Millions of Hindus, some covered only by holy ash, plunged into the Ganges River in northern India April 14 in a ritual held in accordance with their belief that the water will free them from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Hindus believe sin keeps them in this long-suffering cycle and that bathing in a sacred river leads to the attainment of nirvana, or the after-life.
"This is the last chance to free ourselves from sins before the end of the millennium," says Jerry Gobind, a Hindu who came from Toronto to Haridwar - a temple-filled town at the foothills of the Himalayas - to join an estimated 10 million pilgrims for the Kumbh Mela festival.
The Guinness Book of World Records calls the bathing ritual the world's largest religious gathering. The 15-week festival began Jan. 1 and formally ends April 29, the last big day of bathing. April 14 was considered the most auspicious day to take a dip because of the alignment of stars and planets.
Hindus, some naked recluses who emerged from their Himalayan cave homes, chanted prayers and lit offerings of incense along the riverbanks. Ordinary pilgrims, stripped down to loincloths or thin saris, also immersed themselves in the rushing waters.
"It's amazing. Here is the population of all of Israel," says Noam Zaradez, a tourist who came from Rishon-le-Ziyyon outside Tel Aviv to see the festival. "I was amazed that even in the cold of night, they kept going in the water. It is incredible how much they are willing to suffer for their belief."
Hundreds of thousands of gallons of untreated human and industrial waste spew into the Ganges every day. But few devotees care - it is their spirits they have come to cleanse, not their bodies.
"I came to do some good and put 10 years of bad luck behind me," says Chapala Sadhu Khan, a widow from the eastern city of Calcutta. She says she sneaked onto a train and traveled 14 hours, noting she was so poor that it was difficult to find food at home, but "I know here there would be kindness."
Threat of clashes
Police had at first canceled the traditional processions of sadhus, saffron-clad Hindu holy men, after rival sects clashed over who would bathe first. Police relented after three religious leaders began a hunger strike in protest.
The sadhus marched as crowds lining their route for miles cheered. Some sadhus rode motorized, gilded chariots while others were on camels. No violence was reported.
Mindful of the recent fatal stampede at the hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, authorities deployed 25,000 police officers to maintain order in Haridwar, where in 1986, 50 people died in a stampede. In 1954, about 800 pilgrims died when the Kumbh Mela was held in the northern city of Allahabad.
To handle the masses this year, at least 30 permanent and temporary bridges were erected across the river and new bathing lines stretching for 1.2 miles were set up along both banks.
The sea of pilgrims walk along a labyrinth of fenced lanes. Bathers who lingered too long in the water were yanked out by police.
"It's a sea of faces all around. You see people, people, and more people with saffron dominating the landscape," says one devotee at Haridwar.
The Kumbh Mela, or "pitcher festival," is held in rotation at one of four Indian cities every three years.
The festival derives its name from a mythical fight over a pot of nectar. According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons who were waging a war realized they needed holy nectar to achieve immortality and victory.
The gods churned the sea and drew out the nectar. One of them made off with the pot, spilling drops on 12 spots, four of them in India and the rest in the heavens. Haridwar is one of those four spots.