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 organisational 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 organiser 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 recognised 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.
- 'Not like Europe' -
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 coloured '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.