LUCKNOW, India (AP) — Millions of Indians celebrated Diwali on Sunday with a Guinness World Record number of bright petroleum lamps as concerns grew about air pollution in the South Asian country.

Across the country, bright, multicolored lights decorated homes and streets as worshipers celebrated the annual Hindu festival of light, symbolizing the victory of light over darkness.

But the spectacular and much-awaited massive lighting of the oil lamps took place – as usual – at the Saryu River in Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the birthplace of their most revered deity, the god Ram.

READ MORE: What is Diwali and how is it celebrated in India and the diaspora?

At dusk on Saturday, worshipers lit over 2.22 million lamps and kept them burning for 45 minutes as Hindu religious hymns filled the air on the river bank, setting a new world record. Last year, over 1.5 million earthen lamps were lit.

After counting the lamps, representatives of the Guinness Book of World Records presented a record certificate to the state’s top elected official, Yogi Adityanath.

Over 24,000 volunteers, mostly students, helped prepare for the new record, said Pratibha Goyal, vice-chancellor of the Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia Avadh University, Ayodhya.

Hindus celebrate Diwali in Ayodhya

People light earthen lamps on the banks of Saryu River on the eve of Diwali festival in Ayodhya, India, November 11, 2023. Hindus around the world celebrate Diwali, the festival of light, which marks the return of Lord Rama from exile to his kingdom and the triumph of light over darkness. Photo by Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images

Diwali, a national holiday across India, is celebrated through socializing and exchanging gifts with family and friends. As part of the celebrations, many earthen oil lamps or candles are lit and fireworks are set off. In the evening, a special prayer is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, who is believed to bring good luck and prosperity.

Over the weekend, authorities deployed additional trains to accommodate the large number of people who wanted to get to their hometowns to attend family celebrations.

The festival came as concerns about air quality grew in India. Last week, the air quality index recorded a “dangerous” level of 400-500, more than 10 times the global safety limit, which can cause acute and chronic bronchitis and asthma attacks. But on Saturday, unexpected rain and strong winds boosted the reading to 220, the state Central Pollution Control Board said.

Air pollution is expected to rise again due to the fireworks display after the celebrations end on Sunday evening.

Last week, officials in New Delhi closed elementary schools and banned polluting vehicles and construction work to reduce the season’s worst haze and smog, which has caused respiratory problems for people and enveloped monuments and high-rise buildings around India’s capital.

Authorities used water sprinklers and anti-smog guns to control the haze, and many people used masks to escape air pollution.

Among the many Indian cities with poor air quality, New Delhi tops the list almost every year, especially in winter when burning of crop residues in neighboring states is accompanied by cooler temperatures that trap deadly smoke.

Some Indian states have banned the sale of fireworks and imposed other restrictions to curb pollution. Authorities also urged residents to light “green crackers,” which emit fewer pollutants than regular fireworks. But similar bans have often been ignored in the past.

This year’s Diwali celebrations were marked by authorities’ preparations to inaugurate in January an under-construction and long-awaited temple to the Hindu god Ram on the site of a demolished 16th-century Babri mosque in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state .

The Babri Masjid mosque was destroyed by a Hindu mob with pickaxes and crowbars in December 1992, leading to massive Hindu-Muslim violence in which about 2,000 people died, most of them Muslims. The 2019 Supreme Court ruling allowed a temple to be built in place of the demolished mosque.

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