India celebrates Diwali with world record breaking amid worries about air pollution

LUCKNOW, India (AP) — Millions of Indians celebrated Diwali on Sunday by lighting a Guinness record-breaking number of oil lamps as concerns about air pollution grew in the South Asian country.

Across the country, colorful lights lit up streets and homes as devotees celebrated the annual Hindu festival symbolizing the triumph of light over darkness.

But the long-awaited spectacular lighting of oil lamps took place as usual on the Sayu river in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya city, considered the birthplace of Rama, the country’s most revered god.

Devotees lit more than 2.22 million earthen lamps at dusk on Saturday and kept them lit for 45 minutes while Hindu religious hymns were played on the river banks, setting a new record. Last year, more than 1.5 million clay lamps were lit.

After counting the lights, the Guinness World Records representative presented a certificate to Yogi Adityanath, the state’s elected top representative.

Pratibha Goyal, vice-chancellor of Doctor Ram Manohar Lohia Avadh University in Ayodhya, said around 24,000 volunteers (most of whom were college students) helped prepare the new record.

Diwali is a national holiday in India and is celebrated by socializing and exchanging gifts with friends and family. Many clay lamps or candles are lit and fireworks are set off. In the evening, special prayers are offered to the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, who is believed to bring good luck and prosperity.

Over the weekend, authorities opened additional trains for the large number of people trying to get home for family celebrations.

The festival comes amid growing concerns about water quality in India. Last week, air quality reached “hazardous” levels, with particulate matter in the air more than ten times the global safety threshold, which can cause severe bronchitis, water and asthma attacks. But unexpected rainfall and strong winds led to an improvement in air quality on Saturday, according to the Central Pollution Control Board.

Pollution is expected to increase again after Sunday night’s festivities due to the heavy use of fireworks.

Last week, authorities in New Delhi closed primary schools and banned polluting vehicles and construction sites for several days in an attempt to reduce the season’s worst smog and haze episode, which has caused respiratory problems and engulfed monuments and high-rise buildings in the Indian capital and its surrounding areas.

Authorities used smoke sprayers and water cannons to control the mix of smoke and suspended particles, and many people wore masks to protect themselves.

New Delhi tops the list of many Indian cities for poor air quality almost every year, especially in winter when neighbors burn agricultural waste while cooler temperatures trap smog.

Some Indian states have banned the sale of fireworks or imposed other restrictions to control pollution. People are also urged to use cleaner alternatives to standard pyrotechnic items. But in the past, these rules were often ignored.

This year’s Diwali celebrations come as authorities prepare to inaugurate a temple to the Hindu god Rama in January after lengthy construction at the site of Ayodhya’s 16th-century Babri Masjid, which was demolished.

In December 1992, the Babri Masjid was destroyed by Hindu mobs using pickaxes and crowbars, triggering large-scale violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims, resulting in the death of about 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. A 2019 Supreme Court ruling allowed the temple to be built on the site of a demolished mosque.

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