Ash-smeared and naked Hindu saints led millions of devotees Wednesday in a pre-dawn holy dip at the meeting of three major rivers in northern India, starting a weeks-long pilgrimage to wash away their sins.
Chanting religious hymns and ''Har Har Gange,'' or ''Long Live the Ganges (River),'' a multitude of men, women and children jumped into the water at 4:54 a.m., a moment chosen as auspicious by Hindu priests. Few seemed to mind the chilly winds and a low of 42 F.
''Initially, I felt some cold. But one dip and the cold was gone,'' said Ram Vir Upadhaya, a retired government official.
Nearly 70 million Hindus are expected to participate in the 45-day festival, one of the largest regular gatherings in the world. More than 3 million had taken the dip in the first six hours, said P. N. Mishra, the state government official in charge of the festival held every six years.
Allahabad, the venue of the ''Ardh Kumbh Mela'' or Half Grand Pitcher festival, is nearly 120 miles southeast of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state. A larger festival, the ''Kumbh Mela,'' or the Pitcher Festival, takes place every 12 years.
''It's a big challenge for us to control this massive human gathering and we are ready to face the challenge,'' Mishra said.
Nearly 50,000 police officers fanned out to prevent stampedes and devotees from getting lost as they gathered at the confluence of the Jamuna, Ganges and Saraswati rivers.
Authorities have spent more than $163 million on preparations, said N. C. Bajpai, a top state government official. Those include making nearly 50,000 tents and 25,000 makeshift toilets available to a crowd sprawled over 30 square miles.
According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons fought a celestial war, spilling nectar at Allahabad in a pitcher or Kumbh. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges during the festivals washes away their sins and ends the process of reincarnation.
Hundreds of thousands of Hindu religious leaders have arrived in the area and put up their tents according to their hierarchy.
Some of them entered the river banks on Monday in chariots pulled by white horses. Some came in sedan chairs carried by their devotees.
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