STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The biggest gathering of human beings on earth begins today in India.
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UNIDENTIFIED HINDU MONKS: (Chanting in Sanskrit).
INSKEEP: Those are some of the human beings, Hindu monks, chanting mantras on their way to bathe in the Ganges River. Over the next seven weeks, up to 120 million people are expected to do the same. It is called the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage. It's the equivalent of taking the entire populations of California, Texas, Florida and New York and sending them all swimming in the same spot. NPR's Lauren Frayer is there in India.
Hi there, Lauren.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is the purpose of this gathering?
FRAYER: This is a religious fair that happens at the confluence of three rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna - those are two of the biggest rivers in India - and a third, the Sarasvati. And that's a mythical river. Hindus believe it's here but that it's invisible. And every 12 years, people come bathe in the confluence of these rivers. And this year is actually called a half Kumbh because it's only six years since the last one. But there's nothing half about this. This is still expected to be the biggest gathering so far - as you mentioned, 120 million pilgrims expected by the time the pilgrimage is over in early March. And these dates are determined by the alignment of the stars and the planets by astrologers.
INSKEEP: So what's it like to be in that crowd?
FRAYER: You know, it sounds cliche. This is India, but this is the most colorful creche of humanity that I've ever seen and that I could ever imagine. I mean, barefoot, bearded monks; naked people; whole families carrying their suitcases on their heads, camping along the way - they sleep in these vast tent cities - rich and poor, ascetic monks and tourists side by side. I've just ducked into a little Hindu temple on the banks of the Yamuna River - you know, stepping out of the melee to talk to you. But this morning at dawn, I met Gitanjali Verma (ph). She was on her way back from the banks of the Ganges. She's a local but making this pilgrimage for the first time.
GITANJALI VERMA: It was like - in another kind of world, you are. It was incredible.
FRAYER: You're quite emotional, I can tell.
VERMA: Yes, yes.
VERMA: I think it's just the faith. And it's the total purity of the heart and the mind.
FRAYER: They bring people here. And they all plunge into the rivers, which is actually pretty chilly this time of year. People had blue lips and were shaking as they plunged into the waters at dawn this morning. This is a ritual that's supposed to wash away your sins and break you out of the cycle of death and rebirth.
INSKEEP: Well, that sounds quite spiritual. But I have a question about practicalities, Lauren. How do they ensure safety and order for 120 million people in the same place?
FRAYER: So here are a couple stats I can give you that the organizers have given me - 122,000 toilets have been built here; 20,000 trash cans; 30,000 police and security forces. They have built 200 miles of new roads for this pilgrimage. This is my first time here. But pilgrims who have done it before tell me it's much better organized this year. And that could be because an election is coming. There are posters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi along the paths down to the river banks. These pilgrims are exactly his Hindu nationalist voter base.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer. Thanks so much.
FRAYER: You're welcome, Steve.
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