TONGI, BANGLADESH – More than a million Muslims gathered on the banks of a river in Bangladesh over the weekend to pray and listen to religious scholars at the start of the world’s second-largest annual Islamic congregation.
The streets of Dhaka were largely deserted as devotees flocked to the River Turag at Tongi, some 40 km north of the capital, for the three-day Biswa Ijtema (World Muslim Congregation).
Nurul Islam, one of the chief organizers, said canopies stretching for more than 1 km, erected on open ground on the banks of the river, quickly filled and tens of thousands more pilgrims were arriving at the site every hour.
“There are more than 1 million devotees already here, but we hope, like last year, that the number will pass the 2 million mark at the final prayers on Sunday,” he said.
Special trains and ferries have been arranged to transport pilgrims to and from the event, while army engineers have set up dozens of makeshift bridges and water tanks.
The devotees will either sleep in the tents or brave the chilly temperatures outside — Bangladesh is currently experiencing its coldest winter since independence from Pakistan in 1971.
“Around 30,000 foreigners from more than 100 countries also joined the congregation this year,” Islam said.
Launched by Tablig Jamaat, a nonpolitical group that urges people to follow the tenets of Islam in their daily lives, the gathering at Tongi was first held in 1964.
It is, after the hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, the second-largest annual gathering of Muslims in the world.
Bangladesh is the world’s third-largest Muslim-majority nation, with Muslims making up nearly 90 percent of its population of 152 million.
The second phase of the festival, which also lasts three days, will begin Friday.
Meanwhile, in India, a procession of around 100 million devotees, from naked sprinting gurus to worshippers completing simple rituals, will stream into the River Ganges this week for the world’s biggest festival.
The Kumbh Mela, held in northern India, is to start Monday and last for 55 days.
It attracts ash-covered holy men who run into the frigid waters, a smattering of international celebrities, as well as millions upon millions of ordinary Indians.
Its name translates as the “Pitcher Festival” and every three years it provides a unique spectacle of color, noise and Hindu religious devotion, particularly on what are deemed to be the most auspicious bathing days.
Worshippers, who believe a dip in the holy waters cleanses them of their sins, have already begun arriving in the host town of Allahabad and millions more are on their way, heading for makeshift accommodations and campsites.
“The biggest challenge for us is to ensure that we are able to provide an opportunity to each and every person to bathe on the auspicious days without any stampede,” said Devesh Chaturvedi, a top Allahabad administrator.
Allahabad, at the confluence of the rivers Yamuna and Ganges in northern Uttar Pradesh state, last hosted the festival in 2001, when an estimated 110 million pilgrims passed through without incident.
Organizers are preparing to receive just as many people this time, with an average influx of around 2 million a day.
A total of 12,000 police officers will be deployed, while organizers have set up 35,000 toilets, 14 medical centers, 22,000 streetlights, 150 km of temporary roads, 18 bridges, and new sewage facilities.
Nearly 7,000 buses and 750 trains are expected to ferry people to and from the main bathing area, where three giant “ghats” have been built enabling visitors to walk down steps into the sacred but heavily polluted water.
Many drink it, while others bottle it and take it home as a memento or a gift for relatives.
Among the visual highlights is the sight of bearded, naked and dreadlocked holy men, or sadhus, running en masse into the water, brandishing tridents, swords and sticks at auspicious times on the important bathing days.
Sadhus are reclusive ascetics or wandering monks who renounce normal life and often live alone in India’s remote mountains and forests devoting themselves to meditation, but they emerge to lead the key Kumbh Mela bathing sessions.
This year’s celebrity attendees are led by British actress Catherine Zeta-Jones who is reportedly eager to follow in the footsteps of previous festival-goers Madonna, Pierce Brosnan and Sharon Stone.
Kumbh Mela has its origins in Hindu mythology, which tells how a few drops from a pitcher containing the nectar of immortality are said to have fallen during a fight between gods and demons on the four locations across India, which host the festival — Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar.