Braving biting temperatures, hundreds of thousands of Hindus on Wednesday took a dip at the confluence of three rivers in Allahabad as the 42-day Ardh Kumbh festival got underway in a once in six year spectacle of spirituality, devotion and stoicism.
It was well before dawn that men, women and children began heading towards the icy cold waters of Sangam - the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the now invisible Saraswati rivers - in the belief that a ritual dip would wash away all their sins.
While everyone traversed the distance from camps that were as far as 10 km away on foot, there were some who covered the journey by prostrating themselves after each step till they reached the holy waters.
Monks, saffron clad as well as the naked, from 13 prominent Hindu congregations, businesspersons and homemakers, the young and the old, the rich and the poor formed snaking queues till the fair site.
Nearly half a million people had taken their dip by about 9 am, said chief organiser PR Mishra, estimating that the figure would go up to two million by the end of the day.
About 70 million Hindus are expected to gather at the Rs 1.7 billion (nearly $4 million) religious extravaganza, referred to by some as the largest human congregation in the world, before it concludes on February 16.
While the first day of the fair essentially attracts devotees from nearby areas, there are also the 2,00,000 odd Kalpvaasis who stay here for an entire month. There were many foreigners too seeking "divine blessings".
"I have been in India for five years and have been anxiously awaiting the opportunity to take a dip at the Sangam during the Kumbh Mela. I don't have words to describe the divine ecstasy that I have experienced today," said Ram, a 25-year-old Israeli tourist.
"And yes, Ram is an original name given to me by my own parents who were equally impressed by Indian people and their spiritual ways," Ram said.
While bulk of the arrivals were from rural pockets of India, there were many, many others as well.
Like Naba Kumar Ghosh, a young schoolteacher from Kolkata. "It has been my cherished desire to take a dip at the Sangam during the Kumbh Mela. The experience has been one of fulfilment - complete cleansing of the inner self," he said.
Added 29-year-old Jayanta Banerjee, a businessman from Kolkata, "My pursuit was slightly different; apart from spirituality what is unique about Kumbh is the convergence of varied Indian people who come from diverse cultures, speak different languages."
He described the Kumbh as a "reflection of true India, where all barriers are overcome by the flowing waters of the Ganga that swallows two other great rivers to move ahead on its journey."
For 70-year-old Shakuntala from Sahdol district in Madhya Pradesh, "It was a divine experience. A dip in the holy waters is like being with god."
Clearly, she gets her inspiration from the likes of 80-year-old Rama Devi, who has not missed a 'Kumbh' dip at the Sangam since she was born. Her 30-year-old son BK Mishra, a soldier in the army guarding India's Northeast borders, took his mother on his back from their home in Allahabad to the Sangam about 10 km away.
The biggest days of the festival are January 19 (Mauni Amavasya), when about 20-25 million are expected, January 14-15 (Makar Sakranti and the day after), January 23 (Basant Panchami), February 3 (Magh Purnima) and February 16 (Maha Shivratri).
It's a huge logistical challenge for the administration.
A vast area of about 4,000 acres stretching for about eight kilometres along the Ganga and Yamuna riverbanks has been converted into a giant tent township.
"We have created a huge infrastructure, which includes laying of about 76 km of thick steel sheets to serve as convenient walking paths on the sandy riverbanks," said an official, adding that 456 km of drinking water pipelines have been laid.
Besides a fully equipped 100-bed makeshift hospital, 14 primary health centres have been created for visitors.
Unlike the 12-yearly Kumbh that is celebrated in four places across the country - Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik - Ardh Kumbh is held only at Allahabad and Haridwar.
The event's timing is governed by the Hindu tradition and astronomical configurations.
"Ardh Kumbh commences when Jupiter begins to enter Taurus and the sun as well as moon are in Capricorn - and that happens only once in six years," pointed out Ram Naresh Tripathi, an Allahabad-based scholar of Sanskrit and Hindu mythology.
"This city of Prayag (old name for Allahabad) has the unique distinction of being right at the centre of the earth, and the sunrays falling directly on the spot during the period generate unique minerals in the water at the holy sangam."