Up to 1m Hindus gather in India as festival goes ahead amid Covid fears

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Millions more expected to descend on Haridwar in coming weeks for Kumbh Mela despite pandemic

Up to a million Hindu pilgrims have gathered on the banks of the River Ganges in northern India, marking the start of a major religious festival that is taking place despite the risks of Covid infection.

Millions more are expected to descend on Haridwar in the coming weeks for Kumbh Mela, one of the world’s biggest religious gatherings. Pilgrims bathe in the Ganges in the belief that the sacred waters will cleanse them of their sins.

Officials have said measures to prevent a surge in Covid infections include pre-booking to control numbers, strict social distancing and colour-coded bathing areas. “The pandemic is a bit of a worry, but we are taking all precautions,” said one of the organisers, Siddharth Chakrapani.

Most of those walking into the freezing river on Thursday morning were not wearing masks and social distancing was hard to maintain.

Senthil Avoodai K Raj, a senior police official, said thousands of security forces were present and fines could be imposed for breaching Covid regulations.

India has recorded more than 10m Covid cases – the second highest number in the world after the US – and has recorded more than 150,000 deaths.

On Saturday, the government will launch a vaccination drive, aiming to inoculate 300 million people by early August. Healthcare and frontline workers will be vaccinated first, followed by people over 50 and those with underlying health conditions.

Some pilgrims in Haridwar dismissed the threat from the virus. “India is not like Europe … when it comes to immunity we are better,” said 50-year-old Sanjay Sharma. “It’s really sad to see people not gathering at Kumbh in the same numbers as they would earlier … The greatest truth on Earth is death. What’s the point of living with fear?”
Unesco has recognised Kumbh Mela as intangible cultural heritage.

According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons fought a war over a sacred pitcher containing the nectar of immortality.

Drops fell at four different locations, which now alternate as hosts.

Several other religious festivals are taking place in India this week, including the Gangasagar Mela in Kolkata, where officials expect about 15,000 people.

Madurai in the southern state of Tamil Nadu is due to host a bull-chasing carnival known as Jallikattu, where revellers grab hold of the beasts’ horns as they run through crowds of people.

Many religious gatherings across the world have been cancelled or scaled back because of Covid. Only a few thousand Muslims took part in last year’s hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, compared with more than 2 million in normal years.

The pope celebrated midnight mass on Christmas Eve with fewer than 100 participants instead of the usual 10,000.

In nearly all countries, Christians, Muslims, Jews and those of other faiths have curtailed or cancelled events marking religious festivals in the past 10 months.

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