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ALLAHABAD, India－Hindu devotees began gathering on Sunday in northern India for the world"s largest religious festival, with millions of pilgrims traveling to bathe in holy rivers for the spectacular Kumbh Mela.
State authorities in Uttar Pradesh are expecting 12 million visitors to descend on Allahabad for the centuries-old festival, which officially begins on Tuesday and continues until early March.
The ancient city rises alongside the banks of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers, and the meeting point of the three is considered highly sacred in Hinduism.
Devout Hindus believe that bathing in the waters of the Ganges absolves people of sins and bathing at the time of the Kumbh Mela, or the "festival of the pot", brings salvation from the cycle of life and death.
"Kumbh is a conglomeration of spiritual consciousness and cultural heritage," Mahesh Sharma, who heads the Culture Ministry, said in a statement.
Two days before the gigantic bathing ritual begins, naked holy men wandered the banks smeared in ash, offering blessings for devotees.
"We help devotees get rid of their pains and troubles through our blessings, sacred ash, yoga, knowledge and wisdom," said Prahlad Puri, a holy man with his long knotted hair tied in a bun.
"We distribute food, we serve the poor."
With less than 24 hours until the festival starts, the last of the arriving ascetics paraded toward temporary ashrams, or monasteries, built of corrugated steel and canvas on the eastern banks of the Ganges, many decked in fairy lights.
Pilgrims poured in to the site, which is closed to traffic around bathing days, carrying bundles on their heads, while vendors peddled neon balloons and cotton candy, as securitymen stood guard, with priests and armed police seated side-by-side.
Authorities have set up temporary bridges, 600 mass kitchens and more than 100,000 portable toilets in a pop-up city at the confluence of the rivers, which is known as the sangam.
Those with cash can make their pick of luxury campsites on the river banks that offer ayurvedic spas and yoga that cost up to 32,000 rupees ($454) each night.
Most of the pilgrims make do with more modest lodgings, sleeping in vast tents or out in the open.
"I don"t know where I will stay yet, but you do not often get to meet these saints and sadhus," said Rajendra Singh, a retired soldier now working as a security guard, who rode a bus from the state capital, Lucknow, about 200 kilometers away.
The Mela, which runs until March 4, was recognized as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2017.
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