Coronavirus fails to deter India’s massive Ganges pilgrimage

Coronavirus fails to deter India’s massive Ganges pilgrimage
A Hindu holyman reads at a ghat of the River Ganges ahead of their religious Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar on January 13, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 14 January 2021

Coronavirus fails to deter India’s massive Ganges pilgrimage

Coronavirus fails to deter India’s massive Ganges pilgrimage
  • Up to one million people were expected in the city of Haridwar for the first day of the pilgrimage
  • Taking a dip in the Ganges is considered a sacred rite by Hindus, who come from across India and beyond its borders to participate

HARIDWAR: Hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims descended on the banks of the Ganges river Thursday trusting in faith rather than masks to shield them against the coronavirus pandemic during the giant Kumbh Mela festival.
Up to one million people were expected in the city of Haridwar for the first day of the pilgrimage, even though India has the world’s second highest number of cases, more than 10 million, and has recorded more than 150,000 deaths.
Most of the hordes, aged between three and over 80, who walked into the revered but freezing river in the morning mist did not have masks and social distancing was an organizational nightmare.
Senior police official Senthil Avoodai K. Raj, who predicted between 500,000 and one million people would enter the city on the day, said that thousands of thousands of security forces in the crowds were trying to tell people to wear masks. He added that fines could be imposed for breaching Covid-19 regulations.
“The pandemic is a bit of a worry, but we are taking all precautions,” said organizer Siddharth Chakrapani.
“I’m sure Maa Ganga will take care of their safety,” he added, referring to the Hindu goddess of forgiveness and purification.
According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons fought a war over a sacred pitcher containing the nectar of immortality. Drops fell at four different locations, which now alternate as hosts for the immense gatherings.
Kumbh Mela is recognized as a cultural heritage by UNESCO, and its last edition — in Allahabad in 2019 — attracted around 55 million people over 48 days.
This year Haridwar is the host, and several million people are expected to throng the holy city in the northern state of Uttarakhand state over seven weeks.

Taking a dip in the Ganges is considered a sacred rite by Hindus, who come from across India and beyond its borders to participate.
“Its tradition. People eagerly wait for the Kumbh, waiting to take a bath. Yes, there is a pandemic but people will come because of tradition. People are coming from very far away,” said 53-year-old Inderaj Singh.
Uma Rani’s job of putting colored ‘tilak’ marks on the foreheads of pilgrims took a huge hit during the pandemic as visitor numbers to Haridwar collapsed. The 42-year-old hoped the Kumbh Mela would bring new business.
“I only work for two hours in the evening and earn around two hundred rupees ($2.50). The tourists make this town — without them there’s nothing. I feed my children with whatever Ganga maa gives me,” she said.
Holy men known as sadhus — boasting flamboyant dreadlocks and smoking cannabis — are a regular feature at the Kumbh Mela, camping by the river and offering blessings to those who come for the holy immersion.
The river banks teemed with pilgrims and vendors while families laid out plastic sheets to put their belongings on while they took turns to plunge in the river.
Most were oblivious to the threat of coronavirus.
“India is not like Europe... when it comes to immunity we are better,” said 50-year-old Sanjay Sharma.
“It’s really sad to see people not gathering at Kumbh in the same numbers as they would earlier — just because of a sneeze or a cough.
“The greatest truth on earth is death. What’s the point of living with fear?“
Other religious festivals are also being celebrated across India, including the Gangasagar Hindu gathering near Kolkata where officials expect around 15,000 people.
Madurai in the southern state of Tamil Nadu is due to host a bull-chasing carnival known as Jallikattu, where revellers grab hold of the beasts’ horns as they run through crowds of people.
While India’s new coronavirus cases and deaths have fallen dramatically in recent weeks, experts warn a new wave of coronavirus could hit the world’s second most populous country.


Afghan refugee helping war widows escape poverty cycle

Afghan refugee helping war widows escape poverty cycle
Updated 16 January 2021

Afghan refugee helping war widows escape poverty cycle

Afghan refugee helping war widows escape poverty cycle

KABUL: When Hanan Habibzai became a refugee in 2008, he left Afghanistan with a sense of responsibility toward all those left behind, especially widows and orphaned children.
As he made the UK his new home and managed to establish himself, Habibzai founded Helping Orphans in 2016, a charity that gives vocational training and literacy courses to women and children.
Helping Orphans estimates that there are as many as 3.5 million widows and 2.6 million orphans in Afghanistan today. Often uneducated, the women face few options if their husbands die, while children end up working out of necessity and never receive an education.
“What will happen to these children when they grow up? Their parents are taken away and they are left alone in poverty and hardship, and they have never been in school,” Habibzai told Arab News.
“What can we expect from these children when they grow and take control of their communities except problems? So, I established this charity to help vulnerable children and orphans join school. These are the exact reasons as to why I established Helping Orphans.”
As his family was displaced by the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s, Habibzai knows from his own experience what hunger and poverty mean. The situation in the country has become even worse now, he said, after the US-led invasion to oust the Taliban in 2001.
Before he left Afghanistan, Habibzai worked as a journalist, traveling across the country’s provinces, witnessing hopelessness and despair.
“Within the Afghan poverty-stricken and war-torn nation, I see displaced families, a refugee going through many difficulties, a 10-year-old orphan becoming responsible for feeding his family, or a woman who has lost her husband and now has to look after her children while she has nothing,” he said.

FASTFACT

Helping Orphans estimates that there are as many as 3.5 million widows and 2.6 million orphans in Afghanistan today. Often uneducated, the women face few options if their husbands die, while children end up working out of necessity and never receive an education.

“Today I live in the UK. I have everything here. My family and I have three full meals a day. But back in Afghanistan, there are many people who do not even have a single meal a day and are facing severe poverty and hardship.”
The latest survey by the UN indicates that 18 million people in Afghanistan — half of the country’s population — are in need of emergency aid.
In the beginning, through donations from individuals, Helping Orphans provided direct relief in the form of food and cash, but in June last year Habibzai realized that more sustainable efforts were needed.
In Kabul, the charity now enrolls children in school while their mothers take part in three-month courses to become tailors, allowing them to be self-reliant. About 20 women have completed the first training courses. One of them is Shamila, who lost her husband, a commando soldier, and was left alone with a young son about two years ago.
“The world had come to an end for me with the death of his father when my child wept,” she told Arab News.
“I joined the workshop of the charity, learned tailoring and it has been a big change both mentally and financially,” she added. “I am a tailor at home now. I earn money this way and have been able to stand on my feet.”
The charity is now planning to open more courses and teach other professions, like hairdressing, to help women provide for themselves.
“We want the aid to have a long-term impact on the lives of people, so beneficiaries can learn a profession,” said Helping Orphans Director Abdul Fatah Tayeb.
“We want them to learn how to fish rather than giving them a fish. The fundamental goal is to make people self-sufficient.”