Just before the sun shone its first red streak in the east, the first batch of Naga sadhus dashed for their holy dip at the sangam, the widely revered holy confluence of three holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the now invisible Saraswati to mark the commencement of the much-awaited first shahi snan (royal bath) at the Ardh Kumbh festival on Monday .
As many as 75 lakh people took the holy dip on what was an extended day of the popular Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti.
With folded hands, thousands of people looked up to the Naga sadhus - the hallmark of the shahi snan - as they went past in their long, colourful processions, jumping with excitement to the loud musical band playing in the background .
Lakhs of devotees had begun to make a beeline for the holy dip all along the extended river banks well before dawn, braving the bitter morning chill.
But it was more of a day for the highly revered akharas (Hindu monasteries) of which the Naga sadhus form the most prominent and integral one.
The first to march out of their camp were sadhus of the Maha Nirvani Akhara who started at 5.15 in the morning and arrived at Sangam exactly at 6.15 am. Strictly adhering to their time slot of 40 minutes, they moved out of the specially barricaded arena by 7 am.
The next in line was the Nirajani Akhara with a live pipe band in attendance. At the head of the procession was the akhara chief sitting atop an elevated seat over an improvised motorised rath.
Juna Akhara, regarded as the most significant of them all arrived in a long procession that included the largest batch of Naga sadhus, who literally raced on the sandy banks to plunge into the waters. Brandishing glittering steel swords in their hands, they raised the traditional Hindu cry of 'har-har mahadev', which was dutifully echoed by the thousands who followed them from their camp some 3 km away.
They were followed by the Nirmohi Akhara, digambar sadhus, Nirvani Akhara, Udaseen Akhara, Bara Panchayati Akhara and Nirmala Akhara through the rest of the day. With a musical band in attendance of each of them, the whole entourage gave the look of a wedding procession.
Interestingly, the Juna Akhara included not only a small group of foreigners, but also a fairly sizeable band of women sadhus, equally zealous about plunging into the waters. They all believe this action would not merely wash their sins, but also help them achieve salvation.
"It is a divine feeling that a dip in these waters gives you; everything else becomes secondary," observed Mata Narmada Puri, a 73- year old German sadhu belonging to this congregation. "I gave up my German name 35 years ago when I first came to Haridwar to become a part of the Juna Akhara."
Her 62-year-old companion Sigi Hoehle, who joined her from Germany only a few days ago felt equally 'blessed' by the Sangam waters and so were the few younger European and American enthusiasts, who were quite at home in their newly acquired saffron robes .
And clearly, the pollution of the Ganga that had provoked some of the sadhus to threaten aboycott of the bathing, ceased to be any issue.
"Thequality of the water is no issue for us; a dip at the sangam is a divine experience irrespective of the water's quality," exclaimed Naga Baba Triveni Puri. "This opportunity has come after a gap of six years; how can you let it go even if you can see that the water is much dirtier than what it was the last time."
Quite comfortable with his long knotted locks of hair that went down to his heels, he disclosed how he had not had a haiorcut for 18years. "That was the time I qualified to become a Naga baba on this very holy Sangam bank," he added.
Even the saffron-clad Swami Hari Chaitanya, who was spearheading the much-hyped'Clean Ganga' campaign, eventually gave up his boycott call. "I did take a bath today as I found that that quality of water had improved quite a bit," he told this correspondent.
Showingthe samples of water collected by him in jars on different days, he said, "You can see the change in the colour."
He was willing to attribute this improvement in the water quality to the release of large quantity of water from the Narora Dam , about 600km upstream.
"Eventhough I am convinced that the pollution level was still above the permissible limits , at least it is visibly cleaner now," he added, while expressing hope that it would improve further in the coming days.
Among the millions who trudged miles for their cherished holy dip were not only the old and infirm, but even the physically-challenged.
Walking on his rickety wooden crutches all the way from the railway station, nearly 8 km away, was a 40year old polio-hitRam Iqbal Singh, who had come all the way from Bihar. Living on alms received from people, he confessed to having undertaken the journey without a penny in his pocket.
"I just boarded a train and no-oneasked me for a ticket; I got free food at one of the many camps in the Mela area. And now that I have had my dip, I will go back home," he said with an air of satisfaction.
The ritual lookedendless as hundreds of thousands of heads dotted the vast expanse along both banks of the confluence and the flow of people, who displayed a feeling of contentment and bliss as they marched back to their distant homes in different directions.