HARIDWAR, India (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Hindus bathed in waters considered sacred across large parts of India to mark the start of a religious festival on Thursday, with at least seven people killed in a stampede in the country’s east.
At least half a million men, women and children braved chilly winds to bathe in the icy waters of the Ganges in the holy Himalayan town of Haridwar at the “Kumbh Mela,” or Pitcher Festival, held every 12 years in different Indian cities.
Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges during the almost four-month-long festival cleanses them of their sins, speeding the way to the attainment of nirvana.
The ritualistic bathing takes place in other venues as well, with massive crowds often leading to accidents.
In West Bengal state in the east, six women were among seven people killed in a stampede as thousands bathed at the confluence of Ganges river and the Bay of Bengal, officials said.
“The stampede happened when pilgrims were rushing to get into a boat,” said Surajit Kar Purakayastha, a senior police officer said in Kolkata, capital of West Bengal.
More than 50 million people from India and abroad are expected to visit the holy city of Haridwar over the next few months, authorities said.
People gathered near the river banks in northern Uttarakhand state before dawn and began bathing as soon as the sun rose.
A tight security ring was in place in Haridwar, with police keeping a close eye on pilgrims with the help of more than 120 closed-circuit cameras.
“I am very happy. I am feeling blessed,” said Indu Karn, a woman who came from the eastern state of Jharkhand.
“I have come here to bathe for my salvation in the Ganges. I am really happy,” she said, shivering after several dips.
After bathing in the polluted but sacred waters many filled cans and bottles with water, saying they would carry them for their relatives who could not make the journey.
Haridwar is one of four spots where Garuda, the winged steed of Hindu god Vishnu, is said to have rested during a battle with demons over a pitcher of the divine nectar of immortality.
Garuda’s flight lasted 12 divine days, or 12 years of mortal time, hence the celebration of “Kumbh Mela” every 12 years.
“Kumbh is the soul of Indian culture,” said Pilot Baba, a Hindu monk with thousands of followers in many countries.
“Kumbh gives us an opportunity to connect with the world, to be a progressive nation,” said the monk, clad in saffron-colored robes, as many bowed before him in respect.
Additional reporting by Sujoy Dhar in Kolkata; Editing by Bappa Majumdar and Paul Tait