Jeddah: Dressed in white, over 2.5 million Muslims, including more than 1 lakh Indians on Friday began the rites of Haj pilgrimage as they left for Mount Arafat from Mecca, even as religious authorities asked pilgrims to avoid overcrowding at the Grand Mosque in the holy city.
   
Pilgrims flooded the streets as they headed towards Mina, around five kilometres east of the holy mosque.
   
Menwhile, prominent Islamic scholars including Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh have asked pilgrims to avoid performing all the compulsory prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca in order to reduce overcrowding at the mosque.
   
"The whole Mecca is considered haram (sacred place) and the prayer at any Mecca mosque is equal in reward to praying at the Haram (Grand) Mosque," the scholars were quoted as saying by Arab News.
   
"The reward for prayer at all mosques inside the haram area is greater than the prayers outside the haram."
    
The day is known as Tarwiah (Watering) Day, as pilgrims traditionally watered their sacrificial animals and stocked water for their trip to Mount Arafat, some 10 kilometres further on, where prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his final Haj sermon, hundreds of years ago.
   
"A total of 1, 24,948 pilgrims have arrived from India. 1, 24,882 are in Mecca and 3 pilgrims are in Madina. So far 435 flights have come from India," Consulate General of India said.

 "As of on Friday 75 pilgrims have expired out of which 63 came through Haj committee and 12 through private tour operators," it on Thursday.
   
Saudi Arabia has stepped up preparation to avoid deadly stampedes that have marred the Haj in the past, in which hundreds of pilgrims lost their lives.
   
In January 2006, 364 pilgrims were killed in a stampede at the entrance to a bridge leading to the stoning site in Mina, outside Mecca, while 251 were trampled to death in 2004.

(Agencies)