Ash-smeared naked 'naga' ascetics, sadhus and seers perched atop decked up chariots led millions of pilgrims in taking a holy dip in the Sangam ¿ the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati – marking commencement of the nearly two-month-long 'Maha Kumbh' today.
A sea of humanity converged for the religious event dubbed as the "greatest show on earth" and with the break of dawn, 'Mahanirvani akhara', along with 'Atal akhara' began their majestic "royal bathing procession (shahi snan)" with 'naga' ascetics in the vanguard.
Opulence appeared to be rubbing shoulders with austerity in the grand procession wherein 'naga' sadhus with matted hair and little or no clothes on their ash-smeared bodies presented a glowing contrast alongside the 'mahamandaleshwars' and religious leaders of other sects who came atop well-decorated chariots, horses and elephants.
While the naga ascetics wore garlands of marigold and 'rudraksh', others displayed ornaments and crowns of gold in abundance.
Thousands of curious onlookers, with a fair sprinkling of foreigners, watched these processions and presented a a vast panoramic view of the country's unity in diversity.
On reaching the riverside, the sadhus first worshipped their traditional weapons like tridents and spears and their deities before proceeding for a holy dip in the Sangam.
These two akharas were followed by 11 other sects with time ranging from 30 minutes to about an hour allotted to each of them depending upon the size of their respective procession.
These 'akharas', originally set up by Adi Sankaracharya in the 8th century to defend and propagate Vedic religion, grew in number and size over the years and are considered pivotal to holding of 'Maha Kumbh' congregations, held after every 12 years.
However, in a discordant note to the congregation the Shankaracharya of Dwarka Peeth and Jyotirpeeth Badrikashram Swami Swaroopanand decided to keep away from the congregation despite it being held in an area under his jurisdiction. "Swami Swaroopanandji had demanded the setting up of a 'Chatushpath' for the Shankaracharyas of the four Peeths set up by Adi Sankara in order to distinguish them from self- styled ones mushrooming all over the country, but the administration declined the request saying it amounted to creating a new tradition," said the pontiff's close aide Swami Avimukteswarananda, who is camping at the Mela.
Over 8O lakh pilgrims had taken the holy dip in the Sangam by evening, Divisional Commissioner of Allahabad Devesh Chauturvedi said, adding "streams of people were still pouring in the area and the bathing is likely to continue till late in the night".
No untoward incident was reported from anywhere so far, according to authorities which have made massive security arrangement over the huge township of tents and ornately decorated marquees and "pandals" that has sprung up in 6,000 acres.
Significantly, the sprawling Mela ground has been notified as a temporary district in keeping with the complex administrative machinery involved in conducting the Maha Kumbh.
Over 10,000 security personnel have been deployed. Besides guarding different routes, they kept watch from 56 watch towers and 89 CCTV cameras. Anti-Terrorism Squads, Bomb Disposal Squads and Mine Detecting Units were also at hand to meet any eventuality, Senior Superintendent of Police, Kumbh Mela, R K S Rathore said.
Indian Air Force helicopters were also seen making aerial survey of the Mela area which falls in the vicinity of a vast swathe of defence land.
Nearly 5,000 voluntary organisations are rendering services as multitudes upon multitudes of people descend on the Kumbh township.
The routes for processions going to the river and returning were separated as to ward off possibility of any clash between rival sects of sadhus, given some past instances of violence.
Over 11,000 shops are catering to the mundane needs of those taking part in the congregation. These include shops selling spices and sandalwood from the south, herbs from mountain region and musk and curios from various parts of the country.
'Nai baras', an enclosure of barbers, was also doing brisk business as getting heads tonsured is considered auspicious on the occasion.
A number of these tents are meant for 'kalpavasis' who will begin their month-long penance from 'Paush Poornima' on January 27.
The 'akharas' will have two more 'shahi snans' on Mauni Amavasya (February 10) and Basant Panchmi (February 15). There are other concerns as well as the quality of water in the Ganga is still not good with biological oxygen demand (BOD) level still much above the permissible limit of 3 mg/l.
But with discharge of more water in the next few days, from dams upstream, it is likely to improve, sources in the Mela administration said.
Two other days of ritual bathing are considered particularly auspicious ¿ Magh Poornima (February 25), and Mahashivratri (March 10) when the congregation formally comes to an end.
The other akharas which took part in the bath were Niranjani and Anand, Joona, Agni and Avahan, Nirvani Ani, Digambar Ani and Nirmohi, Bada Udasin, Naya Udasin and Nirmal in the same order.
Meanwhile, according to a research scholar of Allahabad University, Pramod Sharma, a team of the varsity and Harvard University will document the past, the ongoing activities and future plans of these akharas and its findings will be
published in a book funded by Arundhati Vashishth Anusandhan Peeth of the city.
The team comprises 10 students of Allahabad University and five of Harvard who will join the team on January 19.
Almost all the hotels in the city have hiked their tariffs by 100 to 300 per cent because of heavy influx of people.
The state tourism department has set up luxurious cottages in the Mela area itself in which a night's stay costs between Rs 6,000 and Rs 12,000, according to a senior manager in the tourism department, D P Singh.
"On days other than the shahi snan, there will be a 40 per cent discount on the tariff of the tents", he said.
Private players have also set up Swiss cottages outside the Mela area where a night¿s stay costs about Rs 8,500.
A small hamlet of huts and tents has been set up in the Sector 9 of the Mela area where family members of those who laid down their lives in the Kargil conflict or were killed in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack will stay.
"A 'yajnashala' with 'havan kunds' has also been set up there to perform 'yajna' for the peace of the martyrs¿ souls", according to Balak Jogeshwar Dasji Maharaj of Badrinath who is managing the affairs at the hamlet.
Railways have run special trains on the day besides attaching additional bogies to other trains touching the city, officials in the North Central Railway zone, headquartered here, said.
Roadways operators have also pressed a large number of buses into service. Most of the roads in the city have been closed to vehicular traffic to facilitate movement of people to the Mela ground.