MECCA, Saudi Arabia, Reuters
The Arab News daily said 53 Indian pilgrims had died from natural causes. All the dead were over 60 years old, it quoted Indian Consul-General Syed Akbaruddin as saying.
The white-clad faithful, carrying mats and white umbrellas to protect them from the sun, left Mecca in thousands of cars and buses or on foot, heading for Mena 12 km (eight miles) away on a five-day ritual to retrace the route Mohammad took 14 centuries ago.
Police helicopters hovered overhead as policemen directed traffic and emergency services stood by for any incidents. Highways and roads in the area were congested as vehicles advanced slowly among crowds on foot.
Despite a temperature of 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit), pilgrims were clearly excited about starting the haj.
“I am very happy,” Ahmed, from Ghana, told Reuters as he boarded a bus in Mecca. “I couldn’t wait. This is a journey of a lifetime.”
Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can afford the trip must perform the haj, one of the five pillars of Islam, at least once.
Around two million Muslims from 100 countries will take part in the haj, which symbolizes the story of Abraham, seeking repentance, purification and spiritual renewal.
The pilgrims will spend Saturday night in tent camps at Mena, where Saudi authorities have prepared 44,000 fire-proof tents equipped with air-conditioners and safe cooking stoves.
They will pray, read the Koran or rest during the night before ascending to Mount Arafat after sunrise on Sunday for the climax of the haj. On Arafat, they will spend the day praying for forgiveness. Religion completed “I feel highly fulfilled, highly delighted,” Nigerian Abu Bakr Mustapha, 23, said. “Today I complete my religion.”
Saudi officials said the haj, which has been marred in recent years by tragedies, was proceeding smoothly so far. Saudi Arabia has spent several billion dollars over the past decade improving facilities as well as roads and electricity networks.
King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah will move to the area on Sunday to supervise the movement of the pilgrims to Arafat, the most grueling leg of the haj, local newspapers reported.
The authorities will distribute 10 million bottles of mineral water and one million free meals to the pilgrims over the next two days. Some 40,000 workers will clean up after the pilgrims.
Mecca’s water department will pump 10 million cubic meters of fresh water, mainly for sanitation, over the next week, the dailies said.