Allahabad: The Maha Kumbh began this morning with lakhs of devotees as well as ascetics and religious leaders of various orders converging on the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical river Saraswati here for a holy dip on the occasion of Makar Sankranti.
The inaugural day of the two-month-long congregation, often described as the "greatest show on earth", was marked by the first "Shahi Snan" of 13 "akharas" wherein Naga Sadhus - a martial order of ascetics who move about either naked or scantily clad with matted hair and ash smeared bodies - marched to Sangam in processions with their leaders perched atop ornately decorated elephants, horses and chariots and musical bands in attendance in a unique blend of austerity and opulence.
The first to move out were Mahanirvani and Atal Akharas, followed by Niranjani and Anand and then Joona, Awahan and Agni.
They are to be followed by Nirvani Ani, Digambar Ani and Nirmohi and Naya Udasin, Bara Udasin and Nirmal akharas in the same order fixed during the British period following a violent clash among ascetics of different akharas at a kumbh congregation.
The akharas have been allotted fixed time, ranging from 30 minutes to about an hour depending upon the size of their respective procession, for bathing with routes for going to and returning from Sangam so separated as to ward off possibility of members of rival akharas coming in contact with each other.
Devotees from across the country had started pouring in since last evening and the influx continues despite cold weather and elaborate security arrangements on account of which bathers are being made to park their vehicles several kilometres away from the holy confluence and reach the Sangam on foot.
Vehicular traffic has been banned on most of the roads in the city from yesterday till tomorrow to facilitate movement of people.
The "Shahi Snan", which is a star attraction of the event, began at around 6 AM as curious, awestruck onlookers gathered on both sides of the over-a-kilometre-long road of metallic chequered plates on which the processions of "akharas" proceeded towards the Sangam.
The crowds were separated from the procession with the help of barriers.
Security personnel kept a steady, though anxious, watch on the movement of the "Naga sadhus" along the route, from watch towers and by monitoring CCTVs as their processions have sparked off violent clashes in the past.
The Mela, held every 12 years, will go on for next two months and will conclude on Maha Shivaratri on March 10.
The administration is expecting a nearly 10 per cent rise in pilgrims attending the mass Hindu pilgrimage this year compared to the previous Maha Kumbh held here in 2001.
Exceptionally large crowds are also expected on Mauni Amavasya (February 10, 3 crore) and Basant Panchmi (February 15, 1.9 crore).
Besides, spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Baba Ramdev and Asaram Bapu, also have planned their visits.
The huge turnout of people, visits of high-profile gurus in addition to the presence of naga sanyasis have increased the pressure on police and administration for smooth functioning of the Kumbh Mela.
A lurking fear of terrorist strike has further heightened the challenges in recent years.
"More than 7,000 personnel of central paramilitary forces, including companies of the Rapid Action Force and the National Disaster Response Force, have been pressed into service," IGP (Allahabad) Alok Sharma, designated as the nodal officer for security arrangements during the Maha Kumbh, had said.