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Kumbh Mela: The Largest Gathering on Earth

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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. [33 photos]

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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)
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) #
Indian labourers carry a basket to clean the banks of the Ganga River as devotees take a holy dip in the Sangam, the confluence of the three rivers Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati in Allahabad, on December 22, 2012. (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images) #
An ash smeared Hindu Sadhu or holy man poses beside a tent in Allahabad, on December 24, 2012, ahead of The Maha Kumbh Mela. (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images) #
An Indian worker from the Power Department makes adjustments to electrical power lines during preparations for the Maha Kumbh festival in Allahabad, on November 18, 2012. (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images) #
Hindu devotees cross pontoon bridges spanning the river Ganges during the first "Shahi Snan" (grand bath) at the ongoing Kumbh Mela, or Pitcher Festival, in the northern Indian city of Allahabad, on January 14, 2013. (Reuters/Ahmad Masood) #
A cyclist rides past an over bridge as a camp and festival ground is enveloped in a morning fog at Sangam, the confluence of the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati, ahead of the Maha Kumbh festival in Allahabad, on January 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) #
Hindu devotees take shelter after arriving at Sangam, in Allahabad, on January 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) #
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) #
A Sadhu smokes marijuana on the banks of river Ganges ahead of the Kumbh Mela Festival in the northern Indian city of Allahabad, on January 11, 2013. (Reuters/Ahmad Masood) #
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. (Reuters/Ahmad Masood) #
Naga sadhus run in to bathe in the waters of the holy Ganges river during the auspicious bathing day of Makar Sankranti of the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, on January 14, 2013. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images) #
Sadhus are silhouetted as they celebrate in the water at Sangam, during the royal bath on Makar Sankranti in Allahabad, on January 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer) #
Naga Sadhus run naked into the water at Sangam, during the royal bath on Makar Sankranti at the start of the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, on January 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer) #
A Sadhu comes up after dipping in the waters of the Sangham in Allahabad, on January 14, 2013. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images) #
Indian Hindu pilgrims arrive before taking a bath at Sangam, in Allahabad, on January 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer) #
A man, dressed as Hindu Goddess Kali, participates in a religious procession towards the Sangam, in Allahabad, on January 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh) #
Naga Sadhus walk as Indian band members perform during a religious procession towards the Sangam, in Allahabad, on January 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh) #
A member of a brass band waits for a religious procession to start towards the Sangam, in Allahabad, on January 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) #
A Hindu devotees takes shelter after arriving at Sangam, ahead of the Maha Kumbh festival in Allahabad, on January 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) #
Hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees move towards the waters of the holy Ganges river during the auspicious bathing day of Makar Sankranti on January 14, 2013 in Allahabad. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images) #
Hindu devotees bathe in the waters of the holy Ganges river during the auspicious royal bathing day of Makar Sankranti, on January 14, 2013 in Allahabad, India. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images) #
Hindu devotees gather to attend the first "Shahi Snan" (grand bath) at the ongoing Kumbh Mela Festival, in the northern Indian city of Allahabad, on January 14, 2013. (Reuters/Ahmad Masood) #
Millions of Hindu devotees gather early morning at Sangam, on one of the most auspicious days, Makar Sankranti, the first the day of the Maha Kumbh Mela, in Allahabad, on January 14, 2013. (AP Photo /Manish Swarup) #
An Indian Hindu boy is reluctantly guided by his parents as they go for a dip fully clothed at Sangam, in Allahabad, on January 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer) #
Indian Hindu devotees pray at Sangam, at the start of the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, on January 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer) #
Hindu devotees cross a makeshift bridge over the river Ganges as they arrive at Sangam, the confluence of the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati, in Allahabad, on January 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) #
Hindu devotees bathe in the waters of the holy Ganges river during the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, on January 14, 2013. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images) #
Security members rescue an Indian holy man stuck in the mid flow of the River Ganges at Sangam, in Allahabad, on January 13, 2013. (AP Photo /Manish Swarup) #
A Hindu devotee holds out a sari to dry after having bathed on the banks of the Ganges river on January 13, 2013 in Allahabad, India. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images) #
An Indian pilgrim rests on a bed of hay on a sunny day following last week's cold spell across the region, ahead of the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, on January 9, 2013. (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images) #
A candle burns on an offering floating down stream at the Sangham or confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges river, at day break at the Kumbh Mela celebration in Allahabad, on January 13, 2013. (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images) #
A Devotee bends over the waters edge at the Ganges river in the early morning in Allahabad, on January 13, 2013. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images) #

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