Millions of Hindus took a ritual dip Monday at
the confluence of holy rivers in the northern Indian city of
Allahabad, on the first day of the 55-day Kumbh Mela festival -
considered to be the largest gathering of people on earth.
Pilgrims led by ash-smeared ascetics and gurus were bathing from dawn at the point where the waters of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers join, festival organizers said.
According to Hindu mythology, as gods and demons fought over a pitcher of amrita - the nectar of immortality - a few drops spilled at four places: Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik, where the festival is held at designated intervals.
Hindus believe the ritual of the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, the full version of which comes once every 12 years, cleanses the soul of sins and clears the path to heaven.
"Until noon, up to 6 million people participated on the first of the main bathing days, also known as Shahi Shan," festival manager Om Prakash Srivastava said by phone from Allahabad.
"Estimates by our officials indicate that by the end of the day, upto 10 million people have taken the bath," he said.
Srivastava said crowd management was the biggest challenge, but that the "festival has begun on an auspicious note, without any accidents or incidents."
Pilgrims marched behind religious leaders perched atop festooned elephants and horses as musical bands played. More than 100 million people are expected to attend the festival.
Religious fervour remained undiminished despite warnings by environmentalists that high pollution levels at the site had made the rivers unfit to bathe in.
Srivastava said they had set up about 35,000 toilets, 14 temporary hospitals, 22,000 street lights and built 150 kilometres of temporary roads and 18 bridges around the site.
Some 30,000 staff and volunteers, including 12,000 police officers, were to be deployed during the festival, he said.
Stampedes are common at such events. During the 2003 festival in the western town of Nashik, 45 people were crushed to death.
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