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Millions flock to Ganges for world's biggest festival

ALLAHABAD, India--Millions of Hindu pilgrims led by naked ash-covered holy men streamed into the sacred river Ganges on Monday, for a record-breaking start to the world's biggest religious festival.

The Kumbh Mela in the Indian town of Allahabad will see up to 100 million worshippers gather over the next 55 days to take a ritual bath in the holy waters, believed to cleanse sins and bestow blessings.

Before daybreak on Monday, a day chosen by astrologers as auspicious, hundreds of gurus, some brandishing swords and tridents, ran into the swirling and freezing waters for the first bath, signaling the start of events.

Assorted dreadlocked holymen, seers and self-proclaimed saints from all over the country have assembled for the colorful and chaotic spectacle that offers a rare glimpse of the dizzying range of Indian spiritualism.

“I am ecstatic. When I enter the Ganges I feel so happy, it's a feeling I can't explain,” said Mokshanand, a heavily bearded guru who emerged shivering from the water in a small pair of saffron-colored underpants.

“Our biggest wish is that there is peace and that people should look after each other,” a member of the Naga Sadhus, a devout, fierce and famously nude sect of followers of the Hindu god Shiva, told AFP.

For most ordinary Indians, the Kumbh Mela is a religious holiday enjoyed in an almost carnival atmosphere, where prayers and blessings are offered and sought alongside family or friends camping together at the vast festival site.

The hardships of being squeezed in the crowds, enduring endless whistling and barked orders from thousands of policemen and even catching a cold in the chilly January weather are seen as a price worth paying for a dip.

“I was a bit reluctant to go in at first because of the cold, but I was pushed into the river by the mass of people,” Indu Bala Dhawan, a 70-year-old grandmother from western Punjab, told AFP.

“I yelled at first but I'm very happy now.”

The Kumbh Mela takes place every 12 years in Allahabad, in northern Uttar Pradesh state, with smaller but similar events every three years in other locations around India.

It 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.

For men like Ram Krishna Verma, a 42-year-old farmer from Chhattisgarh state who traveled some 700 kilometers (430 miles), it is a time of solemn duty as he has come to scatter the ashes of his late mother.

“She died two months ago,” he told AFP. “This is the final resting place.”

The “Mother Ganges” is worshipped as a god and is seen as the giver and taker of life. Most devotees dunk their heads under the water, some drink it and others bottle it and take it home as gifts.

Officials said record numbers had flocked to Allahabad for the start of this year's event. State information officer Ashok Kumar said 6 million people had arrived by 2 p.m. and more than 10 million were expected by the end of the day.

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Sadhus or holy men carry a child adorned with marigold flowers on their shoulders as they all march towards the Sangham or the confluence of the the Yamuna and Ganges rivers during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad on Monday, Jan. 14. (AFP)

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