LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The biggest gathering of human beings anywhere in the world has kicked off in India. It's the Kumbh Mela, an ancient Hindu pilgrimage to dip in the waters of the Ganges River. Up to 120 million people are expected to do so by March - among them, this past week, NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer.
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LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: There's a huge, red sun just peeking out over the horizon. And I'm crushed in with men dressed in orange sarongs. They're draped in garlands of marigolds flowers. Sign of the times - these Hindu monks are also taking selfies of themselves on the way to the Ganges River.
The Kumbh Mela happens every 12 years with dates set according to the stars and planets. This one is a half-Kumbh, six years since the last. But it's expected to be the biggest yet. Organizers say 15 million people showed up on the first day. They include naked, dread-locked, holy men, families with infants and foreign tourists, like Santiago Merodio - on a spiritual journey from his native Spain.
Do you feel anything here?
SANTIAGO MERODIO: I'm an atheist. But because of this, it's like changing my point of view a little bit. So I was coming here to see what I was feeling. Yeah. Yesterday, I got lost, but I didn't find anything. And...
FRAYER: Do you mean that metaphorically, like you're still searching for something?
MERODIO: Yeah. I'm searching. I'm searching for something. I think there must be something there.
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FRAYER: I've made it through these crowds down to the banks of the Ganges River. They have lined the banks with sandbags so that it's easy to step down into the waters. But it's chilly. And people are dunking in here. You can see that they're absolutely shivering - you know, dunking and then running out. There's a little boy next to me who's just blue lips and shaking.
NIRAJ SHUKLA: The water's, you know, very cold all day. So but once you have a bath, it's sort of a miracle, you know?
FRAYER: Engineer-turned-pilgrim Niraj Shukla says the waters wash away sin.
SHUKLA: You have work. You have tensions. You seem to have commit some wrongdoings. You know this thing deep down inside. Now you come over here. You take a dip. You feel that, you know, I'm in the company of some holy people, some saints. And then you, you know, step into this holy water. And you feel inside that you have - you know, you've cleansed yourself. And now I'm going back to my home as a new person, you know?
FRAYER: This holy water is found at the confluence of three rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna - two of India's biggest rivers - and the Saraswati, a river some believe flows underground here. Another pilgrim, Gitanjali Verma, says she was awestruck by this flow of humanity down to the riverside.
Is there a message to the rest of the world that we can take from this?
GITANJALI VERMA: What should I say? We can show the unity, you know?
FRAYER: Peacefully and...
VERMA: Yes, peacefully. Truth is there. Devotion is there and the purity of mind and heart. That's it.
UNIDENTIFIED PILGRIMS: (Chanting in foreign language).
FRAYER: The Kumbh Mela festival lasts through March 4. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, on the banks of the Ganges River in India.
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