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Tens of thousands of Hindus, led by heads of monasteries and ash-smeared ascetics, waded into the frigid waters of the Ganges River in northern India on Friday despite rising Covid-19 infections in the country.
Hindu pilgrims congregated at the Sangam, the confluence of three rivers — the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Saraswati — in Prayagraj city, 200 kilometres north-east of Lucknow, state capital of Uttar Pradesh, to participate in the Magh Mela festival, one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism.
They bathed in the Ganges waters, a ritual Hindus believe will wash away their sins and free them from the cycle of death and rebirth.
A similar gathering at a Hindu festival last year in the Himalayan town of Haridwar in neighbouring Uttarakhand state became what epidemiologists call a “superspreader event”, leading to a massive spike in cases.
Coronavirus infections, fuelled by the Omicron variant, are rising fast throughout India. The country reported over 264,000 new infections on Friday but hospital admissions remain relatively low.
Millions of Hindus are expected to attend the festival over the next 47 days. Many of them will stay on the banks of the Ganges for a month.
The situation has raised concerns that the pilgrims could be infected with Covid-19 during the festival and bring the virus back to their cities and villages.
A total of 77 policemen and 12 cleaning staff working at the event have already tested positive for the virus.
“This is going to be a super spreader,” said Utkarsh Mishra, a lawyer who has filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court asking that the festival be cancelled.
“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.”
Mr Mishra said only locals and heads of important Hindu monasteries should be allowed to take part in the ritual.
Fearing a rise in infections, authorities in Uttarakhand state have banned a similar gathering.
Health experts earlier appealed for the festival to be cancelled in Uttar Pradesh state as well, but the government ruled the event could go ahead, saying safety rules would be followed.
Shesh Mani Pandey, a senior official in charge of the event, said only those who have taken two doses of Covid-19 vaccine and have vaccination certificates would be allowed to join the ritualistic bathing.
He said pilgrims will be allowed to enter the festival site after going through thermal scanning at the entry gates.
Critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party say the festival has been allowed to go forward because the government is not willing to anger Hindus — the party’s biggest supporters — before crucial state elections in Uttar Pradesh.
The BJP-ruled state is holding elections on February 10.