Indian festival draws crowds of bathers to rivers

PRAYAGRAJ, INDIA (AP) — Millions of people have joined a 45-day bathing festival in the northern Indian city of Prayagraj, where devotees take a dip at Sangam, the confluence of several rivers. There, they bathe on certain days considered to be auspicious in the belief that they will be cleansed of all sins.

Rows and rows of colourful tents, in which the devotees stay, line the sprawling festival site. Millions travel every year to the event, called Magh Mela, where pilgrims offer prayers and enter the waters where the Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers meet.

This period is called Kalpvas and the devotees who choose to stay for the entire time are known as Kalpvasis. They give up their daily routine and instead camp at the site, living on frugal meals and performing rituals.

Authorities took months to build what looks like a temporary tented city on the river banks. Police patrol the site and floating bridges were built to help people get from one side of the river to the other. Boats ferry pilgrims from the bank of the Yamuna to the Sangam, where they bathe in the water and offer their prayers.

The festival is being held even though COVID-19 cases in some parts of the country are rising after months of steady decline. India has confirmed 11 million cases and over 150,000 deaths.

Health officials have told local media that they have tested tens of thousands of pilgrims for the virus since the festival began on January 14. It is set to end tomorrow.

Devotees take dips at the Sangam during Magh Mela festival in Prayagraj, India. PHOTO: AP