ALLAHABAD, INDIA, January 17, 2013 (India Real Time): The Kumbh Mela, the largest religious gathering on Earth, began Monday in Allahabad, a city in northern India's Uttar Pradesh state. Between 80 and 100 million Hindus are expected to take part in the 55-day festival, bathing at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna, sacred rivers believed to cleanse sin and enable devotees to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.
Environmentalists and religious leaders, concerned about the impact of such vast numbers of pilgrims camping on 20 square miles of floodplain, are hoping to appeal to the religious consciences of the visitors and encourage them to become more eco-conscious.
For the first time at a Kumbh Mela, which takes place every three years, there is a "Green Camp" for pilgrims. The camp is backed by India's newly formed Green Pilgrimage Network, which aims to protect pilgrimage sites and make them more environmentally sustainable. "We started with the concept that we should make this the green Kumbh Mela," said Chidanand Saraswati, a Hindu swami, or holy man, who is leading the eco-friendly camp -- Global Sangam -- on the banks of the Ganges.
"Hindus have always cared for the environment but people have started to forget because of population growth and lack of resources," said the swami, who is also leader of the Parmarth Niketan an ashram in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand. "But when they see their leaders and their gurus going in the green direction, they will follow," he told The Wall Street Journal's India Real Time. The camp is using recyclable steel plates and utensils instead of plastic. It also has eco toilets, filtered drinking water instead of plastic bottles and will organize litter picking collections and tree planting along the banks of the sacred river.
The local government and the High Court in Allahabad have also banned the use of plastic bags at the festival for the first time.