HARIDWAR, India — Thousands of Hindu holy men, some naked and smeared with ash, took dips in the chilly waters of the Ganges river while surrounded by cheering, dancing supporters Friday, one of the most auspicious days of a monthslong festival expected to attract more than 10 million people.
Throughout the day, nearly 2 million devout Hindus – including large groups of sadhus, or holy men – are expected to bathe in the waters, which they consider sacred, said Anand Vardhan, the government official supervising the Kumbh Mela, often described as the world's largest religious gathering.
The Hindu festival, which is celebrated every three years, rotates among four Indian cities.
On Jan. 13, it began in Haridwar, a temple-filled town at the foothills of the Himalayas where the Ganges river enters the sprawling plains of northern India. The festival ends April 28.
Thousands of pilgrims began taking dips before dawn on Friday with temperatures falling below 50 degrees (10 degrees Celsius). Devout Hindus believe bathing in the Ganges will cleanse them of their sins and free them from the cycle of life and rebirth.
"Because of the way the stars are aligned during the Kumbh, all the good things you do get multiplied and your sins are washed away," said Anil Sharma, a lawyer who had traveled to Haridwar from Jaipur in western India's Rajasthan state.
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The idea of celebrating the cycle of life, birth, death, and re-birth, reflects the mystery of Hinduism.