Massive Hindu celebration turns deadly on Ganges River

(CBS News) PRAYAG, India -- It was just after dawn when the Hindu holy men charged forward into the Ganges, the river they believe is a goddess who can wash away their sins.

They've waited for this moment for 12 years, since the last Prayag Kumbh Mela, Hinduism's biggest, most joyful festival.

In a two-month-long celebration, this day is considered the luckiest to take a dip.

Saryu Das is a holy man who came here to collect a bottle of sacred water.

"This is our heritage," he told us. "The Mother Ganges has given us her blessings since the beginning of time."

Then came the pilgrims, a flood of humanity not driven by war or hunger, but moved by a shared faith.

They've gathered here from all over India, camped out in a giant city of tents, in a carnival atmosphere.

More coverage from CBS News' Holly Williams on the Kumbh Mela festival:
Millions take part in ancient pilgrimage in India
Faithful find "special powers" at Hindu festival

Lakshmi Singh Takari
Lakshmi Singh Takari
CBS News

This country is modernizing fast, but Hindus are still rooted in an ancient religion.

Lakshmi Singh Takari comes from a wealthy Indian family but gave up nearly all of her material possessions to study with holy men.

"Look at Amaraji sitting there," she said. "He thinks he's a king. You know, he's got nothing, but he's a king in his thoughts."

On the banks of the Ganges, the crowd's religious fervor became increasingly chaotic. At times it came dangerously close to a stampede as pilgrims rushed forward -- wave after wave -- toward the water.

At least 30 people were crushed to death in a stampede as pilgrims tried to board a train.
At least 30 people were crushed to death in a stampede as pilgrims tried to board a train.

Later in the day came the news that there was a stampede as pilgrims left the Kumbh Mela and tried to board a train. At least 30 people were crushed to death.

Death toll rises to 36 in India stampede

Hindus have been coming together for the Kumbh Mela for more than 2,000 years, but now the crowds are growing bigger -- and this time, that proved deadly.

  • Holly Williams

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