AP PHOTOS: Hindu festival draws crowds of bathers to rivers

PRAYAGRAJ, India (AP) — Millions of people have joined a 45-day Hindu bathing festival in the northern Indian city of Prayagraj, where devotees take a dip at Sangam, the sacred confluence of several rivers. There, they bathe on certain days considered to be auspicious in the belief they will be cleansed of all sins.

Rows and rows of colorful tents, in which the devotees stay, line the sprawling festival site. Millions of Hindus travel every year to the event, called Magh Mela, where pilgrims offer prayers and enter the holy waters where the Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers meet.

In Hinduism, this period is called Kalpvas and the devotees who choose to stay for the entire time are known as Kalpvasis. They give up their daily routine and instead camp at the site, living on frugal meals and performing rituals.

Virender Kumar Shukla, a Kalpvasi devotee, is attending for the fifth time. He said he hopes by offering prayers to “find a place in heaven” and earn “a better rebirth.”

Authorities took months to build what looks like a temporary tented city on the river banks. Police patrol the site and floating bridges were built to help people get from one side of the river to the other. Boats ferry pilgrims from the bank of the Yamuna to the Sangam, where they bathe in the holy water and offer their prayers.

The festival is being held even though COVID-19 cases in some parts of the country are rising after months of steady decline. India has confirmed 11 million cases and over 150,000 deaths.

Health officials have told local media that they have tested tens of thousands of pilgrims for the virus since the festival began on Jan. 14. It is set to end on Feb. 27.

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