Final millions bathe at India's Kumbh megafestival


Allahabad (India) (AFP)

India's Kumbh Mela religious megafestival wraps up Monday with some 10 million pilgrims expected to take a final holy plunge, taking the final tally towards 250 million, officials said.

"We expect at least 10 million today because it is both the last day and Mahashivratri," one of the biggest Hindu holy days, government official Prabhat Shukla told AFP.

"Around 220 million people have visited the Kumbh as per our last calculations. The final tally will only be updated after the end of the festival but it could be around 250 million," Shukla added.

The 48-day festival in the northern city of Allahabad, recently renamed Prayagraj after the region's ancient Hindu name by the state's Hindu nationalist government, began in February.

Hindus believe bathing at the meeting point of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati at the festival -- home to a vast tent city bigger than Manhattan -- brings salvation.

According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons fought a war over a sacred pitcher, or Kumbh, containing the nectar of immortality. Drops fell at four locations -- one being Allahabad.

The pilgrims including thousands of Naga Sadhus -- a devout, fierce and famously nude sect of followers of the Hindu god Shiva -- rise at dawn for prayers at the Kumbh Mela before immersing themselves in the holy waters.

This year's festival was the Ardh (half) Kumbh Mela, which denotes the completion of the six-year half cycle of the even bigger and grander Maha (great) Kumbh festival, held every 12 years.

Authorities have spent about $40 million on an operation to block some drains and make sure others undergo cleaning so that waste water pouring into the rivers does not threaten the pilgrims.

More than 30,000 police were on duty to manage the huge crowds and prevent deadly stampedes seen at previous gatherings.

Special skimmer boats collected waste from the surface of the rivers and more than 40,000 temporary toilets have been installed.

Devotees meditate on the banks of the rivers after the dip and collect Ganges water in cans to take home. Many observe complete silence for the rest of the day after their ritual bath.

With elections looming, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made the most of the festival to burnish his Hindu credentials, with cutouts and posters of him placed all over the campgrounds.