Huge crowds at India’s Kumbh festival as coronavirus pandemic surges

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FILED - Juna Akhara Sadhus take part in a Peshwai procession as part of the Kumbh Mela mass Hindu pilgrimage in this file shot from February 27, 2019. Photo: CHANDAN RUPANI/PTI/dpa
FILED - Juna Akhara Sadhus take part in a Peshwai procession as part of the Kumbh Mela mass Hindu pilgrimage in this file shot from February 27, 2019. Photo: CHANDAN RUPANI/PTI/dpa

(dpa) – As India counted another record rise in coronavirus cases on Monday, tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims joined a river-bathing ritual during the Kumbh festival in the hill town of Haridwar.

There were fears that the month-long event could turn into a super spreader event.

The pilgrims led by ash-smeared ascetics and gurus from across India thronged the bathing ghats of Haridwar on an auspicious “shahi snan”(main bathing) day of the Kumbh festival, billed as the largest religious gathering on earth.

According to Hindu mythology, as gods and demons fought over a pitcher (kumbh) of amrita (nectar of immortality), a few drops spilled at four places: Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik, where the festival is staged at designated intervals with a full version once every 12 years.

Officials in Haridwar said the numbers are much lower than usual due to Covid-19 restrictions but were huge nonetheless.

Standard operating procedures were in place: People were being checked at borders for Covid-negative test certificates.

Pilgrims at the bathing ghats – which are steps leading to the river – were being regulated and repeatedly asked to wear masks and practise social distancing.

Television images on Monday, one of the two major bathing dates this week, showed thousands of people – a majority of them not wearing masks – crowding against each other as they made their way into the river.

Police were struggling to get them maintain Covid-19 protocols. “We are trying to thin the crowds, but we do not wish to cause a stampede,” local police official SK Gunjiyal was quoted as saying by NDTV news channel.

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