Thousands of Hindu pilgrims have converged on Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) for a festival in the wake of a severe COVID-19 outbreak.
During the Makar Sankranti holiday, devotees believe that bathing in the Ganges will cleanse them of their sins.
Last year, a similar gathering contributed to India’s fatal second wave.
However, the authorities in Uttar Pradesh, where Prayagraj is located, have refused to make the celebration illegal this year.
On Friday, a television video showed throngs of pilgrims praying along the riverbank with little regard to social distance. According to the Hindi news channel, more than 70% of the people were not wearing masks.
In the last few days, a vast tent city has sprouted up on the riverbank to shelter the pilgrims, and authorities say more than 5,000 police officers have been deployed to handle the throng.
During the Magh Mela, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has appealed to people to observe the mandatory COVID norms.
Infections, however, were recorded from the Mela grounds even before the festival began.
Rajeev Narayan Mishra, a senior police official, said that at least 38 police officers on duty had tested positive, raising concerns that the event could become an infection hotspot in the following days.
Millions of pilgrims congregated in the Himalayan town of Haridwar, in the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand, in April last year to take part in the Kumbh Mela celebration, despite serious shortages of oxygen and hospital beds in numerous cities.
The authorities in Uttarakhand have made it illegal for devotees to take a bath in the river during the festival this year.
To combat diseases, state officials have announced several measures, including a night curfew. In light of this scenario, India’s Election Commission has banned physical demonstrations in the state.
Mr Adityanath also asked COVID patients and those who aren’t completely vaccinated to stay away from the event on Thursday.
However, experts are concerned about how many pilgrims could be tested in the coming days, as well as how the directives would be enforced if the numbers swell.