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Kumbh Mela festival begins in India

Millions of Indians are taking part in a massive religious pilgrimage which only comes about once every 12 years. But water pollution could endanger those attending - the event centers around the polluted River Ganges.

A Hindu devotee prays before taking a dip in the waters of the holy Ganges river ahead of the Kumbh Mela (Pitcher Festival) in the northern Indian city of Allahabad January 11, 2013. During the festival, Hindus take part in a religious gathering on the banks of the river Ganges. Kumbh Mela will return to Allahabad in 12 years. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood (INDIA - Tags: RELIGION TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Indien Kumbha Mela in Allahabad

Around 11 million Hindus are expected to gather in the northern Indian town of Allahabad on Monday to cleanse their sins in the River Ganges in one of the biggest gatherings in the world.

The Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, which only takes place once every 12 years and lasts 55 days, will be steeped in ritual. Naked holy men smeared with ash will lead in a large procession, some of them on horseback and chariots, to a background of chanting hymns.

Behind them will be throngs of men, women and children.

Pollution fears

But there are fears that high water pollution levels could pose a danger to participants."We found, to put it simply, no river is a river, they are all sewers," said researcher Anil Prakash Joshi, in reference to a testing tour which environmentalists recently undertook.

"If you have any plans to take a holy dip in the Ganga in the upcoming Kumbh Mela, then you are more likely to be swimming in a soup of toxic content," reported the Times of India newspaper.

The Ganges is polluted with large deposits of garbage, human excrement, and industrial waste from factories and other buildings, including a hospital, near the site of the festival, according to the report, even though more money has been pumped into sewage treatment plants.

"The [hospital's] waste disposal plant, constructed by the British and located behind the hospital, has been lying defunct for ages," the Times of India reported.

Undeterred enthusiasts

With pilgrims undeterred by the environmental concerns, over 12,000 policemen will be deployed at the festival, in order to prevent stampedes. In 2003, 45 people were crushed to death in the town of Nashik. In 1954, more than 500 people died in a stampede.

Tourists, writers and journalists are also expected to descend on the event in search of an experience of a lifetime.

"I'm told it is a sight to behold for the eyes and soul. I'm hoping to find what I'm looking for here," Times of India quoted the Hollywood star Catherine Zeta Jones as saying.

sej/msh (dpa, AP)
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