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India’s river waters cleanse spirits at Hindu festival

In Photo: A Hindu devotee performs a holy dip in the Godavari River during Kumbh Mela, or Pitcher Festival, in Nasik, India, on August 26, the start of the festival. Millions of Hindus are expected to immerse themselves in the Godavari River as a way to cleanse themselves of sin and come closer to God.

NASIK, India—It’s just water. But to the millions of Hindus expected at the Kumbh Mela festival, held this year along the Godavari in Maharashtra state, touching that water is reverential.

Hindu devotees take holy dip in the Godavari River on the first official day of bathing as part of Kumbh Mela celebrations in Nasik, India, on August 26. Hindus believe that sins accumulated in past and current lives require them to continue the cycle of death and rebirth until they are cleansed. Bathing in sacred waters on the most auspicious day of the Kumbh festival, or Pitcher Festival, believers say, rids them of their sins.
Hindu devotees take holy dip in the Godavari River on the first official day of bathing as part of Kumbh Mela celebrations in Nasik, India, on August 26. Hindus believe that sins accumulated in past and current lives require them to continue the cycle of death and rebirth until they are cleansed. Bathing in sacred waters on the most auspicious day of the Kumbh festival, or Pitcher Festival, believers say, rids them of their sins.

It’s a way to cleanse themselves of sin, to come close to God, to immerse themselves in a tradition that dates to antiquity.

They have come to this city from across India and around the world. Entire villages arrive together, and their parties often last through the nights. Thousands of mystics gather.

Water is central to many religions: Christians perform baptisms, Orthodox Jews seek ritual purity in mikvah baths, Muslims wash themselves before prayer. Believers in both Catholicism and voodoo find solace in the waters of Haiti’s Saut d’Eau waterfall.

Observant Hindus believe that four drops of holy nectar from a pitcher were spilled long ago during a battle between gods and demons. Since then, the Kumbh Mela, or Pitcher Festival, has alternated between the four cities where the nectar fell: Allahabad, at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythic Saraswati rivers; Haridwar, on the banks of the Ganges; Ujjain, in central India; and Nasik.

This year, the two-month festival started on Wednesday in the crowded city of Nasik. The festival is held four times every 12 years.

The moment when people immerse themselves is the culmination of all the travel and effort and prayer, and the dark water of the Godavari sparkles from the splash. Some people thrust themselves almost violently in and out of the water. Some go delicately. Some take a gentle swim.

Authorities are testing the water for pathogens every few hours, and insist contaminants are at “safe levels.” Many rivers across India have become foul with the country’s economic development, with city sewage, farming pesticides and industrial effluents freely flowing into waterways despite laws against polluting.

Image credits: AP/Bernat Armangue

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