Foreigners throng India’s Kumbh Mela festival, Latest World News - The New Paper

Foreigners throng India’s Kumbh Mela festival

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ALLAHABAD, INDIA: At the Kumbh Mela, the world's biggest religious event, millions of Indian Hindus are not the only people bathing in the sacred waters to wash away their sins.

Foreigners are among the ascetics, saints, sadhus and spectators thronging the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers in northern India for what is billed as humanity's biggest gathering.

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati grew up in a Jewish family in California but moved in 1996 to an ashram in India and changed her life and her name.

"I was on holiday with a backpack and when I got to Rishikesh, on the banks of the sacred Ganges, I had a deep, powerful spiritual awakening experience that made me realise where I need to be, where I need to spend my life," she told AFP.

The 47-year-old is among the worshippers taking a dip at the Kumbh, which is expected to attract well over 100 million people over the next seven weeks.

"The reason we take a bath in the sacred waters is to achieve immortality... immortality of the soul," she said.

"It felt amazing, it always feels amazing...

"Normally only the body gets wet, but here you feel like your inner self is getting wet, your heart, your soul is getting wet, your spirit... The depth of my being is being touched."

A record 22.5 million people plunged into the waters on the first day of the Kumbh last week, according to local officials.

Nearly 30,000 police officers have been deployed to oversee crowds and prevent stampedes.

A vast tent city with restaurants, roads and marketplaces has sprung up along the river, with pilgrims camped out across a sprawling 45 sq km zone.

Westerners who have immersed themselves in Hindu spirituality include Baba Rampuri, who claims to be the first foreigner to be initiated into India's largest and most ancient order of yogis.

Reportedly born William A. Gans, he grew up in Beverly Hills and moved to India in 1970, and like Saraswati is active on Facebook and Twitter.

"I am not a great believer in modern technology, or the consumerist messages being sent out through the medium, but we have to make people aware we exist," he told the Indian Express. - AFP