Millions of Hindus have gathered to bathe together in the Ganges as a deadly second Covid-19 wave continues to sweep India.
On Monday, India recorded over 168,000 new infections, overtaking Brazil to become the country with the second-highest number of cases globally after the US.
The devotees marked a particularly auspicious day for bathing on Monday at the Kumbh Mela religious festival in Haridwar city in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.
Hindus believe the river is holy and bathing in it will cleanse them of their sins and bring salvation.
Officials say they are struggling to impose safety norms due to huge crowds.
The Kumbh Mela takes place every 12 years and the venue is chosen from amongst four cities, including Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain.
Haridwar’s turn to host the gathering came amid a sharp rise in the number of coronavirus infections, with India consistently reporting more than 100,000 cases every day for the past few weeks.
Health experts had appealed for the Kumbh Mela festival to be cancelled, but the government went ahead saying safety rules would be followed.
However, Inspector-General of Police Sanjay Gunjyala told ANI news agency: “We are continuously appealing to people to follow Covid-appropriate behaviour but due to the huge crowd, it is practically not possible to issue fines. A stampede situation could arise if the police tried to enforce social distancing on the river banks.”
This Monday marked the biggest bathing day during the two-month-long festival and officials estimated by noon more than two million devotees had immersed themselves in the river, with many more expected to follow.
The government had earlier said that only people with Covid negative reports would be allowed at the festival and strict measures like social distancing would be followed.
Many people, including top holy men, have already tested positive, giving rise to fears that Monday will have helped the infection spread faster among the devotees and that many of them will take the virus back to their cities and villages all over India, which is being devastated by its second wave.
Experts say the worst is yet to come.
India has administered over 100 million vaccine doses so far but the pace needs to pick up if the country is to stand any chance of halting the spread of the virus, experts say.