Drawn by a new moon, millions of devout Hindus plunged into the revered Ganges River on Friday for one of the most auspicious days of a weekslong pilgrimage aimed cleansing the believers of their sins.

Organizers of the 45-day long festival said they expected more than 10 million people to immerse themselves in the waters where the Yamuna and Ganges rivers are believed to merge with the mystical Sarasvati River near the northern Indian city of Allahabad.

Astrologers determined 6.10 a.m (0140 GMT) as the most auspicious time and hundreds of naked, ash-smeared Indian holy men, or sadhus, led the way toward the waters, followed by the masses.

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"Over 5.5 million people have already taken a dip. More people are still coming and by evening this number is likely to cross 10 million," said festival organizer P. N. Mishra. "We are ready to face such a large crowd."

Nearly 70 million Hindus are expected to participate in the "Ardh Kumbh Mela" or Half Grand Pitcher Festival, one of the largest regular gatherings in the world. They wash themselves in the waters of the Ganges, believing it absolves their sins and ends the process of reincarnation.

Most of the pilgrims are expected to come from across India, but the event also draws some foreign Hindus and curious tourists.

The naked ascetics led the way, many of them jumping joyously into the waters, waving tridents and sticks. They were followed by heads of Hindu monasteries, many of them pulled in on elaborate silver sedan chairs, or palanquins. Some of the great ornamental thrones made of silver and covered in orange marigold flowers were pulled by tractors.

For many of the pilgrims the sight of the holy men was as moving an experience as the bathing itself.

"This view is eternal. I had a glimpse of these holy sadhus and now I can die in peace," said Kusumlata Tomar, a pilgrim from the neighboring state of Bihar.

In wave after wave, a sea of the faithful moved toward the river to purify their souls. Many filled up small containers with the revered waters to take home for those who could not be there.

"It's bliss. The fatigue and sin of my body has been washed away," said Manish Chandel, as he stood in his underwear shivering in the early morning winter chill.

According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons fought a celestial war over the nectar of immortality, spilling some of it at Allahabad from a pitcher, or Kumbh. A larger festival, the "Maha Kumbh Mela," or the Grand Pitcher Festival, takes place every 12 years.

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