Kumbh Mela is a major pilgrimage and festival in Hinduism. It is celebrated in a cycle of approximately 12 years, to celebrate every revolution Brihaspati completes, at four river-bank pilgrimage sites: the Allahabad (Prayagraj), Haridwar (Ganges), Nashik (Godavari), and Ujjain (Shipra). The festival is marked by a ritual dip in the waters, but it is also a celebration of community commerce with numerous fairs, education, religious discourses by saints, mass feedings of monks or the poor, and entertainment spectacle.
The last Haridwar Kumbh Mela was held in 2010. Since Kumbh Melas are held every 12 years, the actual due date for the ‘current’ Kumbh at Haridwar was 2022, not 2021. So how did it get advanced by one whole lethal year at a time India’s second Covid wave was expected making it the epicenter of the second wave in the country?
It was advanced by a year, to 2021, because the astrological configurations of the sun entering Aries and Jupiter entering Aquarius were available for 2021 this time. This happens once every 83 years, and it happens because of the need to reconcile astrological configuration charts to calendrical years.
So, not only did the Government of India, and the Government of Uttarakhand not cancel the Kumbh Mela, which they could easily have done, so as not to endanger the lives of millions of people by causing a super-spreader event for COVID-19; they also need not have let it take place this year at all, simply because this is the 11th, not the 12th year, since the last Kumbh Mela at Haridwar. They could have used this time to create the conditions where holding an event like the Kumbh could have made some kind of sense, maybe, in 2022.
“This is our great nation of Sadhus and saints, who by virtue of their penance and hashish smoking habits are immune from the Corona. Damn the protocols. We are a nation of Hindus and Hindutva and that is far more important than the safety of the population. Long live the Hindus and damned be the nation”. This must have been exactly what the organizers of the enormous Kumbh Mela, which became a super spreader of the second wave, had in their mind while planning this festival amidst a global pandemic.
The spread of the pandemic at Kumbh Mela started from the first day itself when the Kumbh Mela administration in Haridwar struggled to ensure social distancing and other Covid-19 related protocols. Apart from sadhus, a large number of devotees including over 20 lakh pilgrims arrived at different ghats to take a holy dip at the Ganges River.
Uttarakhand recorded 1,334 Covid-19 positive cases on the first day of the festival, including 408 in Haridwar alone. “The total number of active cases in Haridwar is more than 888. On Sunday, we collected 7,202 samples for the RT-PCR test,” said chief medical officer SK Jha.
It was said that the devotees have to produce RT-PCR negative reports issued within 72 hours to enter the Kumbh Mela zone. “Some devotees are not adhering to the route set by the administration for entry and exit,” an administrative person in Haridwar said.
The administration has planned random checking at different places in the zone. Devotees reaching Haridwar from different points, including border, railway stations and bus stands, are also asked to produce an RT-PCR negative report. The administration has deployed more than 20,000 police and central paramilitary forces in the meal area spread over 600 hectares.
However, the enormous crowds of pilgrims including cannabis-smoking holy men with dreadlocks taking a dip in the river have mostly ignored official advice to maintain distancing. With no masks and social distancing, the pandemic had its full power activated, as a Hindu seer Mahamandaleshwar Kapil Dev Das, 65, head of one of the Hindu akhadas or ascetic councils, was admitted to hospital and died from coronavirus while 80 other holy men also tested positive.
The duration of the Kumbh Mela this year has been shortened to 30 days this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. According to Dr. SK Jha, Chief Medical Officer of Haridwar, so far, 229 sadhus tested positive for the disease.
On the other hand, Swami Avdheshanand Giri of Juna Akhara Swami said as the safety of the people of the country is Akhada`s first priority, and in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Juna Akhada is ending the Kumbh Mela early. “The safety of the people of India is our first priority. In view of the rising outbreak of the Corona epidemic, we have duly immersed all the deities drawn from Kumbh. This is the formal immersion-competition of Kumbh from Juna Akhada,” he tweeted.
Earlier, Niranjani Akhada had decided to opt-out of the Kumbh Mela because of the deteriorating COVID-19 situation in the state. “The main Shahi Snan held on the occasion of Mesh Sankranti on April 14 is over. Many in our Akhada are showing Covid-19 symptoms. So, for us the Kumbh Mela is over,” Niranjani Akhada secretary Ravindra Puri said.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week appealed that the mega Kumbh Mela “should now only be symbolic amid the coronavirus crisis”, stressing that it will give a boost to the fight against the pandemic. In a tweet, the Prime Minister said he spoke to one of the top seers – Swami Avdheshanand Giri of Juna Akhara – over the phone and made an appeal about the religious festival that attracts millions of devotees.
“I appealed that two ‘’shahi snan” (royal baths) have taken place and Kumbh (participation) should now be kept symbolic. This will give a boost to the fight against this crisis,” PM Modi tweeted. Responding to PM Modi’s tweet, Swami Avdheshanand replied, “We respect PM Modi’s appeal. Saving lives is sacred. I request people to not gather for the ritual bath in large numbers and follow all Covid protocols.”
On Wednesday, reports that the akhadas – which wield enormous power and influence – had agreed to call off the Kumbh in the face of mounting health concerns were quickly dismissed. Officials insisted no talks had taken place, and that the Kumbh would continue as scheduled. “The Kumbh Mela used to begin in January, but looking at the Covid situation, the state government decided to start it in April this time. The center’s rules said because of the situation, the duration would be reduced. I have no information of it being curtailed,” said Deepak Rawat, District Magistrate, Haridwar, and Kumbh Mela officer.
Former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav also tested positive for Covid after he attended the festival. And the latest reports revealed that BJP leader and former legislator Thakur Puran Singh died due to the Coronavirus infection in the Jammu division’s Rajouri district on Thursday. Party sources said Mr. Singh, a resident of Kewal, Koteranka, Rajouri, had attended the Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand recently. Also, Composer Shravan Rathod, who had returned from Kumbh Mela a few days before died at the age of 66 on Thursday due to COVID-19.