Holy men focus of crowds at Hindu festival in India

Posted: Friday, January 19, 2001

ALLAHABAD, India -- Amar Bharti says he has been holding his right arm above his head for 27 years. Radhey Puri claims to have stood upright without rest since 1992.

Hindu holy men who perform exceptional forms of worship like these are drawing the attention of pilgrims who seek blessings from them during the festival of Kumbh Mela in northern India.

Millions of Hindu worshippers stream daily toward the makeshift city on the banks of the Ganges River to bathe in a ritual they believe will cleanse them of sin. The 43-day festival ends Feb. 21 with the last of six auspicious bathing days, which Hindu priests determine according to astrology.

Aside from the bathing, which goes on day and night, many Hindus seek out holy men, called saints, who perform unique types of worship.

''Some saints drink only milk. Some survive on only fruit or bread. Some only take water,'' said Bharti, 60. ''Everyone has a different way of doing penance.''

Bharti's method is holding his right arm above his head. Because of the loss of blood circulation, he has no feeling in his palm, his blackened fingers are permanently folded and end in long, unkempt nails.

Since his arrival at the Kumbh Mela, Bharti has been surrounded by curious foreign tourists and Indian devotees 24 hours a day. Many of the Hindus seek him out for blessings, believing he is a superior saint because of his penance.

''This is a very special way of worshipping god and it will help me and all of humanity to achieve spiritual goals,'' Bharti said. ''My guru also kept his right hand vertically erect throughout his life and I am just following his path.''

Puri, 37, said he done everything while standing since 1992, ''from sleeping to eating, and even the call of nature.''

''I will do it for 900,000 days (2,465 years) and 900,000 nights and I am even ready to take rebirth to complete my vow,'' he said.

Devotees also cluster around naked holy men, who have renounced all worldly possessions, including clothing. They smear ash over their bodies and offer blessings to those who give them food or drink.

News coverage of the naked men, and also pictures that have appeared of women emerging from the water in wet saris, have angered some priests and sects.

Festival commissioner, Ashokla Sadakant, on Wednesday ordered photographers to remain 200 yards from the banks of the river and avoid taking close-up shots.

Hindus believe that sins accumulated in past and current lives require them to continue the cycle of death and rebirth until they are cleansed. Most of the pilgrims at the Kumbh Mela hope to wash away their sins by bathing at the spot where the Ganges River merges with the Yamuna, and according to their belief, the mythical Saraswati River.

Completing the ritual during the Kumbh Mela, held once every 12 years at Allahabad, 360 miles east of New Delhi, is considered even more auspicious. Organizers estimate 70 million people may attend the festival.

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