Tens of millions of Hindu pilgrims are now descending on Allahabad, India, joining an estimated 8 million already there for the Maha Kumbh Mela. Held every 12 years at one of four places in India, the Kumbh Mela lasts nearly two months and is considered to be an especially auspicious time to bathe in the holy river for purification from sin. In 2001, the last time the festival took place, more than 40 million people gathered in an area smaller than 20 sq km (7.7 sq mi). This year, the predicted number of visitors tops 100 million. Collected here are images from the preparation and first days of the Maha Kumbh Mela, with possibly more to come in the next few weeks.
A Hindu holy man, or naga sadhu, prays as he bathes in the waters of the holy Ganges river during the auspicious bathing day of Makar Sankranti of the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, on January 14, 2013. The Maha Kumbh Mela, believed to be the largest religious gathering on earth is held every 12 years on the banks of Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The festival is expected to attract over 100 million people.
(Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
Indian labourers pull a pontoon towards the Ganga river during preparations for the Kumbh Mela festival at Sangam in Allahabad, on November 21, 2012. Allahabad, located in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and where the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers meet, is a focal point for Hindu pilgrims during the Kumbh Mela, where millions of devotees gather to bathe in the holy waters of the three rivers.
(Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)
Naked Hindu holy men return to their camp after a dip at Sangam on one of the most auspicious days, Makar Sankranti, the first day of the Maha Kumbh Mela, in Allahabad, on January 14, 2013. Devotees wash themselves in the waters of the Ganges believing that it washes away their sins and ends the process of reincarnation.
(AP Photo /Rajesh Kumar Singh)
Naga Sadhus prepare to take a holy dip during first "Shahi Snan" (grand bath) at the ongoing Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, on January 14, 2013. More than a million elated Hindu holy men and pilgrims took a bracing plunge in India's sacred Ganges river to wash away lifetimes of sins on Monday, in a raucous start to an ever-growing religious gathering that is already the world's largest.