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Hindus gather for mega festival. Pilgrims have travelled great distances braving the cold

BBC News Online, Monday 8 January 2001, 13:43 GMT

Tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims have converged on the north Indian city of Allahabad where preparations are underway for a massive religious festival.

The Maha Kumbh Mela, or Grand Pitcher Festival, takes place every 12 years and sees millions of devotees bathe in the Ganges to purify their sins.

The Kumbh is held at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, and Hindu scriptures say this is one of four places on which the Gods spilt a drop of the elixir of immortality.

The authorities have spent millions of dollars on security and other arrangements with up to 30 million people expected over the next 42 days. The BBC's Jill McGivering, who is at the Kumbh Mela, says the whole area is flooded with people and noise as religious orders staged colourful processions to the site.

Marching bands and elephants accompanied the sadhus (Hindu holymen), many of them naked or scantily clad, their bodies smeared with ash. "I came a long way from Jammu and Kashmir to be at this holy place," one sadhu said.

Cyber cafes Although the events of the next few days are traditional, stretching back centuries, the authorities are using modern technology to cope with the growing numbers of pilgrims.

An official website has been designated for the Kumbh Mela, with information on its history and meaning as well as practical help - such as where to stay.

Numerous cyber cafes have been set up around the city, although our correspondent says not all of them seem to be in working order - due, in part, to Allahabad's erratic electricity supply.

Dozens of lost-and-found centres have been set up, along with a series of huge electricity boards on which the authorities plan to flash pictures of lost people, in the hope of reuniting them with their families. In the past, many people have often been separated from their families amid the sheer crush of numbers. Safety concerns

The gathering is also to be subjected to heavy security measures, brought about by fears of terrorist attacks. Mine-detector teams, navy divers and sniffer dogs have been deployed to secure the massive 5,000 acre festival site, on which a mini-tent city has sprung up.

Fear of terror attacks have sparked a security clampdown A closed circuit surveillance system has been set up to keep a close watch on events, with 10,000 policemen, army personnel and intelligence officers on duty.

Indian air force helicopters will also maintain an aerial watch. "Our primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of all pilgrims here," Allahabad police superintendent, Alok Sharam, told the AFP news agency.

The security teams will, in particular, hope to prevent any stampede, which have led to tragic deaths in the past. In 1954, between 500 to 1,000 people were crushed to death in a stampede and in 1989, 60 people were also killed.