Thousands of Hindu pilgrims braved a winter chill Thursday to take a dip in the holy Ganges River in the northern town of Haridwar, beginning one of the world’s largest religious congregations.

The three-month Maha Kumbh Mela, or gathering, is held once every 12 years and rotates between four Indian pilgrimage spots located along rivers. The 2001 Maha Kumbh Mela in the northern city of Allahabad drew 60 million people over 45 days.

Hindus believe a ritual bath during certain auspicious bathing days of the Maha Kumbh Mela washes away all sins.

At sunrise, devotees, who had started queuing along the streets of Haridwar leading to the river, also known as the Ganga, began taking their ritual holy baths.

The first bathing day marked the Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti, which is celebrated across India as the end of winter and the beginning of the harvesting season.

The devotees came to Haridwar from across the country and neighbouring Nepal. They ranged from villagers and to shopkeepers to business leaders, professionals and holy men.

There were not many sadhus, or holy men, taking the bath on the first day, but they were expected to come in large groups after January 26, officials said.

The local administration has instituted stringent security arrangements to control the crowds, which often exceed a few million on key bathing days.

There have been several stampedes at earlier Kumbh congregations.

At least 39 people were killed at Nashik in southern India in 2003 and more than 600 at Allahabad in 1954.

Hindus also took part in ritual dips and other festivities in other parts of the country on Thursday.

Called Makar Sankranti in northern India, the festival is celebrated as Bhogali Bihu in Assam in the north-east and Pongal in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Besides the ritual dip, the day is marked by preparation of traditional sweets, dishes made of newly harvested rice and kite flying.

In the eastern state of West Bengal, the day was marred by the death of six women and a child in a stampede as a large number of people tried to rush onto a boat leaving for an island pilgrimage spot.

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