Ove 1.5 million pilgrims from across India and abroad braved the icy cold water and chilly winds to took a holy dip in the river Ganga on Saturday at the annual Gangasagar Fair here on Makar Sankranti.
"Almost 16 lakh people bathed at Sagar since morning, far surpassing the attendance last year. Lakhs took the holy dip on Friday evening as well. The fair has been a huge success," Panchayat and Public Health Engineering Minister Subrata Mukherjee told IANS.
About 150 km from Kolkata in South 24 Parganas district, this island is considered auspicious by the Hindus, who gather here at this time of the year to take a holy dip at the confluence of the Ganga and the Bay of Bengal and pray by offering a coconut at the Kapil Muni temple.
The Ganga Sagar Mela is rated as the second largest assembly of people after the quadrennial Kumbha Mela (fair). The devout believe that a dip in the sacred water at this time washes off sins of a lifetime.
"The attendance was relatively higher this year as a lot of fairs that are otherwise arranged at this time of the year could not be properly organised amid the cash crisis.
"The administration has taken necessary measures to tackle the large crowd," Mukherjee said.
"We built 20,000 stationary toilets with proper markings at the Mela premises, 5,000 more than 2016 and arranged three volunteers for every 20 toilets to ensure the pilgrims use them properly," he added.
On the second coldest day of the season in West Bengal, the huge number of pilgrims, both young and the old and representing all sections of the society, gathered at the riverbank of Sagar Island to take the holy dip. The enthusiasm appeared infectious.
"We come here every year with all the family members. Who wants to let go of the chance to witness such a spectacle," said veteran Anup Maiti,, who came to bathe here all the way from Nadia district with three generations of his family.
The administration said new initiatives like floating medical care and complete ban on plastics made the fair safe and clean this year.
"We arranged floating medical care in a steamer with necessary medical amenities for the first time this year. Total 100 vessels were used to transport the devotees from the main land to the Sagar island," Mukherjee said.
"The use of plastic at the mela premises was completely banned this year. There are not a lot of fairs of this magnitude in the country that are kept so clean," he claimed.
Additional security measures were also taken by the district administration to avoid any untoward incident.
"The situation in the fair was absolutely smooth. We installed almost 200 CCTV Cameras at the mela ground and increased the number of life saving vessels in the river.
"People were deployed to remove the flowers, food packets and other waste materials from the premises to keep the fair clean," South 24 Parganas District Magistrate P.B. Selim told IANS.
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