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Hindu worshipers gather for evening prayers after taking a holy bath in the waters of the Ganges on the eve of Shahi Snan (big bath) on Maha Shivratri festival during the Kumbh Mela religious festival in Haridwar, India on March 10
Hindu worshipers gather for evening prayers after taking a holy bath in the waters of the Ganges on the eve of Shahi Snan (big bath) on Maha Shivratri festival during the religious festival Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, India on March 10 Prakash Singh / AFP / Getty Images

Massive crowds of Hindus began arriving in the northern Indian town of Haridwar on Thursday for the largest religious pilgrimage on Earth, even as experts warned it could cause an increase in cases of Covid-19 as the country struggles with a second wave.

The month-long Kumbh Mela Festival, one of the most important Hindu celebrations, usually takes place every 12 years and attracts tens of millions of pilgrims to four hubs.

This year it takes place in Haridwar, in the foothills of the outer Himalayas in the state of Uttarakhand, where devotees attend prayers and wash their sins in the sacred waters of the Ganges. According to some myths associated with the festival, the river water turns into “amrita”, or nectar of immortality, on certain days.

But this year, Covid-19 measures have seen the festival postponed and then reduced. The traditional start date, called Makar Sankranti, was January, but people were not allowed to take holy baths in the river until the government officially launched in April.

Although authorities have moved the start date and shortened the pilgrimage from three and a half months to just one month, many people have chosen not to follow official guidelines, said Oommen Kurian, senior researcher and head of the initiative. at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

Hundreds of thousands of people flock to Haridwar from Makar Sankranti in January anyway – congregating nearby for hours a day, sharing public facilities and having their meals together. The photos show people washing their faces and submerging their entire bodies in the sacred waters, then attending evening prayers by the river, lighting candles and making religious offerings.

The first ceremonies and holy baths were held on the banks of the Ganges on Thursday, with holy men performing prayer rituals, festival official Harbeer Singh said. Religious flags were hoisted before their arrival, marking the official start of the celebrations.

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Mass religious festival takes place in India despite Covid fears

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