ALLAHABAD (INDIA) • The largest gathering of humanity on the planet began yesterday, with tens of millions showered in rose petals and holy ash at a spectacular Hindu festival on India's sacred riverbanks.
The Kumbh Mela is expected to attract more than 100 million pilgrims to Allahabad over the next seven weeks to bathe in waters considered among the holiest in Hinduism.
Allahabad rises alongside the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati, and the banks of these hallowed rivers have transformed into a riot of colour for the centuries-old festival.
A gigantic tent city has emerged near the confluence of the rivers, where Hindus believe bathing during the Kumbh helps cleanse sins and brings salvation.
Before dawn, thousands of naked holy men smeared in ash, some on horseback, proceeded towards the rivers' meeting point known as "Sangam". The "naga sadhus", or holy men, plunged into the chilly waters before the sun rose, as nearby devotees chanted praises to the Hindu deity Shiva.
Throughout the day, millions of pilgrims will queue in huge processions for their chance to plunge into the waters in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
The last major gathering in Allahabad in 2013 drew an astonishing 120 million people, organisers said.
Thirty million devotees - more than the entire population of Australia - are said to have bathed on a single auspicious day.
A helicopter dropped rose petals yesterday on an endless sea of dreadlocked sadhus smoking marijuana, priests offering blessings in saffron robes and pilgrims from every corner of India.
"All the Gods descend on this sacred place during this period. This is the most auspicious event for any human being," said 60-year-old devotee Chandhans Pandey.
Nearly 30,000 police have been deployed to oversee crowds for the huge undertaking, and prevent stampedes that have marred previous gatherings.
Patrol drones buzzed over a 45 sq km encampment set aside specially for pilgrims - a temporary city three-quarters the size of Manhattan.
Restaurants, roads and marketplaces have sprung up to cater to the huge influx of visitors, along with 122,000 toilets and 300km of road.
The Kumbh, which runs until March 4, was recognised as an intangible cultural heritage by Unesco in 2017.