ALLAHABAD, India: Tens of millions of Hindus have gathered to bathe in India's sacred River Ganges on the most auspicious day of one of the world's largest religious festivals.
Ash-smeared naked sadhus, or holy men, led the ritual bathing before dawn - which is said to cleanse pilgrims of their sins - with millions following them into the swirling river waters at the festival site in Allahabad in northern India. The population of the city increased from its normal 1.2 million to about 40 million on Sunday morning, with about 20 million packed inside the vast bathing area on the banks of the river, a government spokesman, Ashok Sharma, said.
Amid the crush, thousands of volunteers and police were urging pilgrims to take one short dip and then leave the freezing waters to make space for the flow of humanity behind them.
''Aerial surveys by choppers, flying cameras and our estimates put the figure at around 20 million people taking a holy dip in the rivers,'' Mr Sharma said. ''Public address systems are asking people to leave the ghats [steps] after bathing to avoid a crush.''
The Maha Kumbh Mela, which began last month and ends in March, takes place every 12 years in Allahabad. Smaller, similar events are held every three years in other locations around India. The bathing takes place at an area called Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and a third, mystical, waterway called the Saraswati.
Devotees believe entering the mighty rivers cleanses them of sin and frees them from the cycle of rebirth. Despite the hardships of waking early, plunging into the freezing and heavily polluted water and the crush of the crowds, pilgrims described being spiritually uplifted.
''One dip in the river has the power to change life forever,'' said 65-year-old Malti Devi, of London, who was taking part in the festivities for the first time.
The festival has its origins in Hindu mythology, which describes how a few drops of the nectar of immortality fell on the four places that host the festival: Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar. Most devotees dunk their heads under the water, some drink it and others bottle it and take it home.