Ash-smeared and naked Hindu saints led millions of devotees Wednesday in a pre-dawn holy dip in frigid temperatures at the confluence of three major rivers in north India, starting a weekslong pilgrimage to wash away their sins.

Chanting religious hymns and "Har Har Gange," or "Long Live the Ganges (River)," a multitude of men, women and children jumped into the water at 4:54 a.m. (1124 GMT), a moment chosen as auspicious by Hindu priests.

Allahabad, the venue of the "Ardh Kumbh Mela" or Half Grand Pitcher festival, is nearly 200 kilometers (120 miles) southeast of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state.

"Initially, I felt some cold. But one dip and the cold was gone," said Ram Vir Upadhaya, a retired government official, braving chilly winds and early morning fog with minimum temperature hovering around 6 degrees Celsius (42 Fahrenheit).

More than 3 million have taken the dip in the first six hours, said P. N. Mishra, the state government official in charge of the festival.

"More people are coming; the festival has got off to a smooth start," Mishra told The Associated Press.

Nearly 70 million Hindus are expected to take a dip in frigid temperatures during the 45-day festival, one of the largest regular gatherings in the world. A larger festival, the "Kumbh Mela," or the Pitcher Festival, takes place every 12 years.

"It's a big challenge for us to control this massive human gathering and we are ready to face the challenge," Mishra said.

Nearly 50,000 policemen fanned out to prevent stampedes and devotees getting lost.

Authorities have also put up nearly 50,000 green, blue and brown tents and 25,000 makeshift toilets in a sprawling area of 80-square kilometers (30-square miles) on the banks of the Ganges.

The main period of bathing at the confluence of Jamuna, Ganges and Saraswati rivers will be on six auspicious days, depending on the alignment of stars.

According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons fought a celestial war, spilling nectar at Allahabad in a pitcher or Kumbh.

Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges during the festivals washes away their sins and ends the process of reincarnation.

Hundreds of thousands of Hindu religious leaders have arrived in the area and put up their tents according to their hierarchy.

Some of them entered the river banks on Monday in chariots pulled by white horses. Some came in sedan chairs carried by their devotees.

Authorities have spent more than 7.5 billion rupees (US$163 million; euro125 million) to provide infrastructure for the festival, said N. C. Bajpai, a top state government official.