LONDON — Hindu pilgrims in India have begun gathering along the Ganges River on the first day of Kumbh Mela,despite coronavirus restrictions in what is often described as the largest religious festival in the world.

Images from the northern town of Haridwar which is host to this year’s event taken on Thursday showed thousands gathering to take a dip in the Ganges on the first day of the festival.

Kumbh Mela takes place over a number of weeks and the pilgrims believe that submerging in the river will help absolve them of their sins.

Ordinarily tens of millions of Indians gather over the course of the festival which is famous for the colorful scenes and the presence of the Sadhus, or holy men.

However, India is still very much in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic and the numbers expected to travel from around the country has raised fears of more community spread.

In the early months of the pandemic, part of the spread of the virus around the country was attributed to day-laborers traveling long distances home to adhere to COVID-induced lockdowns.

“The pandemic is a bit of a worry, but we are taking all precautions,” one organizer, who suggested that up to a million people could join at the festival on Thursday, was quoted as saying by Agence-France-Presse. “I’m sure Maa Ganga will take care of their safety.”

This year’s festival will continue until April. The festival itself is celebrated at four different river banks considered to be holy, with this year’s host, Prayagraj, based on the river Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

India has so far had over 10.5 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with 151,727 recorded deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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