TENS OF thousands of people from all parts of the country turned up for the first shahi snan on Friday as the month-long Simhastha Kumbh Mela began on a grand scale in this temple town that has acquired a new look with flyovers and bridges across the Kshipra.
The preparations for the religious fair, held once in 12 years, have transformed the town, with the BJP government almost making it an official event unlike the previous editions when religious organisations would dictate terms.
Devotees had started arriving in the town from Thursday and some even managed to take the holy dip in the river that now carries the Narmada waters because it used to remain dry for most parts of the year.
The event formally kicked off with the mass dip taken by members of respective akharas — recognised institutions — that now compete among themselves for pomp and clout in addition to their age-old religious differences. The river separates the akharas belonging to Shaivites and Vaishnavites with the administration taking care to keep their routes different.
Naga sadhus who invoke curiosity and awe among devotees were among the first to rush down the Ramghat, one of the ghats that have been decked up, at the crack of dawn. However, not many devotees could soak in the sight because they were barred from the ghats between 2 am and 2 pm.
Given that the ghats have been renovated and crowds segregated, the turnout appeared to be below expectation in the beginning but the crowds swelled as the evening wore on. Crowds returning after the holy dip encountered several naga sadhus engaged in strange rituals.
The devotees, except those who took trains to reach Ujjain, had to walk several kilometres through zigzag roads to reach the ghats because vehicles had to be parked at six satellite towns.