Hundreds of thousands of devout Indians are set to bathe in the Ganges river on Wednesday, the third key day of a Hindu festival, even as peaks in daily coronavirus infections prompt government critics to demand the cancellation of huge events.
Since April 2, India has reported the world's highest daily tallies of infections, reaching more than 100,000 in the last week, or many multiples of its figure earlier this year of fewer than 10,000.
Tuesday's milestone of 161,736 fell just shy of a national record the previous day. Deaths rose by 879 to 171,058, while total nationwide infections stand at nearly 13.7 million.
The widely-read Hindustan Times newspaper called for an immediate halt to mass gatherings.
"Governments have happily allowed mega religious festivals, (and) political leaders are still, even in the middle of this nightmarish pandemic, addressing hundreds of thousands," it said in an editorial.
Of nearly a million Hindus who bathed on Monday in the Ganges, in the belief that its waters wash away their sins, more than 100 have tested positive for Covid-19, media said.
Few of the throngs at the mass religious gathering called the Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, observed precautions such as social distancing or mask wearing, Reuters witnesses said.
Hundreds of thousands more are expected to plunge into the waters in the northern city of Haridwar on Wednesday, the next key day of the festival.
Elsewhere, massive election rallies by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and opposition parties during polls in four states and one federally-run region have fuelled concern.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah addressed huge rallies on Monday in the eastern state of West Bengal, a key political prize, with Shah posting Twitter pictures of meetings with crowds of supporters while unmasked.
A second wave of infections that began in India's major cities, such as its financial capital of Mumbai, is increasingly spreading into the hinterland, where data show healthcare facilities can often be rudimentary.
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has blamed several factors for the surge.
"There have been elections, religious gatherings, reopening of offices, lots of people travelling, attending social functions, not following rules, little mask-wearing in functions like weddings, even on crowded buses and trains," he told a video conference last week.
India is currently reporting around double the daily cases of the United States and Brazil, the two other worst affected countries, though its daily deaths lag both nations.
India's total infections rank after only the United States, having overtaken Brazil on Monday.
A devotee reacts as a health worker collects a swab sample, on the banks of the Ganges river during Kumbh Mela, or the Pitcher Festival in Haridwar, India on April 12.