One of the world's largest religious gatherings is moving ahead as planned

The organizers of India’s Magh Mela, which usually draws 10 million Hindus, know how to handle the health of a crowd. Still, this pandemic will test them.

Photograph by Rajesh Kumar Singh, AP
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In 2014, Hindu devotees crowd the confluence of three holy rivers—the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati—to bathe in the waters. Every year, millions of Hindus pilgrims travel to the Indian city of Prayagraj (formerly known as Allahabad) for this religious observance, which is called Magh Mela.

Photograph by Rajesh Kumar Singh, AP

The Magh Mela, the annual Hindu pilgrimage to Prayagraj, India, usually attracts around 10 million people. Officials announced last month that it will go ahead as planned this winter—despite the country’s high number of new COVID-19 cases.

Hindus regard Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) as a place of great cosmic significance. Three holy rivers are said to converge there: the Ganges and the Yamuna, as well as a third, mythical river called the Saraswati. Pilgrims come to bathe in the sacred waters and cleanse themselves of their sins, hoping to achieve moksha—liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Even during the pandemic, many believers will feel drawn to attend.

Governments and religious leaders around the world have struggled over how to handle major faith observances and rituals this year. Christians limited celebrations of Easter and Jews, of the High Holidays. As few as 1,000 Muslims attended the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, rather than the usual two million. (Housebound Italians embrace ‘virtual mass’ to keep the faith.)

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Organizers construct a temporary tent city on the floodplain of the Ganges River each year in preparation for the Magh Mela, including the most recent one in January 2020.

Other religious observances have continued to be mass gatherings in the true sense of the term.That includes the Magal, a large Muslim festival in Touba, Senegal, in October; and now the Magh Mela, which will take place between January and March 2021.

Organizers predict that attendance at this Magh Mela will be comparatively small—perhaps a million people—but some health experts are still concerned. “I think the risks are quite significant,” says Ziad Memish, who directs the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Mass Gathering Medicine in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “Any crowds of more than 50 people at this time is considered risky behaviour.”

With pilgrims from all over India expected in Prayagraj, many worry about the impact the Magh Mela could have on the Indian outbreak. “Any process that increases population crowding and movement increases the risk of transmission of COVID-19 today and in the future,” says disease modeler Moritz Kraemer of the University of Oxford in the UK. Kraemer’s group recently published a paper in Nature Medicine on the effect of crowding on COVID-19 outbreaks.

One potential problem, Kraemer says, is that people returning from a mass gathering to their home communities could carry the disease with them. “I am particularly concerned with the growing number of rural areas experiencing larger epidemics now,” he says. “Those communities may have more limited healthcare capacities and are therefore increasingly vulnerable.”

In preparation for the Magh Mela, a temporary city of tents is built on the Ganges floodplain at Prayagraj, to accommodate pilgrims. Sudhakar Pandey, an orthopedic surgeon and one of the medical officers overseeing health matters for the 2021 event, says the allocated area is big enough to allow for social distancing even if a million people attend. “It is a very open, huge area,” he says. “It can hold ten crore [100 million] of population. It has in the past.”

Every 12 years, when the dates are considered particularly auspicious for bathing, the festival is renamed Kumbh Mela and the attendance swells. The last Kumbh Mela was held in Prayagraj in 2013, and is estimated to have drawn 70 million people. (A transgender community in India celebrates historic inclusion in the Kumbh Mela festival.)

At the 2021 Magh Mela social distancing measures, including mask-wearing, will be strictly enforced by police, Pandey says. The site will be equipped with its own temporary hospitals as it is every year: 20 small ones and one large one with emergency facilities. But they’ll have no more medical staff than usual, and perhaps fewer, because medical personnel are in high demand elsewhere. Construction on the site will get underway in December.

Some Indian health experts have expressed skepticism about the decision to proceed with the gathering. “Political pragmatism to utilize religious fervor coupled with underlying commercial benefits override any [health] concerns,” says M.P. Cariappa, a public health expert in Pune, Maharashtra state. But he acknowledges the organizers may be practicing a form of realpolitik. People will likely go anyway, he says, so those in charge may have decided the best course of action is to work to minimize the mela’s impact on the epidemic—a policy of going “with the flow” that he says is standard practice in India.

Mela organizers are used to managing health problems, and they are generally regarded as doing so effectively—as demonstrated by the fact that those charged with designing refugee and temporary camps of all kinds, in other parts of the world, regularly seek their advice. The Magh Mela takes place in winter, when the weather is cold, and involves pilgrims—many of whom are elderly—living for weeks in unheated tents, eating frugally, and bathing twice a day in the polluted waters of the Ganges.

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A sadhu, or holy man, offers a prayer at the confluence of the holy rivers during the 2018 Magh Mela.

Historian D.P. Dubey, of the University of Allahabad, also believes that pilgrims are likely to head for Prayagraj for the coming Magh Mela, epidemic or no. “Here fate is more important than health,” he says. History backs him up. The Kumbh Mela of 1918 took place during the worst pandemic in modern history—the so-called “Spanish” flu—and the British colonial government tried to discourage pilgrims from attending by cancelling passenger trains. Even then, Dubey says, the gathering “was attended by three million [devotees] who covered the distance on foot and in bullock carts.”

Shaunaka Rishi Das, director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies in the UK, says that it’s not unexpected for Hindus to die on pilgrimage; some even sign death certificates before they leave so as to ease the administrative burden on their families if they don’t return. “To die on pilgrimage is a reward in itself,” Das says. “Not that that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Besides, he adds, it’s always been risky to go on pilgrimage in India—“there’s disease, there’s mosquitoes, there’s snakes, there’s scorpions”—and the current epidemic is just one more test of a pilgrim’s faith.

Science journalist Laura Spinney is the author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu and How It Changed the World. She last wrote for National Geographic about the dynamics of the crowd at the Kumbh Mela.