Ash-smeared Hindu holy men and pilgrims took a plunge into the waters of a reservoir on the banks of Indias sacred Godavari river. The bathing marked the first Royal Bath of the Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, on 29 August in Nashik city, India.

The ritual Royal Bath was timed to match an auspicious planetary alignment, when believers say spiritual energy flows to Earth. They are a high point of the festival. The next two baths are scheduled for 13 September and 18 September.

The festival has its roots in a Hindu tradition that says the Lord Vishnu wrested a golden pot from demons containing the nectar of immortality. In a 12-day fight for possession, four drops fell to earth, in the cities of Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik. Every three years a Kumbh Mela is held at one of these spots, with the festival at Allahabad being the holiest of them all.

More than 2,000-years-old, the festival is a meeting point for Hindu sadhu ascetics, some of whom live in forests or Himalayan caves and who belong to dozens of inter-related congregations. Some naked or wrapped in saffron, the holy men made their way to the Godavari river bank and stood together before stepping into the water.

That the ancient festival grows in size each time it is held partly reflects Indias expanding population. It is also seen as evidence that spiritual life is thriving alongside the new-found affluence of a growing middle class.