Mass religious festival goes ahead in India, despite Covid fears as country enters second wave

Hindu devotees attend evening prayers during Kumbh Mela in Haridwar on March 11.

New Delhi (CNN)Massive crowds of Hindus began arriving in the northern Indian city of Haridwar on Thursday for the largest religious pilgrimage on Earth, even as experts warned it could cause a surge in Covid-19 cases as the country grapples with a second wave.

The months-long Kumbh Mela festival, one of the most important Hindu celebrations, typically takes place every 12 years and draws tens of millions of pilgrims to four rotating sites.
This year, it takes place in Haridwar, in the foothills of the outer Himalayas in Uttarakhand state, where devotees attend prayers, and wash their sins away in the sacred waters of the Ganges River. According to some myths associated with the festival, the river water turns into "amrita," or the nectar of immortality, on particular days.
    But this year, Covid-19 measures have seen the festival postponed and then scaled back. The traditional start date, called Makar Sankranti, was in January, but people were not authorized to take holy baths in the river until the government's formal launch in April.
      Although authorities moved the start date, and shortened the pilgrimage from three and a half months to just one month, many people have chosen to disregard the official guidelines, said Oommen Kurian, senior fellow and head of health initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
      Devotees gather after taking a holy dip in the River Ganges in Haridwar, India, on March 10.
      Hundreds of thousands of people have been flocking to Haridwar since Makar Sankranti in January anyway -- congregating in close quarters for hours a day, sharing public facilities and having meals together. Photos show people washing their faces and taking full body dips into the sacred waters, then attending evening prayers by the banks of the river, lighting candles and making religious offerings.
      Thursday saw the first ceremonies and holy baths take place by the banks of the Ganges, with holy men carrying out prayer rituals, said festival officer Harbeer Singh. Religious flags were hoisted ahead of their arrival, marking the formal start of the celebrations. The city's district magistrate and police officials prayed to the Ganges river for a successful Kumbh Mela.
        "This is a festival which people wait years for," said Pradeep Jha, president of Ganga Sabha, a Hindu organization that provides services like organizing festivals along the Ganges. "Those who have problems at home, in work, in their families, they all come to pray here to mother Ganga and she blesses them."
        Jha had attended the morning Kumbh Mela ceremony, he added.
        "Kumbh Mela is not only a religious pilgrimage, but also perhaps the largest mass gathering at one place," said the federal government's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in late January, in an advisory laying out Covid-19 measures for the festival.
        The ministry said it expects to see a million people on "a regular day" during the festival. But on "auspicious days," attendees may swell to 5 million, and there could be a "large surge of crowds congregating ... to take holy baths."
        Experts fear the massive gathering could spell trouble for India's Covid-19 situation, which has deteriorated markedly in recent weeks.
        India saw its cases drop by nearly 90% from a high in September 2020 to February this year, with many heralding the country's apparent success in controlling infections. But March saw cases rise rapidly, raising alarm of a second wave.
        India recorded 72,330 new cases of the virus on Thursday and 459 new related deaths. That's the highest single-day increase in cases since last October, and the biggest rise in deaths since December, according to a CNN tally of data from the Indian Ministry of Health.
        The country has now recorded more than 12 million cases and 162,000 deaths since the pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins University.
        "The situation is becoming from bad to worse and is a serious cause for concern, said V K Paul, a member of Indian government think tank Niti Aayog, on Tuesday.
        The surge in cases is due to several possible factors, said Kurian. There is the rise in new variants, which health authorities are still investigating with genome sequencing. People are going out more, and taking fewer precautions. The public may be experiencing Covid fatigue, or simply letting their guard down due to the winter success.
        "Kumbh Mela distric