India registered its highest caseload of new coronavirus cases on Friday as the country reeled under a shortage of hospital beds, ventilators, palliative drugs, medical and nursing staff and oxygen cylinders.
There were also lengthy queues at crematoriums and burial grounds across the country as bodies piled up outside them.
More than 217,353 cases were reported by the federal health ministry, the eighth daily record over the past nine days, taking the total number of infections to 14.3 million, second only to the 32 million reported so far in the US.
Medical experts believe a double-mutation virus – classified as B I.617– which spreads far more swiftly than earlier variants, is responsible for the second Covid-19 wave which gripped India last month.
Deaths in India rose by 1,815 over the 24 hours to Friday, the highest single day increase in seven months, taking the country’s fatality rate from the pandemic to 174,308. A recent study in the Lancet estimated that at the present infection rate India’s Covid-19 fatalities could double by June.
Television news channels relayed heart-wrenching footage of hundreds of people in small towns wailing and shouting as loved ones infected by the virus died in the searing summer sun while trying to gain entry to overcrowded hospitals.
Thereafter they queued for hours at packed crematoriums to immolate the deceased, surrounded by scores of funeral pyres that burned around the clock.
Low-caste Doms, who traditionally manage the immolations, were exhausted as they worked tirelessly to cope with the unremitting cremations.
Media reports revealed that the metal structure of one electric crematorium in the western city of Surat had begun melting as it had been operating ceaselessly for many days.
However, this apocalyptic situation has deterred neither millions of Hindus, gathered on the banks of the Ganges river in northern India for a holy festival, nor political parties, including prime minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), from holding rallies for various state elections.
In both instances the bulk of people were mask-less and herded together cheek-by-jowl.
Tens of thousands of Hindu devotees on Friday took a dip in the Ganges at Haridwar in Uttarakhand state north of New Delhi, for the fifth consecutive day to celebrate the Kumbh Mela or Pitcher Festival that occurs once every 12 years.
On Monday 3.1 million people had bathed in a small enclave or Ghat on the Ganges, followed by 1.3 million two days later.
More than 2,220 virus cases of Covid-19 were reported at one of these Ghats on Thursday, but instead of controlling crowds or banning bathing altogether, a night curfew was imposed across the rest of Uttarakhand in a feeble bid to try and contain the infection spread.
There were concerns that many of these believers from across rural India, the majority of them untested for the virus, would transport the infection when they returned home to villages that have largely remained free of Covid-19 until now.
Images from political rallies also showed thousands of mask-less people in eastern Bengal state crowding together and cheering Mr Modi and Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, unmindful of social distancing.
Federal home minister Amit Shah, who heads several task forces to try to contain the virus, held large public meetings and roadshows in Bengal on Friday.
A curfew has been imposed until next week in several Indian cities, including the federal capital New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, where the virus is spreading swiftly and where locals anticipate an extended lockdown.