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India celebrates Coombe Mela, the world’s largest pilgrimage, despite fears of Covid-19



(CNN) – Every year, tens of millions of Hindu pilgrims enter the Ganges River in search of salvation from the eternal cycle of life and death. The holy men lead prayers and offer blessings, and the worshipers wash their sins in the holy waters.

But this year, India’s Kumbh Mela – the largest pilgrimage on Earth – is alarming, with some authorities warning of a potential Covid-19 outbreak if crowds gather and bathe together without masks.

Coombe Mela, a month-long mass pilgrimage, is one of the most important Hindu celebrations. According to some myths behind the festival, the water of the Ganges turns into “amrita”

;, or the nectar of immortality, on certain days.

Bathing in the sacred waters of the Sangama, where the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers meet, is believed to achieve “moksha” or liberation from the cycle of life and death.

Hindu pilgrims attend evening prayers on the banks of the Ganges before the Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar on January 13th.

Hindu pilgrims attend evening prayers on the banks of the Ganges before the Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar on January 13th.

Money Sharma / AFP / Getty Images

Worship was to begin on Thursday, known as Makar Sankranti, or the first day of the holy baths. But this year, officials decided to push back the worship a month ago.

“We will issue for (worship) to begin sometime in the third week of February,” and will continue until the end of April, said Madan Kaushik, Utarakhand’s minister of urban development and housing. Within those few months, there will be four days set for people to dive into the Ganges, he said.

“This festival will not be postponed further. We will take precautions and do everything possible, but we will not postpone or cancel Kumbh Mela,” he added.

Despite the delay, hundreds of thousands of people across the country gathered in the ancient city of Haridwar, in northern Utarakhand, on Thursday to celebrate Makar Sankranti.

Pilgrims began arriving on Wednesday; photos show families sinking in the river, groups walking or sitting on the banks, and holy men performing evening prayers. Traders decorate shop windows while outdoor vendors put their wares on the streets waiting for crowds. By Thursday, about 700,000 people had attended, according to Kaushik.

Indian Hindu pilgrims sit on the banks of the Ganges River in Haridwar on January 14.

Indian Hindu pilgrims sit on the banks of the Ganges River in Haridwar on January 14.

Pankaj Nangia / Anatolian Agency / Getty Images

As the first crowds sank, authorities prepared for the potential of a super-distributor, with the country still reporting between 20,000 new Covid-19 cases a day.

Globally, India ranks second in number of cases and third with the highest number of casualties. As of Friday, it reported more than 10.5 million cases and 151,000 related deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
And although worship has been postponed, it can still pose a threat when held a month later. Last year, up to 55 million people attended the festival for several months, according to CNN affiliate CNN-News18. Even if attendance falls this year, there are still millions of people who gather in close proximity for hours a day, share public facilities, eat together and bathe in the same waters.

Potential “breeding environment”

Indian infections peaked last September, and the number of new cases has been steadily declining ever since. Regulators approved the country’s first two Covid-19 vaccines for limited emergency use earlier this month; Health authorities are now launching a large-scale immunization program aimed at inoculating 300 million people by August.

However, leaders warn that vaccine or not, the risk of infection is still high and residents must continue to take precautions.

“During this time, Covid protocols will have to be applied, even a little laxity can cause damage,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on January 11th.

The Utarakhand Supreme Court issued a court directive on January 11th, stressing the danger of the festival and calling on authorities to provide more detailed safety measures. Unless the flow of people is controlled, with safe accommodation and transportation, “Coombe Mela 2021 could become a fertile ground for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the court warned.

Indian Hindu worshipers gather on the Ganges during Makar Sankranti, a day considered extremely religious in Hindu mythology, on January 14, 2021.

Indian Hindu worshipers gather on the Ganges River during Makar Sankranti, a day considered extremely religious in Hindu mythology, on January 14, 2021.

Pankaj Nangia / Anatolian Agency / Getty Images

“As people from all over the country and abroad gather in Coombe Mela, the COVID-19 infection can be transmitted by pilgrims to different parts of the country,” the court said, adding that the government needed “concrete plans” to minimize the threat.

Siddhart Chakrapani, the organizer of this year’s festival, acknowledged health and safety concerns, but said they were taking precautions, according to CNN-News18. “I am confident that Mother Ganga will protect them all,” he added.

Pilgrims coming from outside the city will have to go through a thermal scan and random test samples, additional district council magistrate Haridwar KK Mishra said on Thursday. District administrators are located throughout the city to raise awareness and provide safety training for traders and business owners, he said.

On Thursday, volunteer teams conducted temperature inspections of devotees near the Ganges. People who want to participate in the holy baths must also register online and receive electronic passes, according to CNN-News 18. There are still national guidelines, including mandatory face masks and a mandatory six-foot social distance rule in public. place spaces.

Indian Hindu priests seen on the banks of the Ganges River in Haridwar on January 14.

Indian Hindu priests seen on the banks of the Ganges River in Haridwar on January 14.

Pankaj Nangia / Anatolian Agency / Getty Images

But it is not clear how carefully these precautions will be observed or how they will be applied – especially during the pilgrimage next month.

Photos from Thursday show people gathered together on the banks of the river, without the necessary distance between people. Many of those in the photo wore face masks or covers, but a number also wore naked faces, including children and the elderly – especially during group ceremonies.

There is also no guarantee that people will wait until the official start date. Significant religious dates are based on the astrological positions of the planets, so worshipers can travel to the Ganges on these dates for the sacred baths, regardless of the approval of the authorities.

Rising religious tensions

The authorities have good reason to be nervous. Around the world, several religious gatherings have caused Covid-19 clusters, some of which are spreading beyond their community throughout the nation.

One of the earliest and most famous cases was the Shinchonji religious group, which became the center of South Korea’s outbreak in February. By March, thousands of cases were related to its members – more than half of all cases in the country at the time – leading to local blockades. and extensive contact tracking and testing.

In the United States, too, churches have been at the center of community outbreaks; one church in California has been involved in at least 70 cases, while another church in Ohio has seen more than 90 related cases.

India faced its own crisis in mid-March when the gathering of a conservative Muslim missionary group in New Delhi led to a highly popular cluster. Thousands of members traveled from across the country and abroad to the event – in the following months, more than 4,200 cases involved gatherings in 23 countries and union territories.

But the gathering of the Muslim group was met with much stronger consequences and public hostility than in other countries, thanks in large part to long-standing Muslim-Hindu tensions in India, which grew with fear and paranoia during the pandemic.

The majority of India’s 1.3 billion population is Hindu; Muslims make up about 200 million people in the country. The Delhi cluster has reinforced existing prejudices that have been growing in recent years during the Modi Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Muslims in the country report being harassed and beaten; some attacked their homes by police; some BJP leaders described the meeting as an act of terrorism.

Other non-Muslim rallies are still ongoing over the same period, but face significantly less response. For example, the chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh travels to another city for a Hindu ritual even after the announcement of the lock, reportedly surrounded by at least 20 people. His media adviser then told local media that about 10 people were present.

Hindu pilgrims attend evening prayers on the banks of the Ganges on January 13.

Hindu pilgrims attend evening prayers on the banks of the Ganges on January 13.

Money Sharma / AFP / Getty Images

There were almost no signs of a public protest this week for the hundreds of thousands of Hindus gathered in Haridwar. Modi, who has a strong Hindu base, wrote on Twitter about the holiday on Thursday, without mentioning Covid-19 or safety measures.

“Although Sankranti (the first day of the holy baths) is marked by enthusiasm in several parts of India,” he wrote. “This auspicious festival illustrates the diversity of India and the vitality of our traditions.”

Indian political commentator Sanjay Kapoor is not surprised that authorities are moving forward with the pilgrimage next month, despite obvious security concerns.

“I don’t think it will ever be repealed – it’s too big,” he said, adding that the festival has grown significantly since the BJP came into force, reflecting their focus on Hindu nationalism – as well as cultural and political influence. of the Hindu majority in India. It is even brighter to keep in mind that the Muslim gathering in March was “poisonous” and an example of that, he said.

“They don’t even allow Parliament to come together because of Kovid, but these mega events are allowed to happen. How do you explain that to the world?” Kapoor said. The pandemic is not gone.


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