Hundreds of thousands of Hindu worshippers have gathered on the banks of India’s Ganges river for a holy dip despite a 30-fold rise in coronavirus cases in the past month.
Hindus believe a bath in the frigid waters of the holy river during the Makar Sankranti festival, observed every year on January 14, washes away sins and frees them from the cycle of death and rebirth.
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On Friday, a large number of devotees were taking a dip in the river in the eastern state of West Bengal, which is reporting the most number of cases in the country after Maharashtra state in the west.
Officials had said they expected about three million people to attend the festival’s climax on Sagar Island, where the Ganges meets the Bay of Bengal.
“At the crack of dawn, there was a sea of people. Holy water from the river Ganges was sprayed from drones on pilgrims … to prevent crowding,” local official Bankim Hazra said.
“But the saints and a large number of people were bent on taking the dip … Pilgrims, most of them without masks, outnumbered the security personnel.”
In the northern Uttar Pradesh state too, Hindu devotees, led by heads of monasteries and ash-smeared ascetics, congregated at Sangam, the confluence of three rivers – the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati – in Prayagraj city, 200km (124 miles) northeast of state capital Lucknow, to participate in the Magh Mela festival, one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism.
Millions of Hindus are expected to throng the festival for the next 47 days. Many of them will stay on the banks of the Ganges for a month leading the life of an ascetic, with the belief they will receive salvation.
“I can’t breathe with a mask,” Ram Phal Tripathi, who came with his family from a village in Uttar Pradesh, said after emerging from the river.
“Every year I come for a holy dip. How could I have missed it this year?”
The event has raised concerns that pilgrims could get infected and take the virus back to their cities and villages in other parts of the country.
Already, 77 policemen and 12 cleaning staff deployed for the event have tested positive for the virus, The Associated Press news agency reported on Friday.
“This is going to be a superspreader. The government should not allow a congregation of people in such a large number because religious congregations in the past two years were found responsible for spreading the deadly virus all across the country,” said Utkarsh Mishra, a lawyer who filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh, asking the festival be cancelled.
Health experts had earlier appealed for the festival to be cancelled in Uttar Pradesh too, but the government went ahead saying safety rules would be followed.
Critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party say the festival has been allowed despite rising infections because the government is not willing to anger Hindus, the party’s biggest supporters, ahead of crucial seven-phase state elections in Uttar Pradesh, starting on February 10.
In West Bengal as well, doctors had appealed unsuccessfully to the state high court to reverse a decision to allow the Hindu festival this year, worrying it will become a virus “superspreader” event.
Last year, a similar gathering in northern India’s holy town of Haridwar in Uttarakhand state had contributed to a record rise in coronavirus cases. Fearing a rise in infections, Uttarakhand authorities have already banned the event.
Deaths from India’s current wave of infections remain a fraction of what they were during the surge in April and May last year, with 315 deaths recorded on Thursday compared with as many as 4,000 per day at the peak.
Infections are rising fast, however, with almost 265,000 new cases reported on Friday. Some models predict India could experience as many as 800,000 cases per day in a few weeks, twice the rate seen nine months ago.
The surge is heightened mostly by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, but hospitalisations are low, with most people recovering at home.
Keen to avoid another painful lockdown for millions of workers reliant on a few dollars in daily wages, authorities in different parts of India have sought to restrict gatherings.
In capital New Delhi, all bars, restaurants and private offices are shut and the capital is set to go into its second weekend curfew on Friday night.
In the financial capital Mumbai, gatherings of more than four people are banned.