Millions try to achieve immortality

ALLAHABAD - More than a million Hindu pilgrims plunged into the chilly Ganges River in northern India yesterday, hoping to wash away their sins and achieve immortality.

Naked sadhus, or holy men, blowing conch shells, whose bodies were smeared with ash and sandalwood paste, mingled with other devotees at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers - and raced into the water for the cleansing ritual at the start of a huge religious festival.

At least 50million people are expected to bathe in the waters during the 45-day festival, which takes place every six years in the city of Allahabad and is billed as one of the largest gatherings of humanity on earth.

Braving the winter chill, worshippers chanting prayers waded into the water, cupped it in their hands and threw it over their heads and chests. Others dunked their heads into the water.

"Around 2,5million devotees have already arrived and we are ready to face a larger deluge of humanity," said C Bajpai, chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh state.

"About 1,5million people have already taken a dip," he said.

Flags of different Hindu sects fluttered above the pilgrims' camp of 62000 tents as the hordes of worshippers took the plunge, ignoring the cold snap gripping northern India, where early morning temperatures are hovering just above freezing.

The festival, being held 400km from New Delhi, commemorates a mythical battle between gods and demons over a pitcher containing the nectar of immortality.

It draws old and young and rich and poor people from across the country as well as foreigners, many of them devoted followers of Hinduism.

Devotees believe bathing in the Ganges washes away sins, liberates them from a continuous cycle of birth and reincarnation and guarantees immortality.

The festival, where the sound of sacred Hindu hymns and chanting of scripture rises from the river banks, is taking place against tight security.

Among the huge crowds, tens of thousands of police were on high alert after intelligence warnings of possible attacks.

"More than 50000 police officers are deployed and the festival ground has been divided into 28 sectors, which will be under the command of a senior police officer," said a government official.

"We have received intelligence reports about possible terrorist attacks and we are in touch with the army and federal intelligence," he said. - Sapa-AFP