Around 7 lakh pilgrims took the holy dip on the day of Makar Sankranti at the confluence of the Hooghly river and Bay of Bengal on Thursday
Those who took the holy bath on the day came not just from different states of India, but also from countries like Nepal, Thailand and others. Manish Gupta, state minister for power, said that four pilgrims - Gita Bai (64) from Indore, Chaya Bai (60) from Nagpur, Sabita Dubey (60) from Raipur and Manik Sarkar from Chetla - died following illness.
Around 55 persons were arrested from Gangasagar fair ground on various criminal charges, he added. Unprecedented security measures were taken to prevent any untoward incident, including deployment of drone camera surveillance, hovercraft, disaster management group volunteers and an NDRF team during the time of the dip.
Devotees started pouring into the bay near the convergence point of river Hooghly and Bay of Bengal at 4 a.m. The auspicious bath went on till afternoon. However, a large number of devotees, naga sadhus, monks of several ashrams, including the Shankaracharya of Govardhana Math of Puri, will take holy dip tomorrow at the auspicious moment (Mahendrakkhan).
Shankaracharya of Puri and Mahant Gyan Das Maharaj from Kapil Muni ashram wished all devotees a safe bath.
“The most auspicious time for the holy dip is between 4:47 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. tomorrow, according to the Hindu almanac,” said Mahant Gyan Das Maharaj. Manish Gupta, minister of state for power and nonconventional energy, who came to supervise the fair on the instruction of chief minister Mamata Banerjee, said that around 14 lakh people have visited Gangasagar till Thursday.
Last year around 13 lakh pilgrims visited Gangasagar and took holy dip on different days. “This fair should be announced as a national fair. The state government has already urged the Centre regarding this matter,” he said.
The major organiser of this fair is the state public health engineering (PHE) department. Sourav Das, secretary of the state panchayat department, said that infrastructure for organising this fair has been developed over the last four years.
“We are able to take initiative for cleaning the sacred place as around 12,000 toilets were set up and awareness is being generated so that people keep the fair ground and bay areas clean,” he said.
However, devotees expressed their dissatisfaction over having to wait at Lot Number 8. Devotees also stood in a long queue to get vessels on Thursday.
A stampede occurred in 2010 due to a large gathering of the pilgrims near Lot Number 8 when seven pilgrims died. P.B.Salim, district magistrate of South 24- Parganas, visited Muriganga river two days ago to supervise the pilgrims’ movement and the dredging work.
Three dredgers were deployed to clean the river but they are idle most of the time as vessel movement get affected during dredging. Salim said that low tide is very problematic for plying vessels and vessel movements are being affected as low tide continues from 12 January to 15 January.
Six harbour points were set up for pilgrims’ movement. Though the administration claimed that around 14 lakh people visited the fairground this year, stall owners in the fairground said that pilgrims turnout is very low this year.
Around 932 persons were reported missing, of whom 824 were found, Salim said. A bomb scare gripped pilgrims last night following rumours about an unclaimed motorcycle. However, later the owner of the motorbike was traced.
A private ham radio operator helped to search for missing persons. Ambarish Nagchowdhury, the operator, said that ham network members are active at Gangasagar fair and even in Lot Number 8 zone.