Maggie Hardison*

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Hindus seek forgiveness at Ganges & Yamuyna rivers

ALLAHABAD, India (BP) -- It's hard to fathom that people from all over India and the world come to bathe where the Ganges and Yamuna meet. The confluence of the two rivers is muddy and gray, laden with diseases and parasites. Yet, this spot is considered holy -- or at least it is during the Kumbh Mela festival in the city of Allahabad. Hindus believe that bathing in the water cleanses their sins. According to Hindu myths, the gods and the demons once fought over the nectar of life, spilling several drops on the earth. The largest drop fell where the Ganges and Yamuna meet. When the moon and Jupiter align, Hindus believe that the flow is joined by a mystical river, the Saraswati, bearing the divine nectar of immortality. Some believe that if they can bathe in these rivers at exactly the right time, it can stop the cycle of reincarnation. Watching people bathe and even drink the river water is difficult -- physically, emotionally and spiritually -- as they place their faith in gods and idols toward achieving the Hindu experience of "nothingness." For me, this stirs prayer that the "Light of the world" will shine into this 55-day festival. It will take a miracle as only God can do. It's illegal to share Christ on the banks or around the grounds of the festival. Pilgrims will continue streaming into Allahabad by plane, train and bus (some even walk) until March 9. This particular Kumbh Mela, called Maha Kumbh Mela, is a special one that happens only once every 144 years. Parades of different Hindu sects roam through the streets. Dreadlocked sadhus (Hindu holy men) cover their bodies in ashes and sit teaching and blessing the hordes of people. The riverbanks are jammed with tents and mats where the pilgrims camp. Luxurious tents of the rich sprawl in one area while the frayed tarps of the poor cram onto another section of land. Allahabad will go from a population of 1.2 million people to an estimated 100 million during Maha Kumbh Mela's 55 days. On the "holiest" days, Feb. 10-11, city officials estimated more than 30 million people camped on the banks of our river. To put that in perspective, that's like the entire population of Texas, 26 million, visiting Savannah, Ga., on the same weekend. This Maha Kumbh Mela is being called the largest human gathering on earth. (By comparison, 3.1 million people visited Mecca in Saudi Arabia during last year's annual hajj pilgrimage.) It is surprising how many foreigners have come to bathe alongside the national Hindu population. ...