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Reuters/Shailesh Andrade
India’s holiest men.
THE ELIXIR OF LIFE

Stunning photos of India’s naked saints in one of the world’s largest religious festivals

By Akshat Rathi

Legend has it that a few drops of the elixir of life, or amrit, fell on my hometown some millennia ago. Since then, the town—now known as Nashik—has drawn huge gatherings of devotees. Every 12 years, the city hosts millions of people coming to bathe in the holy waters of the river Godavari.

The gathering is called the Kumbh Mela, attended by pilgrims of different castes and creeds, who come wearing wonderful clothes or nothing at all. The naga sadhus, or naked saints, are strict devotees of their Hindu gods, but have also become famous across India for breaking social norms in a conservative society.

This year, the stars and planets aligned on Aug. 29, making it the first royal bathing (shahi snan) day. Kumbh Mela’s naked saints jumped en masse into the river in search of the elixir of life. It’s a rare and wonderful spectacle, albeit one that I didn’t understand quite so well when I attended as a kid.

Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
A Naga sadhu, or a Hindu holy man, applies ash at his camp before a procession during Kumbh Mela.
EPA/Divyakant Solanki
An Indian sadhu or holy man looks on as he seats near the banks of the Godavari River during the Kumbh Mela festival in Nasik.
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
Naga Sadhus or Hindu holy men wait inside their camp before a procession during Kumbh Mela.
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
Naga sadhus walk in a procession during Kumbh Mela, as devotees to look on.
EPA/Divyakant Solanki
An Naga Sadhu, or holy man, practices yoga in Trimbakeshwar, Nasik.
Reuters/Shailesh Andrade
Sadhus, or Hindu holy men, jump in a holy pond during the first Shahi Snan at Kumbh Mela.
AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade
And they jumped in even greater numbers.
AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade
And they jumped in from wherever they could find room.
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
And then they filled the river.
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
And then they prayed.