As I left my hotel to cover the Kumbh Mela at daybreak, roads had been blocked to traffic to clear the routes. Thousands of devotees could be seen heading to the ghats.
When I reached “Har ki Pauri”, the most popular ghat, the sight was unbelievable.
It was hard to tell this is a country with the second highest number of Covid cases and with a record surge in daily cases each day.
Social distancing seemed like a distant concept as approximately one lakh people waited to take a dip in the Holy Ganga before the ghats were cleared to make way for the Sadhus and their akhadas.
Tens of thousands of devotees have gathered for the holy dip on Somwati Amavasya, the most auspicious day of the Kumbh Mela.
The Kumbh Mela takes place every 12 years in Uttarkhand’s Haridwar. This time, it is taking place alongside a raging pandemic but it would be hard to tell from the crowds.
IAS officer Deepak Rawat, who is in charge of the annual event, claimed that by 4 am, more than 6 lakh devotees had already taken a dip in the river and a similar number would do so later in the day.
Mr Rawat has been visiting the Ghats and meeting sadhus to ensure smooth operations and Covid-appropriate behaviour as much as possible.
He admitted that distancing was a huge challenge when the priority was to avoid any stampede-like situation, which is not uncommon in such religious gatherings.
Through the day, Sadhus kept pouring into the Ghats with no concern whatsoever for virus safety rules. Just a day ago, the head priest, Mahant Narendra Giri of the Akhada Parishad, tested positive.
The crowds are good for business in normal times. But even local people are worried as they watch the steep rise in Covid cases in Hardwar in the past few days.
The Uttarakhand police chief, who was present to oversee Kumbh preps during the Shahi Snan (big dip), ruled out fining people on a day when lakhs are gathering in a small city. It was a sensitive situation, he said, and had to be dealt with carefully.
What we don’t see in TV visuals are the equally frightening sights of crowds buzzing at the markets, hotels or local restaurants.
(Akshay Kumar Dongare is a Reporter at NDTV)
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