Braving fears of swine flu, over 1.5 lakh Indian pilgrims arrived in Makkah, joining millions from across the globe, to perform Haj, which commenced on Wednesday. Around 1,66,000 Indian devotees converged at Makkah out of an estimated international pilgrim total of two million. A Haj goodwill delegation led by Congress leader Saifuddin Soz also arrived in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi health authorities had earlier announced that the H1N1 virus had claimed four lives including that of one Indian national who had come to perform the annual Muslim pilgrimage. “There is no risk of the illness spreading as we are well-prepared and have taken the necessary measures,” Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Marghlani said at a press conference on Tuesday.

This year’s Haj commences amid some tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had last month warned that Tehran would take “appropriate measures” if its citizens were subjected to difficulties during the pilgrimage.

On their part, Saudi officials and clerics urged Tehran not to politicise the Haj. The two countries sparred with each other against the backdrop of 1987, when 402 people died when Saudi authorities used force to break up a protest by Shia pilgrims.

The officer in charge of security at the Haj, Mansour al-Turki, said protests during the pilgrimage were banned.

The Haj rituals have begun with Tawaf, when pilgrims walk seven times in an anti-clockwise direction around the Kaaba, the cube-like structure at the centre of the Great Mosque, the holiest site known to Islam.

Along a passageway in the Great Mosque, devotees run seven times, reenacting the great search for water by Hajar, Prophet Abraham’s wife. They then leave for the valley of Arafat, where prayers are held in the open.