The ascetics, known as Naga sadhus, often strip naked and cover their bodies with dust before plunging into the sacred waters in the northern town of Haridwar.
Despite India’s coronavirus epidemic raging on and cases of the virus almost doubling in the past month alone, the riverbanks were crowded with no effort at social distancing and little evidence of mask-wearing.
Those taking part in the pilgrimage to the Ganges believe washing in its waters cleanses them of their sins and can break the cycle of life, death and reincarnation.
According to local police reports, at least 22,000 people had bathed in the holy river by 8am on Thursday morning.
All participants were supposed to have a negative coronavirus test before being allowed into the festival grounds, which sprawl beyond the riverbanks throughout the town.
“It feels to good to bathe here,” said 44-year-old Chandubhai Govindbhai Dabhi, after emerging from the waters.
“Half the people are wearing masks and half are not, but we are not afraid of corona.”
The festival was cancelled last year due to the pandemic, but in 2019 it drew about 100 million devotees. That figure is expected to be significantly lower this year.
Despite the growth in Covid-19 cases, India’s government has not yet reinstituted any of its harsher lockdown measures which were brought in last year, and large events including cricket matches have continued to take place in recent months.
Officials reported 22,854 new infections on Thursday, the highest in nearly three months, taking the country’s total to 11.3 million. Deaths rose by 126 to 158,189, health ministry data showed.