By Saket Suman
Prayagraj, Jan 14 (IANS) Thousands of faithful descended on this historic city, renamed by the BJP government from Allahabad, for the first 'Shahi Snan (royal bath) on Tuesday to mark the start of Kumbh Mela, where the devout from within and abroad will mingle over the course of the next 45 days for the mega religious, spiritual and cultural congregation that is expected to attract more than 15 crore people.
The first 'Shahi Snan', which, according to legends, opens the doors to heaven, will begin on Tuesday at about 5.30 a.m. and will go on till about 4.30 in the evening, officials said. A mini city of 3,200 acres has been set up along the bank of the river Ganga to accommodate the pilgrims.
A slew of temporary tent accommodations, at rates ranging from Rs 2,100/night to Rs 20,000/night have cropped along the banks of the Hindu holy river. Additionally, dormitories and tent stalls have been created for the various akharas and saints arriving here in large numbers.
Security has been beefed up and the Kumbh administration is prepared for the expected crowd, officials said.
"For the first time, three women units have been deployed at the Kumbh Mela site to specially cater to our women pilgrims. A Foreign Help Desk has also been running 24/7 because there is a greater interest among foreigners. We are expecting a unit from MEA to arrive tomorrow to address queries foreign visitors may have," K.P. Singh, DIG Kumbh Mela, told reporters here.
He said the paramilitary and police personnel have been deployed in all sectors of the Mela, along with 3,000 traffic personnel to monitor and control the traffic leading up to the Sangam -- the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna rivers and the mystical Saraswati, which is where the devotees are headed to take the holy dip.
The Kumbh administration has built four pontoon bridges that lead the visitors to the five-kilometre bathing ghat at Sangam. Personnel have been deployed at all entry and exit points of these bridges to maintain order.
Visible in the by-lanes of the city are thousands of devotees -- all headed in one direction, like a swarm of bees -- while religious chantings resonate in the air. Along with those on pilgrimage are hundreds of craftsmen, artisans and local vendors who dot the roads on both sides.
All roads of the city lead to only one destination -- Sangam. Vehicles have been prevented from running on these roads. Schools and colleges have been shut down to avoid inconveniences, and the entire city has been lit up in a hue of multiple colours.
Arrangements for changing rooms and toilets have been made at the bathing ghats too, officials said.
"There is a special emphasis on cleanliness this time at the Kumbh Mela. People were compelled to defecate in the open due to absence of toilets in the previous years but this time 120,000 toilets have been built and double the number of sweepers will maintain cleanliness. The last Kumbh mela had only seen 34,000 toilets," the Kumbh administration said in a press communique.
However, hundreds of toilets have turned non-functional due to shortage of water, or being filthy, uncleaned as they are, even before the fair has officially begun. The plastering in several toilets has also eroded, making them completely non-functional.
The administration, comprising ADG N. Sawant, Commissioner Prayagraj Ashish Kumar Goyal, DIG Kumbh Mela K.P. Singh and Prayagraj District Magistrate Suhas L.Y were shown pictures of hundreds of toilets that have been rendered unusable by media correspondents ahead of a heated press conference here, in which reporters were handed over the press release citing the number of toilets built for the fair this year.
"There are some problems because within a period of one month all preparations were made. Such things happen due to scarcity of time but we are dedicated to serving the visitors," said K.P. Singh.
Earlier on Monday, a fire broke out in Sector 13 of the sprawling Kumbh complex due to an explosion in a cooking gas cylinder at the 'Digambar Akhada' camp, destroying a large part of the tented area but no loss of life was reported.
In the press conference held after the fire was contained, the officials said that they learned about the fire "from the media" and were able to contain it without any casualty in "the shortest possible time." They said a sufficient number of fire tenders, along with units from NDRF, were on ground to tackle any untoward incident.
Over 500 cultural programmes will take place as a part of the Kumbh Mela, along with a laser show and display of India's cultural and mythological heritage in forms of paintings, statues, and exhibits.
The Kumbh Mela 2019 is being held from January 15 to March 4, with six important bathing dates. Makar Sankranti, which falls on Tuesday, is the first of these dates for bathing, and officials expect over a crore devotees to take the holy dip on the first day of the fair.
(Saket Suman can be contacted at email@example.com)