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Hindu sadhus take part in a religious procession before the start of the Kumbh Mela. Photograph: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images
From June last year, Dilip Trigunayak would stride out each morning to the banks of the Ganges and will the holy waters to recede. The clock was ticking. In six months, the floodplains where he stood would be the site of the largest human gathering in the world, probably ever.
“I would watch the water levels going up and down,” the bureaucrat says. “From then my anxiety started.”
More than 120 million Hindu devotees, as well as tourists, are expected to visit the north Indian city of Prayagraj over the next few weeks for the Kumbh Mela, a vast spiritual festival at the point where two sacred rivers, the Ganges and Yamuna, converge.
As the rivers have emptied of monsoon rain in recent months, Indian authorities have swung into action, reclaiming the riverbed and laying the skeleton for a temporary city that at 15 sq miles (39 sq km) is two-thirds the size of Manhattan.
The festival starts on Tuesday morning when tens of thousands of Hindu ascetics will charge – roaring, naked and ash-smeared – into the water, sanctifying it for the tens of millions of pilgrims who will follow in the coming days and weeks.
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