Haridwar: As a stream of Hindu devotees dip themselves in India’s sacred Ganges river for a ritual believed to purify their souls, a young boy plunges into the water to find his fortune.
Rahul Singh is one of dozens of coin pickers making a living by retrieving offerings thrown into the waterway by pilgrims visiting the northern holy city of Haridwar.
Every day for six hours, the 13-year-old scours the chest-deep water with a magnet attached to a long stick, as hymn-chanting crowds toss in valuables.
“It needs a lot of effort but I enjoy doing it,” Singh told AFP, after fetching 30 rupees (45 US cents) worth of coins.
Watching him closely is Raja Yadav, who was eight when he arrived in the city as a runaway boy after hearing tales of underwater treasures.
Yadav - nicknamed “Jhinga” (shrimp) for his swimming prowess - literally struck gold six years ago when he found a necklace he was told was worth $1,300.
Now 22, he leads a team of 15 picker-boys including Singh.
Last year’s national coronavirus lockdown saw visitors to Haridwar dry up for several months, leaving Yadav’s team struggling to survive on their meagre savings.
But like the pilgrims, Yadav had unflinching faith in the river goddess, and travellers returned this year, undeterred by a recent surge in cases.
“We always believe that Ganga is our mother and she will never let her children sleep hungry,” he said.
“The pilgrims are back and we are happily diving again.”
Rivers play a central role in Hindu religious rituals, with devotees tossing in offerings of money, clothes and ornaments into the waters to show gratitude for sustaining life.
In the Ganges, some immerse the ashes of deceased relatives to achieve “moksha” - liberation from reincarnation.
During the bathing festival of Kumbh Mela, immense crowds throng the Ganges in the world’s largest religious gathering.
This year it is taking place in Haridwar, where more than three million people took part in the ritual during one day in March.
Underwater treasure hunters use their feet to feel out for the precious metals on the riverbed, or dive in and search with their naked eyes.
A one-day haul of coins adds up to 300-400 rupees ($4.15-5.50) for each boy, although that soars up to 1,000 rupees during Kumbh Mela, Yadav said.
Merchants pocket a 20 per cent commission in exchange for currency notes, while black-market buyers take jewellery at half of retail price, and copper and steel utensils are sold as scrap.
The boys pick up coconuts and religious paraphernalia to resell if there aren’t enough coins.
Coin pickers like Yadav’s team work all year round, braving faster and deeper waters from heavier rainfall during the monsoon season. Seasonal treasure hunters visit in October when water levels are low due to an upstream dam.
Singh says daily discoveries in the river are a source of satisfaction.
He ran away from home in nearby Uttar Pradesh state two years ago and worked several odd jobs before moving to Haridwar, where a friend taught him swimming and coin-picking skills.
The teenager now shares a shanty in a nearby slum with more than a dozen other coin hunters.
“Back home there was a lot of tension and poverty, but I am happy here,” he said.