File photo of Kumbh Mela at Haridwar in 2010 | Commons
File photo of Kumbh Mela at Haridwar in 2010 | Commons
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Massive crowds are expected to gather at India’s northern city of Haridwar throughout April 2021 for the religious festival of Kumbh Mela, despite the country’s grappling with a COVID-19 surge.

The Kumbh Mela is a Hindu pilgrimage held every 12 years at sacred tirthas, or river-ford sites, along the Ganges River in India.

This year the government expects over a million pilgrims a day to bathe in the sacred river. Over 5 million people are expected per day on the most auspicious days – April 12, 14 and 21 – for a total of a 100 million celebrants.

As a scholar of Hinduism, I celebrate this peaceful mammoth congregation of humanity. Shaped by mythology, astrology and society over the long course of history, this festival is the largest religious gathering of its kind in the world.

Rooted in Hinduism’s ancient theological texts, the bathing ritual has survived wars, revolution and famine – but its biggest threat has been epidemic diseases. Authorities from the colonial British government of the 19th century to the Indian government today have had to contend with the challenge of managing the spread of contagion during this huge gathering of people.

Festival of immortality

The festival celebrates the Hindu myth of Samudra manthan – the churning of the cosmological ocean by the gods and demons to get the nectar of immortality, known as amrita.

In the fight that ensued for the amrita, several drops of the elixir fell to Earth, sanctifying the waters where they landed. The word Kumbh refers not only to the pot of nectar spilled on its way to the heavens, but also to the astrological sign of Aquarius, the water carrier, the time when the Kumbh Mela takes place. Hindus believe that bathing in the sacred Ganges on the auspicious days of the festival leads to salvation from the endless cycle of reincarnation.

The traditional start date of the Kumbh, Makara Sankranti, or the winter solstice, is in January. However, this year the festival was delayed by the Indian government because of fears of the spread of COVID-19.

Colonial Kumbh

The festival is mentioned in British colonial records. In 1812 the archives of the British East India Co., a joint stock company that had been formed in 1600 to engage in trade with India, mention a “great” congregation of people at the “melah” that had not occurred in 28 years. Historians of religion have noted that the British conflated another ancient fair, which went by the name Magha Mela, with the Kumbh Mela.

At the time, the East India Co. imposed a “pilgrim tax” on participants, even though it did not provide infrastructure or amenities.

The East India Co. ruled India for the British Crown from 1757, and the company-crown alliance lasted a century until the Indian rebellion of 1857. During that time the British administration, in collaboration with the local police and heads of pilgrim organizations, made attempts to improve the infrastructure of the Kumbh Mela, including laying new railway lines, widening the access roads and building bigger bathing platforms, or ghats. They hoped to increase access, prevent pilgrim stampedes near the waters edge and garner better revenue.

Inadvertently, the British helped legitimize and popularize the Kumbh Mela as the supreme sacred festival. At the same time, they believed the Kumbh was a political gathering where revolutionary and nationalistic ideas took birth.

Politics of Kumbh

Until 1801, before the colonial rule in the state, the Kumbh Mela was controlled and managed by sects, or “akharas,” of militant ascetics who fought for the privilege of bathing first, as going first conferred power and status. These were often violent battles of alarming scale in which thousands died.

But the akharas skillfully managed the logistical challenge of the massive pilgrimage and festival. They organized hostels and food, provided policing, and oversaw the arbitrating of disputes over congregant living facilities. They also instituted and collected pilgrim taxes. The ascetics of the akharas engaged in religious discourses and philosophical lectures. Their presence was an attraction for ordinary pilgrims who sought their audience and blessings.

But by 1858 the British Crown controlled all of India and attempted to take over the logistics and rules for the Kumbh Mela, particularly for pilgrims’ movement at the site, to avoid stampedes and upgrade the sanitary conditions. At the time legal agreements over the bathing order ensured an end to the violence between the akharas.

The British allowed and instituted an order for the ascetics of 14 akharas to bathe on the three auspicious bathing days of the mela. Following Indian independence, subsequent Indian governments have also tried to control the crowds and organize the akharas’ bathing schedule.

Fear of contagion

The first British reference that specifically mentioned the Kumbh Mela was made in an 1868 report that stated the need for increased and tighter sanitation controls at the “Coomb fair” to be held in January 1870. Recognizing the threat of rapid spread of contagion among the crowds, the British government attempted to sanitize and control the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at the Kumbh.

In 1870 the Pioneer newspaper, the voice of the British in the northern city of Allahabad, said that the control of crowding was seen as a “well-directed activity towards averting, or at any rate mitigating, the ravages of disease” among pilgrims. The spread of disease was viewed as a threat to the possible collection of taxes and governance.

Between 1892 and 1908, when major famines, cholera and plague epidemics struck in British India, the colonial government controlled entry to the Kumbh, citing hygiene concerns. Pilgrims dropped to a low of around 300,000 as reported by the Imperial Gazetteer. In 1941, the British government banned sale of tickets amid rumors that Japan, in advance to entering World War II, was to bomb Allahabad where the Kumbh was slated to take place.

Rising religiosity

In the past century the Kumbh has become so popular that “half” versions – Ardh Kumbh – are held every six years.

The dramatic arrival of the akharas – that includes 14 sects of Hindu and Sikh ascetics as well as warrior monks often illustrated with exoticized photographs – has become the signature visual of the Kumbh.

These tens of thousands of ascetics, some dressed in saffron robes, some nude and covered in ash, with wild dreadlocks, come riding on horseback, or in golden seats on elephants. The processions are accompanied by loud drumming, conch blowing and the sound of gongs as they enter the sacred water, in wave upon wave of humanity.

COVID controls

This year’s event takes place amid fears that a massive gathering like this could turn out to be a COVID-19 superspreader event. According to Johns Hopkins University, by April 1, 2021, the start of the Kumbh Mela, India had reported 12 million cases and 162,900 deaths.

The Indian government has issued several directives to control the spread of the disease: Thermal screening checkpoints have been set up, and efforts are being made to sanitize all restrooms and sleeping quarters. Strict protocols for participation in the Kumbh have been issued, including a limited time period of half an hour for each akhara to bathe. Furthermore, the government has stated that after April 1 all visitors to the Kumbh have to produce evidence of a recent negative COVID-19 test.

However, even before the Kumbh began, the city and neighboring areas had already emerged as COVID-19 hot spots. As the festival began, seven living Hindu saints in the city of Haridwar tested positive, and 300 pilgrims were found positive during the first few days of the festival.

Images emerging from Haridwar of millions of the faithful, praying, eating and bathing, often maskless and in close proximity with one another, are raising fears about how the desire for the divine nectar of immortality might turn out in a pandemic year.

Tulasi Srinivas, Professor of Anthropology, Religion and Transnational Studies, Emerson College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Also read: High-level central team to review medical care arrangements at Kumbh Mela in Haridwar


 

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91 COMMENTS

  1. THE REPORTER IS FROM THE USA. MAY BE PILED.HIGH.DEEP! It is a crying shame that she being a Hindu us inciting a divisive rhetoric. PEOPLE NEED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEIR ACTIONS. IF GOV PUTS LIMITS YOU CRY OPPRESSION. IF THEY RELAX IT, YOU SAY ITS INDIFFERENCE. India needs a autocrat. Like China.

  2. #Sabmarenge
    #padhelikhegawarokisena
    #andbhakt

    Instead of paying pass the blame game, during pandemic, the central govt should have looked to ramp up the infra for medical shortcomings, be it vaccines, medicines, oxygen, beds, doctors and nurses, giving basic medical training to civilians.

    But what happening, elections, rally, scores of people thronging without mask, religious gatherings.
    Just think for a minute, would the same god u love would ask you to kill one another than only I will give you moksh, paradise,eternity.
    This is blatant killing of humanity, where BJP (NDA) is washing hands of blood in the name of vote bank politics to stay in power.
    If u don’t agree u r within ur rights, unfortunately I would say you are sleeping, u will awake one day,when someone from ur own family get killed by this power hunger people, be it BJP, CONGRESS, LEFT,RIGHT.
    THIS ARE SOME CONS OF DEMOCRACY WHICH ARE VISIBLE WHEN A DICTATORSHIP IS ELECTED THROUGH VOTING.

  3. Ham log to gaye 12 ke bhav me. Gehu ke saath ghun bhi pista hai. uneducated people ki wajah se ham log bhi marenge

  4. “These were often violent battles of alarming scale in which thousands died.” – Cite your source please?

  5. These idiot writers have learnt only in librandus education system. Never spent 1 minute to understand the v edic system.

  6. Who the hell are you call Hinduism and all the history as Myth, we have proof for everything with scientific evidence but you all morons are just doing Hindufobic propaganda, have you dare to post against the Tabligi jamaat and the Christian New year celebrations and Christmas celebrations… stop this nonsense

    • No hyperness pls. Just think, when it was necessary other religions gathering were also questioned. Pls don’t forget strictness on Tabliki jamat last year.
      Do U want same disrespect for our relegion on media.
      Pls refer last year media coverage on gathering and spread of pandemic by Tabliki jamat

      I respect my religion, but its pendamic. Lets together save lives

      However any function can be done in a very restrictive and managed way.

      Regards
      Vaibhav

  7. Totally hypocritic and insensitive decision wrt peoples welfare. All these people will further spread the disease to many more. Covid 19 curbs etc are just on paper and a facade. we all know how much we are actually practicing social distancing norms in even normal markets and temples so. Even masks are just a precaution and does not guarantee safety. Lord saves our family members.

  8. How idiot man could be. If Govt.
    allows will you guys swallow poison will you do it.
    Then let it be. No comment no discussion
    can help those who are adament to worsen the situation. Lord helps those who help themselves according to Krishna.

  9. The British Government has no right to speak about what we in India do in India. Let them first take care of their own problems before pointing fingers at us.
    In the same breath let me also say that it is a big blunder that the Govt of India is doing by letting the Kumbh Mela happen during the Pandemic. Unless they have any other intentions.

  10. They were masks provided & social distancing when praying. Your leaders can twist your minds to suit their agenda

  11. Strange are the ways of Nature. Malthusian theory oy population is relevant. So is the belief that God lessens the weight of Bhoodevi on her request. Equally possible is the belief that planets know how to handle such events very positively

  12. Chinese covid 19 virus who originated in china is now a threat to world. don’t link some one’s rekigion and spiritual belives with chinese covid virus.

    • Where were you people when Tablighi jamaat people where called the covid spreader and terrorists. Now everything is fine and absolutely correct. Grow up …. Andh bhakts

  13. Modi, Amit Shah duo are not worried about lives and livelihood of people of India they are engaged in cleansing India of all other communities and that too the upper class and caste of Hindus to make it a Hindu Rashtra. Bengal rallies whre Modi has become a daily passenger from Delhi to Kolkata who comes to campaign for his party and not to call for campaigning for his party but to malign, mock and abuse mamata who is the only persons who stands before Modi. Modi and Amit Shah are the ones who are entrusted with the responsibilities to fight covid but they are behaving so irresponsibly that their activities are helping spread of Covid. Modi has been exporting vaccine to various countries facilitating manufacturing companies to make money while in India allowing Remdesvier like injection to be sold in Rs. 8000 which actually costs Rs. 1200. And now Modi has called for -” Tikakaran UTSAV’ Modi is a man who bother least for people and that has been evident in 7 years as his being PM.

    • Congo’s are worried that sucessful completion of Kumbh will be another feather in BJP govt at Center and UP State.

    • Congis are worried that sucessful completion of Kumbh will be another feather in BJP govt at Center and UP State. This religious congregation has been from ages immemorial and hopefully will continue time eternity.. Ganges is now cleaner, thanks to Modi Govt. And will hopefully get back its pristine glory soon ..

  14. On the name Hindutva, it’s one of the biggest shame to mankind and our understanding of Hinduism. Unfortunately, it’s supported by BJP govt, inspite of we are creating every new record in covid19 pandemic. Really not able to understand, what is important and priority in this crucial time our country…..Yes Personally feel ashamed now, being an Indian..

  15. Corona’s second wave more dangerous than the first and such mass gathering being allowed to happen…..so unfair. 😡😡😡😡

  16. All religious institutions/ social events to be closed for all. If it doesn’t happen many will get contracted with Virus. Secondly all political meetings and gatherings has to be stopped. Lastly strict measures to be taken to implement covid guidelines. Our country will be ruined if proper action is taken now.

  17. Very sad.
    On one hand there is talk of social distancing and wearing of masks and vaccination. On other hand massive crowds at election rallies and Kumbh mela.
    Sadly no media channel is covering this or”Asking Questions”.

  18. It was the 2020 Tabloighi Jamaat… Now the great Kumbh! Godbless India. Who is the greatest spreader now? Time will tell.

  19. How dare UK can ask questions from India?

    UK Lutera mulk hai….this country does not have any right to ask any questions from any country specially to those, where they ruled.
    Its time to ask UK to return all money, gold and valuables they have taken from India , including kohinoor diamond.

  20. WTF. why we are suffering from lockdowns in Mumbai. Thakrey should consult Haridwar municipal how they control covid. When religious places like church for mass and mosque for congregation are banned how the hell is kumbh allowed. Looks like who abide by government instructions are fools and cowards. Hypocrisy at its peak, when corrupt people are elected this is suppose to happen.

  21. If you are really a “scholar of hinduism” you shouldn’t be calling this a myth. Pls stop looking at India and Hinduism through the jaundiced eyes of the west

  22. British think they are still ruling India, and it is better they look after their country rather than poking their nose in other’s affairs.

  23. 20 people for funerals, 50 for weddings, no social and religious gathering but kumb mela exception. Only for popularity and votes.

    • There are no such crowds in kumbh mela this time..only few lakh sadhus but not general public they are bathing separately and normal public after it..so covid norms are followed.. The print paper is run by those people who don’t want peace in our country and a anti social news paper who must be kicked out of society like a disease..

  24. If ruling party interferes with kumbh mela sure will loose millions of votes. I think. They wouldn’t dare.

  25. Its non of your business Britain. We are not under your rule. All are suffering, whole world is on new corona variants. Bo one can blame governments. Just do our part well. All are complaining govt on what basis?

  26. Humara bharat hai mahaan. Kumbh mela n many things are under blind fold. Our politicians of state n central govt does wat they like. Let ppl ho to bhaad mein. Kumbh mela, stars shooting, ipl, election in kolkatta is in full swing. Who will bell the cat n ask such authorities

  27. Bahut bdiya, British government ne BHARAT koa sudhara, kumbh mele ke kiye infrastructure ban vaya, achcha thode or bakvsh kr lete 😤

  28. Why everything about Hinduism hindu gods is mythology but not others why such taunt its shame educated journalists interleectuls extra feel its shame to accept hinduism hindu gods hindu customs rituals but no journalists will say same about others

  29. ऐसे मेले और उत्सव होने चाहिए। देश की जनसंख्या बहुत बढ़ गई है। इस हालत में अगर कुछ लोग ऊपर चले भी जाते है तो देश का उद्धार ही होगा। समय ऐसा आ गया है कि किसी को ज्ञान बांटना, अपने पैर पर कुल्हाड़ी मारने के बराबर है। इसलिए जिसे जितनी प्रार्थना करनी है करे और ऊपर जाएं।

  30. The jihadi hindus are supporting this gathering with a shamelessness that is only unique to them. Hypocrisy thy good name is religion

  31. India can’t escape the pandemic of superstitions brought into the society by Aryans 3000 years back

    • You moron, u have been taught this Aryan history by u e partyy leader to feed their political need. Move on n talk in present.

  32. It is a national shame , the covid is spreading rapidly in the second wave . Modi is a hypocrite., he is only concerned about his PM seat, not the welfare of the people.

    • J: What makes you think that one needs your permission to write about India ? Any Tom, Dick and Hariharan can write about anything under the sun, including your Vishwaguru.

  33. It’s nothing but shocking to allow so many millions to congregate.

    Hope better sense prevails and people are stopped from coming to the mela. Maybe it’s just too little too late

  34. It is a national shame , the covid is spreading rapidly in the second wave . Modi is a hypocrite., he is only concerned is about his PM seat, not the welfare of the people.

    • How its a national shame for government. Its you and us doing shame. Do your part and not to blame others.

    • Hello Mr. Uday,
      Kumbh Mela is a mystical event happens once in 12 years. Naga Sadhus are coming to bathe from Himalayas in Sookshma Sariraram. They are representatives of Lord Siva. Are you educated. Do you know anything about Hindu Religion. Do you know Vedas, Bloody Britishers have looted Vedas and became so rich nation. Their Scientists have said that, Nasa is flabbergasted with OM sound coming from Sun. What Covid 19. Were you able to liquor shops, were you able to close down Bars. No right, Then how the hell you are saying to stop mystical event. You are agnyani, your life is waste. I am telling you After death you will go to Hell. This is my Shapam. I am Siva Bhakta, Brahmin. You will become Sarva Nasanam. Listening to British loafers.

  35. It’s nothing but shocking to allow so many millions to congregate. In the first wave there was so much hue and cry over the congregation of another community who were called super spreaders. Kumbh Mela in the midst of the second wave is suicidal.

    Hope better sense prevails and people are stopped from coming to the mela. Maybe it’s just too little too late

  36. Now government will be ok this….he creates problems when other religions want to worship… Saying they are spreading COVID…… politics will never change…they want votes from all but preverance given to Hindu religion to cross their limits….

    • It’s not fair on your part to bring in politics here. You could have certainly argued on the ground of safety and health issue but you chose not to.
      Why always find fault with Hindu religion. Some respect for the faith of your ancestors.

  37. Ha ha ! You are an apologiser of your colonial masters.
    Brits only new how to organise ,for millennia’s when the festival happened none of the Brit were there.
    If you take their word for record , definitely your brains are highjacked to gmt…

  38. Shut up Tulasi Srinivas and British Govt. No business to comment on Bharath’s internal matters. Do our govt talk about your Northern Ireland affairs????

    • Just like others it’s hindu mentality…….read carefully uneducated…..it’s mentioned how the festival takes place in British colonial era….there is no statement by British government….looks like u people get too much cow dung in ur Brain’s……last year u called it’s muslim virus….not Hindu virus…..ur hindu Karma is hitting u back to blame muslims last time…..shame on Hindus and gov…..they can do lockdown but can’t stop millions gathering…it’s only shows how cheap u people r

  39. Aren’t we the same people who raised eye brows regarding Tablighi Jamaat? How are we any different from them then? How is this mass congregation going to be any life saver?

  40. Social distancing, wearing Masks etc are only for others, Not for Large Gatherings, Political Rallies etc.

  41. In situation of severe rise in covid epidemic, Powerful politicians in current governance should have banned gatherings of people on the banks of Ganga river. And should have spent funds well in advance that made arrangements by supplying ganges river water in the every water taps at homes & public places so that people could be advised to take bath there only as a sacred bath for kumbh auspicious days.

  42. As long as there are Andh bhakts, the great nation India will be fooled by communal, racist, casteist leaders projecting self as messiah.

  43. Sure, all these shenanigans won’t be raised when Tablighis gather and hide in different parts of the country, worsening our situation. You wouldn’t say all this when mullahs would roam on the streets without masks, endangering our lives. And Johns Hopkins should rather look into the bullshit going on in the US, instead of writing reports on us, their people are retarded enough to hold anti-isolation rallies. I’m literally sick of The Print, don’t know why the hell does it keep coming in my feed.

  44. Print does a great job of sho++wing the ne+++gative picture as always , why don’t you go and cover in the peaceful localities. British has no business interfering India.

  45. How come government has given permission to gather 50,00,000 people at single place and how they won’t spread Corona while chances are much in water as it flows to other areas of 2-3 states. Night curfew in UP and Delhi while in kumbh 50 Lacs are allowed. Why government is giving preference to religion over other people health. Why is not Godi Media these as Corona terrorists?

    • This government is playing appeasement politics of its core Hindu voter base. Their double standards are quite evident as they used to blame the opposition for minority appeasement but are themselves doing the same.

  46. Tulasi Srinivas didn’t you know , Eleventh Messiah lords over all the faithful . Seems you are no Follower of Eleventh Messiah , you are from the land of Plundering Rulers .

  47. Modi cares about himself his power,his vengeance,,he has no time for citizens or the nation. Where is his self distancing that he preaches. Where are the vaccines. There is absolute shortages. And he talks of Tika lagoo. Kahan lagao feku

    • Russel before criticizing modi or anyone
      You should compare with the better or best or keep shut, people like you have landed India into current economic backwardness by supporting the corrupt & corruption may you could fill your coffers.

      • Kriti kumar ..wat corruption and culprits you are talking about … those culprits are Home ministers and CMs now…. and th big corrupter of our karnataka cm was in corruption chArges and was spent in jail as we… now th same culprit of CM yedyrurappa is again ruling as CM of karnataka….

  48. party stalwarts R free to conduct festival/congratulations as they desire. NOTHING STOPS NOT EVEN CORONA

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