ALLAHABAD, India — Nearly 70 million Hindus are expected to take a dip in frigid temperatures at the confluence of three major rivers in north India as part of a weekslong religious pilgrimage aimed at washing away earthly sins.
For one of the largest gatherings of people in the world, authorities have put up nearly 50,000 green, blue and brown tents and 25,000 makeshift toilets in a sprawling area of 80 square kilometers (30 square miles) on the banks of the Ganges River.
Nearly 10 million Hindus, led by ash-smeared and naked saints, are expected to bathe at the confluence of Jamuna, Ganges and Saraswati rivers started Wednesday — the first day of the festival, P.N. Mishra, the officer or in-charge of the festival, told The Associated Press on Monday.
Allahabad, the venue of the “Ardh Kumbh Mela” or Half Grand Pitcher festival, is nearly 200 kilometers (120 miles) southeast of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state.
The main period of bathing would be on six auspicious days, depending on the alignment of stars.
Nearly 50,000 policemen will try to prevent stampedes and devotees getting lost in a sea of people, a common occurrence at the pilgrimage held every six years. Logistics to provide food, water and shelter to the milling crowd are other key worries for the officials.
“We are expecting about 70 million people during this festival … Its a big challenge for us to control this massive human gathering and we are ready to face the challenge,” Mishra said.
A larger festival, the “Kumbh Mela,” or the Pitcher Festival, takes place every 12 years.
According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons fought a celestial war, spilling nectar at Allahabad in a pitcher or Kumbh.
Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges during the festivals washes away their sins and ends the process of reincarnation.
Hindu religious leaders have started arriving in the area and putting up their tents according to their hierarchy.
Some of them entered the river banks on Monday in chariots pulled by white horses. Some came in sedan chairs carried by their devotees, braving chilly winds and early morning fog with minimum temperature around 6 degrees Celsius (42 Fahrenheit).
Authorities have spent more than 7.5 billion rupees (US$163 million, ‚¬125 million) to provide infrastructure for the festival, said N. C. Bajpai, a top state government official.
However, Hindu devotees have been complaining about cold and lack of proper toilets.
“There are no arrangements for bonfires. People are shivering in cold … There are no blankets,” said Ganga Prasad, a teacher from neighboring state of Bihar.
Some of them have been beating the cold by sitting around bonfires of waste paper, wood and cardboard sheets.