Throwing caution to the wind amid rising cases of coronavirus, thousands of seers congregated on Wednesday at Har ki Pairi in Haridwar to take a dip in the Ganga during the third shahi snan of the Kumbh Mela.
The ‘royal bath’ marked Mesh Sankranti and Baisakhi, and fell two days after a similar convergence of ‘sadhus’ and other devotees for the second shahi snan – events where following social-distancing norms appears almost impossible.
By noon, between eight and 10 lakh people took a bath in the river, Uttarakhand DGP Ashok Kumar, who was supervising the arrangements at Haridwar, said.
Sadhus from four of the 13 akhadas were through with the ‘snan’ by this time. The officer said the event was going on without any hindrance.
He said the crowds at the Ganga ghats were much smaller than expected at the third shahi snan – considered the most important in the series – and attributed this to the COVID-19 restrictions in place.
Police personnel were seen distributing masks among people in the Mela area. However, social-distancing norms were violated openly by the seers when they and their followers descended the steps at Har ki Pairi to wade into the river. No masks were worn by a large proportion of them.
The seers from the akhadas took the dip along with their revered deities carried in ornate palanquins at Har Ki Pairi, which was reserved exclusively for them.
Lakhs of common devotees bathed at the other ghats of the river in Haridwar and Rishikesh.
Seers and Naga sanyasis of the Niranjani Akhada led by Acharya Kailashanand Giri were the first to bathe in the river along with Anand Akhada seers. They were followed by the Joona Akhada, which has the highest number of sadhus led by Swami Avadheshanand.
The Mahanirvani Akhada seers came next, as the batches followed one another according to their allotted time slots.
All akhadas have to finish taking a dip at Har Ki Pairi before sunset so time management is very important, Mela IG Sanjay Gunjyal said.
The shahi snans, and the Kumbh Mela, have raised concerns over their role in possibly adding to rising coronavirus cases in the country. Uttarakhand recorded its highest single-day spike in COVID-19 cases on Tuesday with 1,925 people testing positive.
Dehradun with 775 cases and Haridwar with 594 were the biggest contributors to the day’s tally.
On the initial hours of the third shahi snan, the DGP said there was no disorder anywhere. He said this was because of the expansion of infrastructure in Haridwar over the past few months, including the addition of more ghats which has helped in better crowd management.