Kumbh Mela: Prayagraj gears up for world's largest religious festival
Pilgrims from across the world are gathering in India for the Kumbh Mela, a heady mix of spirituality, politics and tourism that begins on Tuesday, garnering extra attention ahead of a general election in the Hindu-majority country this year.
During the eight-week festival at Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh, authorities expect up to 150 million people, including a million foreign visitors, to bathe at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and a mythical third river, the Saraswati.
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.
On Tuesday millions of pilgrims, led by naked, ash-smeared ascetics, some of whom live in caves, will plunge themselves into the icy waters during the first Shahi Snan, or Royal Bath, that begins around 4 AM.
With less than 24 hours until the festival starts, the last of the arriving ascetics paraded towards 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 security men stood guard, with priests and armed police seated side-by-side.