Coronavirus fails to deter massive Hindu Ganges pilgrimage

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Haridwar (Inde) (AFP)

Hindu pilgrims flocked to the Ganges in India on Wednesday, avoiding the risk of coronavirus a day before the start of Kumbh Mela – a religious holiday that draws millions of people every time it takes place.

Although India has the second highest number of coronavirus infections in the world – and more than 150,000 deaths – the virus has not stopped stakes of Hindus from making the pilgrimage.

“The pandemic is a bit worrying, but we are taking all precautions,” said organizer Siddharth Chakrapani, who expected between 800,000 and one million people to be present on Thursday alone.

“I am sure Maa Ganga will ensure their safety,” he added, referring to the river considered sacred by the faithful.

According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons fought for a sacred pitcher containing the nectar of immortality. Drops fell in four different places, which now alternate as hosts for the huge gatherings.

Recognized as cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2017, the last Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in 2019 attracted around 55 million people in 48 days.

This year, as of Thursday, Haridwar in northern India is the host, and several million people are expected to invade the holy city of Uttarakhand state over the next seven weeks.

– “Not like Europe” –

Taking a dip in the Ganges is considered a sacred rite by Hindus, who have come from all over India and beyond its borders.

The holy men known as sadhus – touting outrageous dreadlocks and smoking cannabis – are a regular feature at Kumbh Mela, camping by the river and offering blessings to those who come for the holy dip.

On Wednesday, its banks were swarming with pilgrims and vendors as families laid out plastic sheeting for picnics.

Most were oblivious to the threat of the coronavirus.

“India is not like Europe… when it comes to immunity, we are better,” said pilgrim Sanjay Sharma, 50.

“It’s really sad to see people not coming together in Kumbh in the same number as before – just because of a sneeze or a cough.

“The greatest truth on earth is death. What is the point of living with fear? ”

This week sees several other religious festivals in India, including the Gangasagar in Kolkata where officials expect around 15,000 people.

Yet as life gradually returns to normal in the world’s second most populous country, experts warn that a new wave of coronavirus could strike.

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