Thousands of pilgrims from all across the state of West Bengal gather at the Gangasagar Mela, which usually starts from January 8 and continue till January 16. It is an annual religious ceremony held during the Makar Sankranti Festival at the Sagar Island of West Bengal. People come to take a dip in the holy river Ganga and offer their prayers.
The Sagar Island, which is touted to be one of the holiest and sacred places of Hinduism, receives millions of pilgrims each year. People come by buses, trains, trek to reach the spot and bathe, visit many old temples in the region and offer their prayers.
What is the significance of the festival?
Makar Sankranti or Maghi is an auspicious festival in the Hindu calendar, according to which devotees pay their offerings and worship the sun deity Surya. The festival’s day marks the end of the month with the winter solstice.
The Gangasagar Mela is reminiscent of the Kumbh Mela festival that takes place in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar in a 12-year cycle. Last year, the second wave of Covid-19 preceded the Kumbh Mela, wherein millions of pilgrims gathered at the holy site. The pilgrimage witnessed masses of people walking towards the bank of the river without masks and complete disregard for social distancing.
After the festival, there was a significant increase in Covid positive cases for weeks as soon as people returned to distant towns and villages.
Keeping the past incidents of mass transmissions in mind and the present surge in the coronavirus cases in West Bengal, the government took appropriate measures. Given the fact that on Monday, Bengal reported 19,286 fresh Covid-19 cases raising the tally to 17,74,332, the positivity rate of the state stands at 37.32 per cent.
Taking cognisance of the concerning number of Covid cases, the Calcutta High Court had imposed several conditions. A few important ones include that the pilgrims who wish to attend the 9-day long Ganga Sagar Mela need to be fully vaccinated. Therefore it became mandatory for people to carry the Covid-19 vaccination certificate for entry. Apart from that, people who had negative RT-PCR reports with 72 hours were also permitted to attend the religious event.
Furthermore, the High Court had also appointed a committee for monitoring the adherence to Covid-19 protocols during the event.
But perhaps what can be considered as the highlight of this year’s Ganga Sagar Mela is that water was sprayed on devotees from drones while they offered their prayers. The state government organised this as a measure to curb any potential transmission as mass bathing in the river can increase the risk of infections.
The Calcutta High Court had asked the administration to facilitate e-bathing this year; hence arrangements were made to execute the order. E-kits had been made and sent to devotees by post.
Despite the surge in cases in the state, hundreds of thousands of people arrived at Sagar Island, where Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal. At the same time, officials and administrative personnel ensured that proper protocols were maintained to prevent overcrowding.