Hardwar: An estimated five million people have thronged the Hindu holy city of Hardwar for a dip in the holy Ganga Thursday that will herald the Maha Kumbh, a religious fair that has few parallel but which has a sharp message this year - protection of the environment.
By the time the mega festival ends April 28, officials say it would draw at least 60 million men, women and children from the length and breadth of India and abroad, a sharp climb from the nearly 10 million who came here during the last Maha Kumbh in 1988.
"Setting up the Kumbh Mela is like erecting a city within a city," Alok Sharma, one of the senior Uttarakhand officials overseeing the arrangements in a 130-sq km area, told a news agency.
The tents that house most of the sadhus and other devotees are already spilling well beyond Hardwar, one of the most important spots where Hindus worship the sacred Ganga.
The tents extend upriver towards Rishikesh and also towards Uttarakhand capital Dehradun, over 50 km away.
The banks of the holy river from Rishikesh to Hardwar at the foothills of the Himalayas -- dotted with shrines and spiritual retreats -- have been a medley of colours since last week.
The most important bathing dates, according to Rajesh Kumar, a fair official, are January 14 (Makara Sankranti), February 12 (Mahashivratri), March 15 (Somvati Amavasya) and April 14 (Mesh Sankranti and Baisakhi).
The government of Uttarakhand has divided the fair into 10 zones and 32 sectors. Thirty-four police stations and 42 makeshift posts have been set up on the premises of the fair and 36 temporary fire stations are ready to control blazes. A central control room with modern communication systems has begun monitoring crowd movement and a state-of-the-art info-tech facility is helping the media make its dispatches.
Ash-smeared naked Naga sadhus -- devotees of Lord Shiva -- will lead the procession to the main bathing spot Thursday, decked in wreaths of marigolds. They carry staves, tridents, swords and saffron flags.
For many sadhus who have renounced the world and live in the mountains, the Kumbh Mela is one of the few occasions when they meet lay people. The mela started centuries ago as a theological discussion among various Hindu sects.
This year the Naga sadhus are campaigning for the environment. At a recent press conference in Kolkata, the head of a Naga sect, Soham Baba, lamented that the pristine lakes and water bodies in the Himalayas and across the world are disappearing.
"Sadhus who go up the higher reaches of the Himalayas to meditate know how bad the situation is," Soham Baba said. "The Kumbh mela will be an ideal place to protest," he added.
The pollution of the Ganga will be a major issue at the fair this year -- where almost all the spiritual sects and the administration have pledged to protect the river.
The Uttarakhand administration has divided the Kumbh Mela region encompassing Hardwar, Rishikesh and Dehradun into 31 health sectors, each equipped with a hospital to prevent any outbreak of swine flu.
The Kumbh Mela is celebrated every three years in four locations across India -- Allahabad, Nashik, Hardwar and Ujjain. In each location, it is Maha Kumbh every 12 years. Astrologers say the fair coincides with the entry of Jupiter in Aquarius and the Sun in Aries.
The last Maha Kumbh in Hardwar was held in 1998. It was attended by an estimated 10 million devotees. According to the tourism ministry, 60 million people attended the Maha Kumbh in Allahabad in 2001.
The Kumbh Mela dates back to the Vedic age, when yogis started celebrating river festivals to pay homage to the land in which they lived. Hindu mythology says four drops of amrit (nectar) fell from the kumbh (pot) at the four places when Lord Vishnu`s vahan (vehicle) Garuda was escaping with it to the heavens so that the demons could not get hold of the nectar.