ALLAHABAD, India, Jan. 23 (AP) - Millions of Hindu pilgrims scrambled toward the Ganges on Tuesday to fulfill lifelong ambitions of bathing in what they consider the world's most sacred river at the most auspicious day of the Kumbh Mela festival.
Eager to pray and wash away their sins during the ageless Kumbh Mela, one of the world's largest religious congregations, the worshippers dipped their bodies into the water and scooped it up in their hands, pouring it over their heads.
About 10 million people visited the river banks on Monday and the numbers swelled as pilgrims poured onto the sandy shore Tuesday for the most sacred bathing day of the 43-day festival.
The ``Royal Bathing Day'' started at 3:20 p.m. Tuesday, according to Hindu priests consulting the moon and star constellations, and was to extend into Wednesday. This year's planetary arrangement that regulates the Kumbh Mela is so rare that Hindu astrologers say it occurs just once in 144 years.
Those who dipped into the chilly waters Tuesday include naked mendicants, with ash-smeared bodies; saffron-robed Hindu gurus; hymn-chanting women in yellow, red, and purple saris; poor villagers, astrologers, faith healers, philanthropists, foreign tourists, rich Indian expatriates and cannabis-smoking hippies.
The sinners want salvation, the poor ask for riches, failed businessmen want back their fortunes and the childless seek youngsters from the river they call Mother Ganga. The believers gather at the Sangam - the confluence of the dark blue waters of the Yamuna, the gray sandy currents of the Ganga and the mythical, invisible Saraswati.
Hindus believe that sins accumulated in past and current lives require them to continue the cycle of death and rebirth until they are cleansed. If they bathe at the confluence of the three sacred rivers on the most auspicious day of the most blessed festival, believers say those chances are increased.
Those not powered by faith are driven by curiosity.
``Every day something new stuns me here. I discover something new all the while,'' said John Arnett, a school teacher from Cleveland, Ohio, who was drawn to the city 360 miles east of New Delhi after reading about the Kumbh Mela on the Internet.
``This is an experience I am going to tell my grandchildren about,'' he said as he posed for a photograph with a smiling Hindu nun in a saffron robe.
According to Hindu mythology, the Kumbh Mela celebrates the victory of gods over demons in a furious battle over nectar that would give immortality. The myth says the gods retrieved the nectar by churning a massive ocean of milk.
As one of the gods fled with the pitcher of nectar across the skies, it spilled on several places along the river banks. Organizers say as many as 70 million will bathe in the waters before the 43-day celebration comes to a close.
Across the 3,460-acre festival grounds, pilgrims consume 12 million U.S. gallons of water and 9,250 U.S. gallons of milk each day. More than 15,000 street lights dot the 50 miles of new roads. Thirty-five temporary power stations and 20,000 toilets have been built.
The possible threat of Islamic militants has also forced the tightening of security ahead of India's Republic Day on Friday. Soldiers carrying machine-guns peeped from behind sandbagged bunkers built along several roads. Helicopters patrolled the skies and 11,000 policemen guarded the crowds.
Thousands of poor people sleep under the open skies each night on the sandy river bank, clutching their thin, dew-soaked quilts as dogs wander past, looking for a scrap from the meals cooked in shiny aluminum pots on the sands.
But Bishambhar Bhushan, 80 and blind, could see nothing of that as he stood in the icy waters of the river, scooped up water with folded hands, and offered it to the heavens in a centuries-old gesture.
Bhushan had waited for the moment for a decade. None of his estranged sons offered to go with him, so he traveled two days without a ticket in a crammed train car from his village of Dhanvahi in central Madhya Pradesh state.
``I told Mother Ganga, take me across life, mother,'' he said, his eyelids twitching with excitement. ``My life's ambition is fulfilled. I told the holy mother I had waited for a long time.''
Then he clapped his hands and laughed.