Beliefnet

ALLAHABAD, India, Jan. 10 (AP) - Standing waist-deep in the icy Ganges River water, hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees floated small clay oil lamps early Wednesday as a lunar eclipse made their once in 12 years Kumbh festival even more auspicious.

The lamps glowed, but a cloudy sky disappointed the devotees who couldn't watch the eclipse. But they went ahead with the holy dip past midnight for the first lunar eclipse of the millennium.

The eclipse was visible thousands of kilometers (miles) away in southern India.

Nearly 4.2 million people bathed in the Ganges River on Tuesday, the first day of the 43-day Kumbh Mela festival. Hindu devotees believe that the holy dip washes away their sins and breaks the cycle of death and rebirth.

Men, women and children continued to arrive in Allahabad by trains, buses, trucks, tractor-driven carriages and even bullock carts for the next most auspicious bathing day on Jan. 14. Up to 65 million may come by the time the event ends on Feb. 21.

Astrologers calculate the holiest dates for bathing based on the position of the stars and planets. Other favorable dates are January 14, 24 and 29, and February 8 and 21.

While four cities alternate holding Kumbh Mela, the festival in Allahabad, 576 kilometers (360 miles) east of New Delhi, is considered the most auspicious because it lies near the confluence of three rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.

Kumbh Mela derives its name from a Hindu myth that tells how the gods and demons fought over a ``kumbh,'' or pot, of nectar that would give them immortality. Legend has it that one of the gods ran off with the pot, spilling four drops of nectar near four blessed cities.

Nearly 20,000 naked or scantily clad holy men from warrior sects, with long hair and beards, were greeted by hundreds of thousands of devotees and got precedence for bathing at the confluence of the three rivers.

The holy men, with their foreheads daubed with ash or sandalwood paste, carried spears and poles.

``I was very close to god. I was totally away from the world, life and everything,'' said Pratap Garh, a teacher, wearing only a loin cloth as he stepped out of the river on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, thousands of soldiers and police - equipped with closed circuit television and bomb detectors - are guarding against terrorist attacks, stampedes and crime among the pilgrims crowding in tents or sleeping outside in the winter cold.

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