Nepal's Hindu community on Tuesday kicked off celebrations for the Swasthani festival during which devotees bathe in various sacred rivers to wash away their sins and pray for prosperity. The religious festival, also known as Madhav Narayan, is dedicated to Lord Shiva and Goddess Swasthani. Hundreds of thousands of participants gather on the river-banks in Nepal for the ceremonies. "We are expecting over two million devotees to come for the bath here during the festival period," Jeevan Shrestha, the vice-chairman of the festival organisation committee for the Salinadi river in the Kathmandu valley. Devotees also visit other river banks including Hanumanghat, located 15 km from the capital, for ceremonies where the women dress in red and the men roll around on the ground before taking a dip in the water.
"Taking holy baths in the rivers during the festival period washes away the sins committed by an individual," said Hindu priest Uttam Baral.
The celebrations include night-long recitals of the story of Swasthani, a 31-chapter legend which narrates the origins of the Earth, the suicide of Swasthani -- the first wife of Lord Shiva -- and how Parvati became his second wife.
"It is believed that reciting these stories pleases Goddess Swasthani who grants wishes to the devotees to overcome their troubles," Baral said.
The festival -- which is unique to Nepal -- includes worship of the goddess in various rituals at different locations.
Hindus form 81 per cent of Nepal's 30 million people, while around 9 per cent of the population is Buddhist.