monday.
Maha Kumbh – the holy festival of Hindus – is claimed to witness the largest congregation of people on earth for a single cause of seeking salvation from sins.
Over 110 million people are expected to take part in this holy grandeur held at Sangam that lasts for 55 days this year. In 2001, more than 40 million people had gathered in Allahabad, breaking a world record for the largest human gathering.
The Maha Kumbh Mela has its origins in the Hindu mythology. According to the legend, in a battle between the celestials and the demons for 'amruth' or the holy nectar of immortality, one of the Gods tricked the demons and ran off with the nectar to the celestials but not before spilling it in four places in India. They are identified to be Prayag, Ujjain, Haridhwar and Nashik. Maha Kumbh Mela is observed four times, every 12 years in these four destinations.
Hindu scriptures state that each individual has to go through different lifecycles, cleansing their sins through good deeds to attain moksha - a state of liberation from further birth and sufferings. Legend has it that a dip in the holy river on the occasion of Maha Kumbh Mela will wash away the sins committed in present and previous births and help an individual to attain moksha.
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Maha Kumbh Mela is held in accordance with the position of planets and stars and is based on Indian astrology. Apparently, the position of stars determines six days as auspicious to take the holy dip.
About 3 million devotees plunged into the ice-cold water of the river to wash away their sins by the day break and another ten million are expected to take a dip in the holy water by the day end, officials said.
People from all over the country and abroad thronged the ghats - where people take holy dips in the river - to either participate or witness the spell-binding show.
The gathering also saw thousands of Naga sadhus, an order of Hindu-Shaivite ascetics, who are naked or scantily clad, with matted hair worn as dreadlocks and ash smeared all over their body.
The 'sadhus' or ascetics of various sects arrived at Prayag, Allahabad, along with their spiritual leaders, who were carried in spectacularly decorated palanquins and chariots, followed by groups in processions, as people gathered behind huge barricades applauded and shouted slogans.
The Naga sadhus marched to the sangam for first ‘Shahi Snan’ (royal bath), many clad in just marigold garlands, with tridents in their hand. The first chance to dip in the holy waters on the first day of the event this year belonged to the sect of Maha Nirvani Akhadas, who were followed by seventeen other sects.
"This is huge," described Nick Oza, a photo-journalist from Arizona to the leading publication, Times of India. "I don't know from where to begin and where to end!"
The spell-binding festival attracts both pilgrims and tourists from all over the world.
"I really want to visit India again specifically during the pilgrimage and I'm told it is a sight to behold for the eyes and soul. I'm hoping to find what I'm looking for here. I'm trying to make this happen with my family. If that doesn't work out I'm definitely coming on my own," Hollywood actress Catherine Zeta-Jones remarked about visiting Prayag during the Maha Kumbh Mela, the Press Trust of India (PTI) has reported.
Elaborate security arrangements have been made by the government to thwart any possible terrorist attacks and stampedes during the occasion. Maha Kumbh Mela will end on Mar. 10, 2013.