More than 10 million Hindus on Friday took a holy dip at Sangam, the confluence of three sacred rivers in Allahabad, on what is regarded as the "most auspicious" of a six-key bathing season at the six-week long Ardh Kumbh.
Called 'Mauni Amavasya', it is the third auspicious day and the second 'shahi snan' (royal bath) that witnesses intensive participation by the naked Naga sadhus, symbolising an age-old army of Hindu gods who battled the devils for their share of the divine nectar, believed to have fallen at four places across India - Allahabad thus qualifying as a 'Kumbh Mela' destination.
Hindus believe a dip in the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati will not only wash away one's sins but also help achieve the goal of divine salvation - more so during the auspicious Kumbh festival that began on January 3.
The crowds were far bigger than what the festival witnessed since it took off.
"The number of pilgrims had crossed 10 million by 9.30 am (Friday)," said District Magistrate PR Misra, as he went around the sprawling 10-km tent township.
"I would easily estimate a total convergence of not less than 20 million people before the day ends," he added.
And to avoid overcrowding in the bathing area, Allahabad Divisional Commissioner RN Tripathi, the nodal head of the mela administration, asked devotees not to offer prayers while bathing.
"You can come for your prayers tomorrow or later, but please do not offer prayers today as it would mean occupying the bathing area longer and could even lead to a stampede," he repeatedly announced on the public address system.
Unmindful of the security concerns, pollution levels or biting chill, millions of men, women and children headed for a dip.
"This is god's land. Today when the heavens are showering the divine nectar at Sangam, how can any harm befall any devotee?" remarked Vidyanand Giri, secretary of the oldest and largest of the nine officially recognised Hindu akharas, or monastery camps.
Of the 20,000 holy men associated with this akhara, there were over 2,000 Naga sadhus who jumped and danced with joy as they descended into the chilling waters.
"Yes, the water may look polluted and cold but once you are in it you feel purified and the chill vanishes," observed Jasraj Puri, a 35-year-old Australian who become an integral part of the Nirvani Akhara 10 years ago.
The saffron clad Australian, who gave up his original name when he became a holy man, said: "It is an intense bliss that the dip gives you. And let me tell you, the water here is cleaner that what you get in New Delhi."
A 45-year-old British woman, re-christened Ganga, is equally entrenched in the ascetic life at the akhara. She said: "The Ganga is spiritually so pure that any visible dirt becomes immaterial and irrelevant."
For the ordinary pilgrim, the dip was the fulfilment of a long-cherished desire. While the bathing began at midnight, there were hundreds of thousands sprawled across the sandy banks under the open skies, waiting for the first rays of the sun to take their plunge.
"The most auspicious time begins with the break of dawn. We don't mind waiting the night here ... it will be worthwhile," remarked Kalawati, a 55-year-old woman who had trooped in along with 20 women like her.
All of them had only thin shawls as protection against the unkind weather and squatted on the cold sands, chanting hymns to keep them warm and awake.