Kumbh Mela, world's largest religious festival, begins in Prayagraj

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Prayagraj: 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.

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.

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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.

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In 2017, UNESCO declared Kumbh Mela as an intangible heritage site.

The festival has its roots in a Hindu tradition that says the god Vishnu wrested a golden pot containing the nectar of immortality from demons. In a 12-day fight for possession, four drops fell to earth, in the cities of Prayagraj, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik, who share the Kumbhs as a result.

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"Kumbh is a conglomeration of spiritual consciousness and cultural heritage," Mahesh Sharma, who heads the culture ministry, said in a statement.

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.

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.

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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 ($454.09) each night.

Most of the pilgrims make do with more modest lodgings, sleeping in vast tents or out in the open.

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"I don't know where I will stay yet, but you do not often get to meet these saints and sadhus," says Rajendra Singh, a retired soldier now working as a security guard, who rode a bus from the state capital, Lucknow, about 200 km (124 miles) away.

The government says about 100 million to 150 million people, including one million foreign tourists, are expected to attend over the eight-week festival period beginning on January 15, and the scale of the efforts to feed and house the pilgrims is immense.

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