India’s severe epidemic fails to deter Hindu pilgrims from descending to the banks of the Ganges in Haridwar for the seven week festival.
Hindu pilgrims have taken to the banks of the Ganges in northern India, ignoring the risks of COVID-19 for the start of the Kumbh Mela (Pitcher Fair), a religious holiday that regularly draws millions of people.
The severe outbreak in India – the world’s second-largest coronavirus infection and more than 150,000 deaths – did not stop Hindu stakes from making the pilgrimage to Haridwar in Uttarakhand state.
“The pandemic is a bit worrying, but we are taking all precautions,” said organizer Siddharth Chakrapani, who expected between 800,000 and one million people to attend Thursday alone.
“I’m sure Maa Ganga [Mother Ganges] will take care of their safety, ”he added, referring to the river considered sacred by the faithful.
According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons waged a war over a sacred pitcher containing the nectar of immortality. Drops fell in four different places, which now alternately host the huge gatherings.
Kumbh Mela is recognized as an item of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO and its latest edition – in Allahabad (now Prayagraj, in the state of Uttar Pradesh) in 2019 – attracted around 55 million people for over 48 days.
This year, starting Thursday, Haridwar is the host, and several million people are expected to invade the city over the next seven weeks.
Taking a dip in the Ganges is considered a sacred rite by Hindus, who come from all over India and beyond its borders to participate.
The holy men known as sadhus – touting extraordinary dreadlocks and often smoking cannabis – are a regular feature at Kumbh Mela, camping by the river and offering blessings to those who come for the holy dip.
On Wednesday, the banks of the river were teeming with pilgrims and vendors as families arranged plastic sheeting to put their belongings in as they took turns diving into the river.
Most were oblivious to the threat of the coronavirus.
“India is not like Europe… when it comes to immunity, we are better,” said 50-year-old pilgrim Sanjay Sharma.
“It’s really sad to see people not coming together in Kumbh in the same number as before – just because of a sneeze or a cough… The greatest truth on earth is death. What is the point of living with fear?
But her pilgrim companion Lakshmi Sharma, 37, said she was always careful.
“It’s a happy moment since it’s Kumbh. We just have to try to keep the distance and continue to disinfect our hands because it is a pandemic, ”she told AFP news agency.
This week brings several other religious festivals to India, including the Gangasagar in Kolkata where officials are expecting around 15,000 people.
Madurai, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is set to host a bull-hunting carnival known as Jallikattu, where revelers grab the horns of animals as they run through crowds of people.
As life gradually returns to normal in the world’s second most populous country, experts are warning that a new wave of coronavirus could strike.