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Millions of Hindus Take Holy Dip in River Ganges on Last Day of Religious Festival

In the northern Indian town, Haridwar, millions of Hindu devotees have taken a ritual bath in the Ganges river on the last of four auspicious days during a three-month religious festival. Billed as the world's biggest religious gathering, has attracted more than 40 million pilgrims since it began in mid January.

The bathing ritual marked the climax of the three-month Hindu festival known as the Kumbh Mela. Wednesday was the last of four days which are considered to be particularly auspicious for the dip in the river which Hindus regard as sacred.

Organizers estimate that more than eight million people took a dip on Wednesday, along a 15 kilometer stretch of the river. The first to participate in the ritual were hundreds of Hindu holy men called "naga sadhus". The naked, ash-smeared ascetics live and meditate in seclusion in forests and mountains and only emerge to take part in the Kumbh festival. Dozens of foreigners also took part in the ritual.

Hindus believe the ritual bath in the Ganges cleanses them of sin and frees them from the cycle of birth of rebirth.

The Kumbh Mela attracts staggering numbers. Organizers say as many as 40 million people have streamed into temple-dotted Haridwar since mid January when the festival began. It concludes later this month.

The festival's chief organizing officer, Anand Bardhan, outlines the logistics of housing the devotees in pilgrim encampments.

"It is just very massive planning and massive execution, which includes security forces, security arrangements, the sanitation, the medical facilities, the water supply, the power supply etc.

Just before the start of Wednesday's bathing ritual, two people were killed when they were hit by a car carrying Hindu holy men.

On top of the agenda for organizers is preventing stampedes. There have been previous mishaps at previous festivals. Dozens of people were crushed to death in a stampede 2003.

The Kumbh Mela is held every three years and commemorates a mythical battle between the gods and demons about a pitcher containing the nectar of immortality. Four drops are said to have fallen on four different Indian towns and the festival rotates between these towns.

It has been described as a spectacle of devotion unparalleled for its sheer scale and color.