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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now to India and a Hindu gathering that's drawn more people than any other event in the world. Swamis, naked holy men, and foreigners fascinated by Eastern mysticism are joining tens of millions of pilgrims. The goal: A dip in river waters believed to be holy. The festival lasts 55 days and attendance peaked this past Sunday.

NPR's Julie McCarthy was out among the pilgrims and sent this report.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The Hindu festival known as Kumbh Mela is millions of feet shuffling, millions of mantras chanted...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

MCCARTHY: Countless bundles of firewood sold to stave off the night cold...

Millions of incense sticks burned and bells rung in devotional rituals called aartis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: In a single day this past Sunday, an estimated 30 million people celebrated here on the riverbanks of the city of Allahabad. It's as if the combined populations of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota showed up at the same place at the same time. These pilgrims have converged on the Sangam, the confluence of the Rivers Ganga, or Ganges, the Yamuna, and a third mythical river, the Saraswati.

SADVHI BHAGAWATI SARASWATI: My name is Sadvhi Bhagawati Saraswati. And we are here at the confluence of the three holy rivers of India and of the world. And once every 12 years when the stars, the planets, the Moon, and everything is in the proper alignment, it is considered the most auspicious and divine and sacred time to have a bath in the confluence of these sacred waters.

MCCARTHY: American-born Saraswati is a nun in the Hindu tradition, known as a sanyasi. She is a disciple of Swamiji Chid Anand Saraswati and the managing editor of the "Encyclopedia of Hinduism" released last year. She says in Hindu mythology the Kumbh, of Kumbh Mela is a pot that contained sacred nectar.

SARASWATI: Drops of the sacred nectar of immortality actually fell upon this land and into these rivers. And so, people who have come have come to bathe in that nectar of immorality. But nobody thinks that what it means is the cell of their bodies won't die. Of course they will. Everybody knows that. So we go home from here with an awareness of our divine and eternal nature. And that's what the nectar of immortality is.

MCCARTHY: The Kumbh attracts all manner of devotees, from the simplest souls looking to wash away their sins to Bollywood film celebrities looking for an angle to promote their movies. But the real stars of this show are India's holy men: sadhus, or saints, and naga sadhus. These naked ascetics, smeared in nothing but ash, are often the postcard image of religious India.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: One holy man said that their life of deprivation is more than today's initiates are willing to endure, and so the nagas are becoming an endangered species. But millions of pilgrims lined a route in the cold pre-dawn hours Sunday, to catch a glimpse of these normally secluded holy men who kicked off a procession, parading naked on horseback. Surrounded by heavy security, they made a dash for a dip in the chilly waters and millions of pilgrims followed suit.

C.T. GAUTAM: My name is C.T. Gautam. I am a retired teacher.

MCCARTHY: What did you pray for?

GAUTAM: For the peace of whole world.

MCCARTHY: So you prayed for peace.

GAUTAM: Yes. Nothing for myself, only for this.

MCCARTHY: Movies have been made about getting lost at the Kumbh Mela, where India's richest and its poorest inhabit the same noisy, unsanitary conditions, living under the stars along the banks of a river in this mega-tent city. Gyanesh Kamal, a saint from Allahabad, calls the Kumbh the great leveler.

GYANESH KAMAL: There is no discrimination at all. We are getting everyone here full of simplicity. This is the purpose.

MCCARTHY: It is expected that by the final dipping day on March 10th, more than l00 million people will have experienced the Kumbh Mela.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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