On April 12, as India registered another 169,000 new COVID-19 cases to overtake Brazil as the second-worst hit country, 3 million people gathered on the shores of the Ganges River.
They were there, in the ancient city of Haridwar in the state of Uttarakhand, to take a ritual dip in the holy river. The bodies, squashed together in a pack of devotion and religious fervor, paid no visible heed to COVID-19 protocols.
This was one of the holiest days of the Kumbh Mela, a festival that has become a highlight of the Hindu religious calendar and is known for drawing millions of pilgrims, seers, priests and tourists.
Illustration: Mountain People
In the weeks beforehand, as a deadly second wave began engulfing India, anxious calls to cancel the festival were rebuffed by the state and central governments, which are ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On March 21, a full-page newspaper advertisement featuring Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited devotees to the festival, assuring them that it was “clean” and “safe.”
However, as festivities got into full swing in March, testing capacity was criticized as inadequate. Masks, although mandatory, were largely absent.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat, who had earlier told devotees that “faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus,” was among the millions pictured taking part in the rituals wearing no face covering.
Police overseeing the event said that if they were to enforce social distancing, “a stampede-like situation may arise.”
By April 15, more than 2,000 festivalgoers had tested positive for COVID-19. Two days later, Modi backtracked and called for the Kumbh Mela to be “symbolic,” but it was too late. By the time the festival ended, on April 28, more than 9 million people had attended.
The true toll of the Kumbh Mela might never be known, due in part to an alleged effort to stop collecting data.
Thousands of pilgrims returned home without having been tested or quarantined, and without any track of them kept by the government.
Some states began a belated effort to trace and quarantine those who had returned. In Madhya Pradesh, 789 pilgrims were traced from eight districts and 118 tested positive.
As media attention focused on COVID-19 cases among the Kumbh returnees, the officials were ordered to stop counting. Four officials in different districts of Madhya Pradesh, as well as officials in Rajasthan, said that their seniors called them away from the count for political reasons.
“We were told to concentrate on the general COVID situation, and not focus on surveys and tracing of Kumbh pilgrims,” said a senior district official in Rajasthan, who requested anonymity, fearing reprisal.
Stories gathered from the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Kashmir and Karnataka indicate that the virus traveled back with countless devotees, and found its way to poor rural communities where access to healthcare and testing was limited or absent, with often devastating consequences.
“Pilgrims from all states carried variant viruses and seeded epidemics,” said T. Jacob John, a former director of virology at the Indian Council of Medical Research.
In the aftermath, the Kumbh Mela was possibly “the biggest superspreader event in the history of the pandemic,” Brown University School of Public Health dean Ashish Jha said.
The government has stood by its decision to hold the festival.
“Ignorance” and “hinduphobic elements” were behind it being labeled a superspreader event, BJP vice president Baijayant Panda said.
Nonetheless, in the week that followed the festival, the host state of Uttarakhand registered a 1,800 percent increase in COVID-19 cases, many of which have been linked in some way to the festival.
The stories of the returnees provide a snapshot of the Kumbh Mela’s aftermath.
KASHMIR: THE POLITICIAN
Thakur Puran Singh, 79, a BJP leader and former minister from Rajouri in Kashmir, refused until his death to believe that he had caught COVID-19 at the Kumbh Mela.
At the crack of dawn on April 9, Singh and his extended family, including his two sons, their wives and three grandchildren, piled into two escorted vehicles and drove 595km to Haridwar. They reached the Kumbh Mela by the afternoon. For the next five days, the family took multiple dips in the Ganges River.
On April 16, the day after returning, Singh began to experience symptoms. He dismissed them at first, but by April 21, his condition had deteriorated. His son, Dinesh Singh Thakur, took him to a local hospital, where doctors suspected COVID-19 due to his damaged lungs.
Thakur wanted a second opinion and embarked on a journey to take his father to another hospital that he believed was better.
“I could not believe the doctors and their COVID theory. I did not even put on a mask while driving my father,” Thakur said.
However, Singh died on the way. Eight days later, his elder brother, whom the family had seen on their return from Kumbh, also died with symptoms suggesting complications caused by COVID-19.
“Even after Singh’s death, the family concealed that they had traveled to Kumbh,” the chief medical officer of the district said.
Another health official confirmed that four members of the family had tested positive.
A test-and-trace official said that more than two dozen people contracted the virus after contact with the family members, who had attended four weddings after Kumbh Mela.
“These are the cases we have been able to track, but it is highly likely that the number is much higher,” the official said, again on condition of anonymity.
Singh’s body was cremated as per COVID-19 protocols, but his family still believes that the virus did not kill him.
“Why did only my father die when we were 11 members there?” Thakur said. “It is not a virus which kills. The death is destined. I have no regrets.”
Gopal Singh’s family and neighbors were thrilled to see him return home from Kumbh Mela. The people of Madhi Chaubisa village, in Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha district, came out to greet him and to receive ashirwad blessings, with the young customarily touching his feet.
The 56-year-old farmer was filled with dread.
Singh had joined about 100 other people from the surrounding villages who boarded two buses and embarked on a holy pilgrimage to Kumbh Mela. While there, he saw people falling sick, and on the way home many of the bus passengers complained of high fever and diarrhea.
They were not stopped anywhere for COVID-19 tests nor for temperature checks, Singh said.
“I have been to Kumbh twice before, but I have never seen anything like this. So many people getting sick,” he said.
Singh insisted on a COVID-19 test on his return, despite a local doctor dismissing his concerns. Four days later, the test came back as he feared: positive. In the meantime, he had mingled with many of the villagers.
Three more Kumbh Mela returnees soon tested positive in his village, then more in the surrounding villages.
“After people came back from Kumbh, cases increased to over 30 in just a few days,” village head Ragu Raj Dangi said. “And many people who had symptoms, and those who came in contact of COVID patients, were not getting tested.”
A few days later, Singh’s neighbor, Mamta Bhai, a mother of two children, developed a fever. For several days she was treated by a local doctor, but when her oxygen levels dipped to critical levels, she was taken to an intensive care unit. She died.
Singh said he is filled with guilt.
“Our stubbornness and superstitious belief has bought us a catastrophe,” he said. “I am feeling very weak, and more than that, I am feeling bad about those people who might have contracted the virus because of people like me.”
THE HOLY MAN
As a high priest in one of India’s largest Hindu monasteries, there was never any question of the 74-year-old Pragyaanant Giri staying away from the Kumbh Mela. Like many at his ashram in the town of Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, he believed the disease to be a conspiracy.
However, after spending a month at the festival, Giri — a former police officer turned priest — developed a sore throat and fever. His fellow holy men recommended that he take some time off, so he went home to the ashram.
As his condition deteriorated, he was taken to a hospital, where he tested positive for the virus. After two weeks in the intensive care unit, Giri died. In defiance of COVID-19 protocols, his body was taken back to the ashram and buried.
People in the ashram described how cases shot up when Giri returned.
“More than a dozen people who came in contact with him developed COVID-19 symptoms, and some had to be hospitalized, but most of them never got tested,” one person said.
Yet even after Giri’s death, the prevalent belief in the ashram was that COVID-19 was not real. Ashram head Swami Harigiri said it was a conspiracy against Hindus to call Kumbh Mela a superspreader event.
“We drink cow urine,” he said. “[COVID-19] will not affect us.”
Giri’s death being attributed to the virus, he said, was “fake news.”
BIHAR: THE PIOUS WOMEN
Before Kumbh Mela, the small village of Brindaban in the eastern Indian state of Bihar had been relatively unscathed by the pandemic. On April 6, a group of five women left for the festival on an 11-day trip. Days after their return, two were dead.
Although the local health department claims that the victims had tested negative for COVID-19 after death, their family members tell a different story.
“She fell sick the day she returned home, and the very next day she died,” said Awadh Kishore Tiwari, a nephew of Bindu Devi, one of the women who died.
Devi, who was 70, had a cough and a fever, Tiwari said. He added that his own mother, who was otherwise housebound, tested positive for the virus after meeting Devi.
Her death triggered a wave of panic. Forty villagers were tested, and the village was sanitized and declared a containment zone.
Local chief medical officer Avinash Kumar said that only one of the pilgrims had tested positive for COVID-19, but conceded that his officials used only rapid antigen tests, which have a high rate of false negatives.
Bindu Devi’s death was followed closely by that of fellow pilgrim Dulari Devi. Relatives said that the 58-year-old developed breathing problems the moment she returned from Kumbh Mela.
Her brother-in-law, Awadhesh Chauhan, said he had advised her not to attend Kumbh Mela because of COVID-19, but the pious woman had laughed it off.
“She told me that nothing will happen to her, you need not worry,” he said.
When a 67-year-old woman from Nandini Layout, a suburb of Bengaluru, tested positive for COVID-19 within a few days after returning from the Kumbh Mela, her family grew frantic.
Living with her in the house was her daughter-in-law, a psychiatrist who worked in a hospital where she saw dozens of patients. Tests soon confirmed she too had COVID-19. Testing teams rushed to the hospital.
“We found 12 patients and three staffers COVID-19 positive,” a physician who headed the team said.
Eighteen other close contacts of the woman were eventually diagnosed with the virus, but officials said its true spread was likely to be even greater.
Everyone traced to the woman has recovered, but the family members said they feel unjustly stigmatized.
“We cannot be blamed for this,” said the psychiatrist, who does not want to be identified. “It is the government that holds responsibility for allowing such a religious gathering.”
Additional reporting by Manoj Chaurasia
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