| Devotees take a holy dip in the Gandak on Kartik Purnima in Sonepur on Wednesday. Picture by Ashok Sinha |
The sky was still dark around 5am. The temperature was around 10°C. But Dinanath Prasad was undaunted on Wednesday as he walked towards the confluence of the Ganga and the Gandak.
The 60-year-old Chhapra resident, who came to Sonepur to take a holy dip on Kartik Purnima, had faith and experience to give him the courage. “We have been coming to Sonepur on Kartik Purnima for the past 32 years. Taking a dip in the holy rivers gives peace and blessings of gods,” he said.
Prasad was not lonely in his pre-dawn excursion though. On Wednesday, over 5 lakh devotees took holy dips at the four ghats — Kali, Hariharnath, Sree and Ganga-Jamuna-Saraswati — in Sonepur, around 30km north of Patna.
Explaining the significance of the ritual performed on the 15th day of the Hindu calendar month Kartik, Tyagiji, a priest from Vaishali, said: “For Hindus, Kartik is the most auspicious month. It is believed that gods come down to earth on the full moon day of this month and visit the rivers. So, devotees exorcise their sins by taking a dip in the holy rivers on this day.”
The road to the ghats was a sight to behold on Wednesday. Men wearing dhotis and carrying shawls on their shoulders crowded the thoroughfares. Women carrying children accompanied them. They walked tirelessly for miles, as no traffic was allowed on the old bridge connecting Hajipur with Sonepur.
Men in uniform were breathless, managing the crowds.
Also ubiquitous were beggars, especially those suffering from leprosy.
As the devotees treaded towards the ghats, the mendicants cried loudly and demanded alms.
On the congregation of beggars, Baba Aughar Nath, an ascetic from Hardwar, told The Telegraph: “No one returns empty handed from the riverbanks on Kartik Purnima. The wishes of all the devotees, including beggars, are fulfilled.”
The road to wish-fulfilment was, however, torturous and nauseating one. At every few paces, one encountered piles of human and animal excreta.
Chhapra district resident Mewa Prasad, who has been coming to Sonepur for the past 20 years, said this indifference to hygiene was common.
“Most devotees are from rural areas. They are habituated to answering calls of nature in the open. It is disgusting,” he added.
But devotees are not the only ones to be blamed. “The authorities should have ensured that there are enough toilets and urinals for so many people coming here. But there is no such arrangement,” said Mewa.
Taking the holy dip was not the only attraction for the crowds. On Tuesday, Sonepur Mela — arguably the largest cattle fair in Asia — was inaugurated.
The fair would continue till December 26. Around 12 lakh people are expected to visit the fair.