India: ‘Several Million’ Expected at Ganges Pilgrimage

Hindu devotees take a holy dip in the waters of the River Ganges during Makar Sankranti, a day considered to be of great religious significance in the Hindu mythology, on the first day of the religious Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar on January 14, 2021. (Photo by Money SHARMA / …
MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

Indian government officials expect “several million” people to gather in northern India’s Uttarakhand state over the next several weeks as part of the Hindu Kumbh Mela pilgrimage.

Four different cities in India alternate hosting duties for Kumbh Mela. “This year, beginning Thursday [January 14], Haridwar is the host, and several million people were expected to throng the holy city in Uttarakhand over the coming seven weeks,” Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported Wednesday.

“The pandemic is a bit of a worry, but we are taking all precautions,” festival organizer Siddharth Chakrapani told AFP, adding that he “expected between 8,00,000 to 10 lakh [1 million] people to attend on Thursday alone.”

“I’m sure Maa Ganga will take care of their safety,” he said, referring to the Hindu goddess of the Ganges River, considered sacred in the Hindu religion. Hindus believe that immersing themselves in the waters of the Ganges during Kumbh Mela absolves them of their sins and breaks the cycle of birth and death.

“Some 800 hotels and 350 ashrams in Haridwar have been prepared to accommodate approximately 1.25 lakh [125,000] pilgrims on any given day during the Kumbh. While the tourism department was expecting around 10 crore [100 million] pilgrims, restrictions imposed to ensure social distancing has curtailed the figure,” the Indian Express reported Wednesday.

“Additionally, a 156-sq km ‘mela area’ [fairground] has also been demarcated in three [Uttarakhand] districts of Haridwar, Dehradun, and Pauri Garhwal, for people associated with hospitality, tourism and civil supply, and adjoining areas of western UP [Uttar Pradesh state], to get business during this time,” according to the newspaper.

Uttarakhand Urban Development Minister Madan Kaushik said last month that Kumbh Mela will be held for 48 days instead of the typical three-and-a-half months. However, the Indian Express reported on January 13 that the event will take place from January 14 to April 27.

Uttarakhand police said Wednesday that the Indian National Security Guard (NSG) would deploy a special anti-terror squad to Haridwar during Kumbh Mela to protect participants from “anti-national elements” — possibly referring to entities that might target the Hindu festival due to its association with the religion of India’s ruling, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP promotes the interests of India’s Hindu majority and has recently passed legislation across several states criminalizing forced religious conversion through the guise of marriage, termed “Love Jihad.”

“[T]o take action against the anti-national elements, two NSG teams will be deployed during Kumbh Mela. The NSG teams will also train our Anti-Terrorist Squad,” Uttarakhand Police Commissioner Ashok Kumar told reporters on January 13.

Known as the “world’s largest human gathering,” Kumbh Mela translates loosely to “festival of the sacred pitcher.”

“According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons fought a war over a sacred pitcher containing the nectar of immortality. Drops fell at four different locations, which now alternate as hosts for the immense gatherings,” AFP noted Wednesday.

UNESCO recognized Kumbh Mela as an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” in 2017. The last Kumbh Mela attracted roughly 120 million Hindu pilgrims to the Uttar Pradesh city of Allahabad in 2019.

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