India

Hindu faithful flock to Haridwar for Covid-restricted Kumbh Mela festival

Hindu devotees gather at a ghat of the River Ganges during the religious Kumbh Mela festival.
Hindu devotees gather at a ghat of the River Ganges during the religious Kumbh Mela festival. © Murali Krishnan

The Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, one of the most important Hindu festivals, and which takes place only once every 12 years, is being held under the shadow of the Covid pandemic. 

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The Covid epidemic could not stop millions of Hindus from gathering last week as a crush of humanity assembled on the banks of Ganges River for the first of four holy dips in its icy cold waters.

The occasion was the auspicious bathing date or "Shahi Snan" on 11 March, and thousands of Hindu seers and devotees, unmindful of the raging pandemic, gathered at Har Ki Pauri, the river bank’s pilgrimage site in the northern city of Haridwar.

“Our sins and the pandemic will be washed away. Nobody's infected here, nobody. And even if they are, once they dip into the river, they are all pure," Manish Kumar, a Hindu devotee told RFI.

"There is no Covid here."  

India's coronavirus epidemic and government health restrictions could not stop the once every 12 year Kumbh Mela festival from going ahead.
India's coronavirus epidemic and government health restrictions could not stop the once every 12 year Kumbh Mela festival from going ahead. © Murali Krishnan

 

Kumar’s sentiments resonated among tens of thousands of devotees who had gathered for the Kumbh, considered the largest religious gathering in the world.

It is held in a 12-year cycle, across four pilgrimage sites in India. This year is the turn of the holy city of Haridwar.

“Covid is a conspiracy. Do you see anyone here wearing a mask? All of us are clean and there is nothing to worry about,” Pradyot Baba, a seer from Rajasthan told RFI.

 

According to the administration, the single event on the auspicious bath day registered a footfall of over 2. 8 million people by Thursday evening.

Some experts had asked the government to reconsider holding the event, over fears that the Kumbh could create an infection hotspot. However, authorities decided to go ahead with the festival, after establishing some new rules and restrictions.

When the festival began, visitors were asked to register before attending and submit RT-PCR test results to show they were coronavirus negative. Elderly people, children and pregnant women were being discouraged from attending the event.

However, online registrations went largely unchecked, and many attendees said there was a lack of clarity in the process.

Some reported technical issues registering on the government website, while others said the mandate to present a negative Covid test was not being enforced.

“When we found out that there was no necessity for tests, we decided to come along to the Kumbh,” Rattan Lal, a farmer from Rajasthan told RFI.

At the Kumbh Mela there are few masks and little physical distancing.

But the administration says it is doing its best.

“As part of the precautionary measures, we are putting extra emphasis on cleanliness, with sanitation workers sweeping and mopping the bathing areas round-the-clock,” a senior police official told RFI.

The festival comes as India registers an increase in the number of other large gatherings, including political rallies in several states due to hold elections next month.   

On Wednesday, India recorded its highest daily tally of coronavirus cases this year with 28,903 new infections, taking the total Covid-19 tally to 11.4 million, according to health ministry data.

With cases spiking again in at least eight Indian states, and with coronavirus variants spreading, a high-level central team of the National Centre for Disease Control will be deputed to the Kumbh in Haridwar this week.

The festival, which is classified as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, is attended by millions under normal circumstances.

Hindu pilgrims believe bathing in the Ganges will cleanse impurities and help free them from cycles of rebirth.

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