Braving the dark of the pre-dawn hours, the chill in the air and the ice cold water of the Ganga, thousands of devotees ecstatically shouting "Bom Bom Bhole" started bathing in the holiest river of the Hindus on the occasion of Mahashivratri on Friday, one of the biggest days of the ongoing Maha Kumbh Mela in Haridwar.
According to Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva married Goddess Parvati on Mahashivratri. It is one of the focal days of the Maha Kumbh Mela, the once-in-12-years festival that promises to become the world's largest religious gathering this time.
The much-awaited and one of the most popular events during the Maha Kumbh - the first Shahi Snan (Royal Bath of sadhus) - will take place after 11 am amidst heavy security.
During the Shahi Snan, sadhus of various sects march along the banks of the Ganga, and then plunge into the waters - a symbol that they have dedicated themselves to the holy river. Of the 13 Akharas, according to Mela officials, seven will participate in Friday's Shahi Snan.
With the Mela authorities not allowing lay devotees to bathe after 8 am, the pilgrims started on their holy dips soon after midnight.
"Devotees in large numbers preferred to take the holy dip just after midnight simply because they knew we have imposed restrictions on their bathing for the mega event of Shahi Snan," Anand Vardhan, officer in charge of the Mela said.
"In view of the Shahi Snan, the regular devotees will be allowed to bathe along the ghats only till 8 am. Then the ghats would be cleaned and would be made ready for the Shahi Snan that will start at around 11 am and will witness participation of only sadhus, including the ash-smeared, bare-bodied Naga sadhus. It will continue till 4.30-5 pm. After 5 pm, the other devotees will be allowed to bathe in the holy river again," he added.
Men, women and children, able and infirm, all went to the river in serpentine queues through the night to pray and bathe.
"I came here at around 11 pm on Thursday and straightway came to Har-Ki-Pauri Ghat...And as the day changed, I took the holy dip," polio-hit Mithlesh Kumar said.
"Initially, taking into account my physical disabilities, my parents and even other relatives advised me not to go to the Maha Kumbh due to the heavy rush. But, when I told them I don't want to miss the religious event that will come again only after 12 years, they were convinced and granted me permission," Kumar, 32, a resident of Kankerbagh colony in Patna said.
Another devotee Prabal Sarkar, a resident of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, said: "Mahashivratri holds a special significance as it is believed that by taking the holy dip in the river, we can appease gods, particularly Lord Shiva."
While the youth jumped into the river for the holy dip, women and the elderly sat on the stairs along the banks, where they poured water over themselves with the traditional copper vessels called lotas.
To hold the Shahi Snan successfully, a massive security cover has been thrown up, spread across 130 sq km spanning Haridwar, Dehradun, Pauri and Tehri Garhwal districts.
According to Mela authorities, nearly 9,000 security personnel are guarding the Mela area and other sensitive points in Haridwar.
"Security forces would take positions at all strategic points and keep vigil on suspicious elements. It's one of the world's most important religious gatherings. We are not going to take any chance," Deputy Inspector General (Kumbh Mela) Alok Sharma told IANS.
The Maha Kumbh Mela that began Jan 14 will end April 28 after the Baisakhi Shahi Snan April 14.
According to Hindu mythology, Haridwar is one of the four places where a drop of the nectar of immortality or 'amrit' fell from the pitcher or 'kumbh' when Garuda, the divine bird of Lord Vishnu, was spiriting it away from the demons after a pitched battle.
Since then, Haridwar, along with Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain - the other three places - have been celebrating the Kumbh Mela.