A lifeguard stands next to a religious idol on the banks of the Godavari River
Mumbai - AFP
India's mass Hindu pilgrimage, the Kumbh Mela, officially started on Tuesday with a low-key flag-raising ceremony in Nashik in western Maharashtra state.
"The flag was hoisted at 6:16 am (0046 GMT) with Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis presiding," Nashik district information officer K. Moghe told AFP.
While Tuesday's hoisting marked the official opening of the 2015 Kumbh Mela, only a few hundred pilgrims attended the ceremony and mass crowds are not expected to gather until the first main bathing day on August 29.
The Kumbh Mela -- a celebration of faith in which Hindus bathe in a sacred river -- is held every third year and is rotated between four holy sites.
It is held at Nashik every 12 years and, although it isn't on the same scale as the editions on the Ganges at Haridwar and the Saraswati at Allahabad, it still draws millions of pilgrims.
Organisers of this year's event at Nashik are desperate to avoid a repeat of a deadly stampede at the same venue 12 years ago.
Thirty-nine pilgrims were trampled to death and dozens injured when the religious festival was last held by the Godavari river in Nashik, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) northeast of Mumbai, in 2003.
The deadly crush was believed to have been triggered when a sadhu, or holy man, threw coins into a crowd of pilgrims who were waiting on the river banks.
Tens of thousands of the devotees, forced to stand behind barricades, were reportedly getting increasingly restless while having to wait for their holy dip.
When the coins were thrown they scrambled to gather them resulting in dozens of people suffocating, according to reports at the time.
Organisers expect up to ten million pilgrims to attend the main bathing dates, which fall on August 29, September 13 and September 18 and 20,000 police are being deployed to man the crowds.
Routes to the river have been changed to avoid steep slopes and overcrowding while a temporary intensive care unit has been set up to urgently deal with any injured.
The Kumbh Mela has its origins in Hindu mythology, which describes how a few drops of the nectar of immortality fell on all of the places that host the festival, the fourth being Ujjain in central India.