Allahabad: The Maha Kumbh began on Monday 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 in Allahabad 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 Sadhu 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 Sunday 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 Sunday 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 percent 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.
Fear of terrorism
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.
Once every 12 years, tens of millions of pilgrims stream to Allahabad from across the country for the Mahakumbh at the point where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet with a third, mythical river.
Officials believe that over the next two months as many as 100 million people will pass through the temporary city that covers an area larger than Athens on a wide sandy river bank. That would make it larger even than previous festivals.
After a slow start, police chief Alok Sharma said 1.5 million people had gathered by 8am on Monday, with more on their way.
Two dreadlocked men riding horses emerged from thick camp smoke before dawn, followed by a crowd of ash-smeared and naked holy men, or sadhus, one incongruously wearing a suit jacket. At exactly five minutes past six, they yelled and dashed dancing into the river.
The ritual "Shahi Snan" was timed to match an auspicious planetary alignment, when believers say spiritual energy flows to earth.
"I wash away all my sins, from this life and before," said wandering ascetic Swami Shankranand Saraswati, 77, shivering naked in the cold. He said he gave up a career as a senior civil servant 40 years ago to become a holy man, travelled on foot and for decades ate only nuts and fruit.
The festival has its roots in a Hindu tradition that says God Vishnu wrested from demons a golden pot containing the nectar of immortality.
In a 12-day fight for possession, four drops fell to earth, in the cities of Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujain and Nasik. Every three years a Kumbh mela is held at one of these spots, with the festival at Allahabad the holiest of them all.
More than 2,000 years old, the festival is a meeting point for the Hindu sadhus, some who live in forests or Himalayan caves, and who belong to dozens of inter-related congregations. The sects have their own administration and elect leaders, but are also known for violent clashes with each other.
Some naked, some wrapped in saffron or leopard-print cloth and smoking cannabis pipes, the holy men hold court by fire pits in sprawling camps decorated with coloured neon lights, where they are visited by pilgrims who proffer alms and get blessings.
Despite their asceticism, the sects, known as akharas, are moving with the times. Swami Avdheshanand Giri Ji, who leads one of the main groups, has a Facebook page. Some gurus advertise on billboards and posters to attract followers, others drive trucks and chat on cellphones.
At the riverbank, men with dreadlocked beards to their feet vied for media attention with yogis supporting heavy weights with their genitals, while others holding golden umbrellas, flags and swords rubbed sand on their bodies after the dip.
"I feel pleasure," grinned Digambar Navraman Giri," who said he had not sat down for a year, even sleeping on foot. "This is why I became a sadhu," he said, steam rising from his body in the cold air and wearing nothing but two rings on his fingers.
Baba Ram Puri was given to his guru by his parents when he was barely one year old. At 31, he is now a young spiritual leader himself and says Indians with disposable income want to support traditional holy men.
"They earn a lot of money but they don't get peace, so they turn to spirituality," he said, sitting on cushions by a smoking fire. "That's why we continue to grow in strength."
Jim Mallinson, a Sanskrit scholar and expert on sadhus, says that, while exact numbers are hard to come by, it appears the sects are growing in strength and size, and the fair is becoming more religious.
"I suspect it is because the emerging middle classes are more than happy to spend their surplus cash on sustaining the sadhu tradition," he said.
Mobile phones and better roads also make the festival more accessible, while a thriving media makes the festival well known all across the country. There is even a smartphone app to guide pilgrims around the site.
"I won't become a sadhu, I want to be a cricketer," said Gaurav Vashisht, 21, a business student from New Delhi, whose family gives money to support one of the sects. "It's very important that this should survive, it's a great Indian tradition and has been going on for so many years."
The festival attracts global followers too, with a number of foreigners ordained in the hierarchy of sadhus, including Baba Mangalannand, who is also a popular trance music DJ under the name Goa Gil. He first came to the festival in 1971.
To cope with the flow of people, authorities in Uttar Pradesh have installed 35,000 toilets, laid 550 km (340 miles) of water pipes and 155 km (95 miles) of temporary roads at the riverbank site.
Mostly, though, the festival's spirit does not change. Pilgrims make their way there without advertising, announcements or buying tickets. The sadhus show off yogic feats, catch up with old friends and discuss scripture, just as they always have.
"The Indian people don't change their attitude to spirituality overnight, we're not like the West," Ram Puri said, laughing. "That's why in India the spirit is strong."