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Coming Clean

Washing away karmic splotches in the murky waters of the Ganges

Author Lisa Kirchner Illustration Peter Oumanski

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ALLAHABAD, INDIA – “Any day is a good day for bathing in the Ganges,” says Pandit Ramanah, smiling as he adjusts a white cloth over his yellow sweater. Ramanah is in his 40s, though his thick hair shows no signs of graying. A priest from Varanasi, one of India’s holiest cities, he is here today as part of his job. 

We are outside Allahabad, the venue for Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival so large that it’s reportedly visible from space. More than 100 million souls are expected to attend the 55-day event this year, with the aim of washing away the sins of past lifetimes.

To accommodate the devotees, a temporary city has been erected, complete with running water, electricity and police. A driver creeps through the shambles of lean-tos, stalls and electric “om” signs on his way to the ferry that will take Ramanah to the spot where the Ganges and the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers meet.  

Ramanah waits patiently for his turn before jumping into the murky water, where he remains for a good half hour, much longer than needed for the requisite three dunks. The driver waits nearby, ready to take him to the next stop on his list: an appearance by Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, one of the holiest men in India.

On the way, Ramanah sings ancient mantras. He is excited about seeing the swami—and even more so when, upon arriving at the holy man’s tent, he’s rewarded with a seat right next to him. The two men do not talk as devotees rush to touch the swami’s feet. The swami yawns. He takes a phone call. Then, abruptly, Ramanah’s audience is over.  

“Now this,” the priest says, beaming broadly as he is practically pushed from the tent, “is an auspicious day.”

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