The Gangasagar Mela, a nine-day festival that runs from Jan. 8 to 16, traditionally draws millions to the river’s banks. Pilgrims believe its waters will wash away their sins and those of their ancestors. A record 3.5 million people bathed at the site in 2019.
Tens of thousands had already arrived at the site in the lead-up to the festival, despite weeks of appeals from medical experts to cancel it and warnings that it would worsen the country’s Covid infection rate, driven by outbreaks of both the delta and omicron variants.
“There are safe ways to have masked gatherings outside but a mela of this magnitude with everyone taking a holy dip is not feasible to conduct in a safe manner,” Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, told NBC News in an email Wednesday.
In a decision on Jan. 7, the Kolkata High Court said the event could go ahead. But it has imposed conditions on attendees, allowing entry only to people with a valid vaccination certificate and a negative test within 72 hours of arrival.
Devotees nonetheless threw themselves into the waters of the Ganges to mark Makar Sankranti, an important day in the Hindu calendar.
“In general the principle is that you should avoid going to crowded places,” said Dr. Vikas Bhatia, executive director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Bibinagar, India. “Yet there are so many festivals in India and people have a lot of desire to participate.”
The West Bengal Doctors Forum — a group that advocates for the protection of rights of doctors and patients — said in an emailed statement Wednesday that it feared the festival would put further strain on the country’s health care system.