India's Kumbh Mela festival begins amid Covid concerns

·2 min read
Kumbh Mela
Millions usually attend what is one of the most auspicious events in the Hindu calendar

Thousands of pilgrims have gathered on the banks of India's Ganges river at the start of the Kumbh Mela, billed as the world's largest human gathering.

One of the most auspicious events in Hinduism is taking place this year during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds bathed on day one of the festival, seeking to wash away sins.

Officials say they are following pandemic guidelines, but most bathers are not wearing masks. Only the US has more Covid cases than India.

However, India has lower death rates than many nations and is not in lockdown.

Hindus believe bathing will help them attain "moksha", setting them free from the cycle of birth and death.

Kumbh Mela
Kumbh Mela

The mela (meaning "fair" in Hindi) is being held in the northern holy town of Haridwar in Uttarakhand state.

A Sadhu (Hindu holy man) sits besides a graffiti on the banks of the River Ganges during Makar Sankranti, a day considered to be of great religious significance in the Hindu mythology, on the first day of the religious Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar on 14 January 2021
A Sadhu (Hindu holy man) sits besides a graffiti on the banks of the River Ganges during Makar Sankranti, a day considered to be of great religious significance in the Hindu mythology, on the first day of the religious Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar on 14 January 2021

According to news channel NDTV, pilgrims started arriving at Har ki Paudi, a famous bank of the river Ganges in Haridwar, at 03:00 local time and bathing started an hour later.

The event normally attracts tens of thousands, but this time the authorities are discouraging large crowds because of the risks due to Covid-19.

A volunteer (R) checks the temperature of devotees who arrive to take a holy dip in the waters of the River Ganges during Makar Sankranti, a day considered to be of great religious significance in the Hindu mythology, on the first day of the religious Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar on 14 January 2021
A volunteer (R) checks the temperature of devotees who arrive to take a holy dip in the waters of the River Ganges during Makar Sankranti, a day considered to be of great religious significance in the Hindu mythology, on the first day of the religious Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar on 14 January 2021

District officials have warned people to come only after they've tested negative, wear masks at all times and maintain social distancing, but local journalists say few were following these rules.

Kumbh Mela
Kumbh Mela

At a recent court hearing, petitioners raised concerns that unless the numbers were strictly controlled, the event could become a breeding ground for Covid-19, and that enforcing such measures would be difficult at a gathering of such a scale.

Kumbh Mela
Kumbh Mela

Officials said last month that the event will be held for 48 days instead of the three-and-a-half months due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to news agency ANI.

Hindu devotees on the banks of the river Ganges at Haridwar on 14 January
Hindu devotees on the banks of the river Ganges at Haridwar on 14 January

State police officials have also announced that elite National Security Guard (NSG) commandos will be deployed at the event for security purposes.

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