Carnival of the Soul At India's Maha Kumbh Mela

Hindu devotees gather for the Kumbh Mela, the largest religious gathering in human history. Daniel Berehulak/Getty

It's the noise that hits you first.

A penetrating, jarring frenzy of raw sound, conjured from a million whispers, muffled prayers, and heartfelt cries. Hanging like a veil in the chill nocturnal air, it cloaks the world beyond. And on its clandestine stage, India's grandest sacred rite takes form.

Through darkness tinged with mist and yellow light, a multitude of figures moves fast toward the water line. With naked bodies adorned in ash, and bearded faces spellbound, they proceed with chants and incantations down to the confluence of India's two holiest rivers. One by one, they wade into the cold gray current of the Sangam, the meeting point of the Ganges and Yamuna, in whose waters they are reborn.

As they emerge, cleansed of their sins and purified, another wave of naked sadhus materializes from the mist behind. Some are clutching tridents, others long, curved swords. Many wear crisscrossed ropes of orange marigolds around their necks, along with prayer beads from the hallowed rudraksha tree. Wave after wave, they immerse themselves in the sacred water before retreating back into the darkness.

A stone's throw from the hordes of naked holy men, a frail stockade fence runs far inland from the water's edge. On the other side of it lies an ocean of ordinary Indians, each of them charged with the same ambition—to strip off their clothes and immerse themselves in the sacred water. They've come from every region of the subcontinent, and from every corner of the world, lured by the auspicious moment of planetary alignment—that of Jupiter, the moon, and the sun.

Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty

A devotional festival for Hindus unlike any other, the Kumbh Mela (which translates as "Fair of the Urn") takes place once every four years, rotating between the cities of Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik, and Ujjain. It's at these points that a few drops of the Water of Immortality are said to have been sprinkled by the gods in ancient times.

A larger festival takes place every 12th year when the planetary alignments are all the more propitious. But, the current Mela is far more sacred still, a "Maha" ("Great") Kumbh Mela, taking place once every 144 years. The last time it occurred, Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House.

Having begun in mid-January, the festival continues for 55 days, until disbanding on March 10. In that time an entire tented city will have grown, lived, and thrived on the flood plain where the Ganges and the Yamuna converge. Much of the vast canvas encampment is constructed on soil that normally forms the actual riverbed. The receding waters add an extra dimension to the faithful, for whom the sacred location is without equal.

There are still no accurate numbers of how many souls have attended the 2013 Mela, but it's likely to reach the 100 million mark—making it the largest religious gathering on Earth in all human history. Although the entire festival is attended by the masses, the greatest numbers of pilgrims make their way down to the Sangam to bathe on specific auspicious days.

Devotees wait for handouts of food at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad this January. Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty

India is a land well used to large numbers, but even against its awe-inspiring backdrop, the Kumbh Mela is an experience that defies easy description. For centuries visitors have been challenged to record what they encountered there. The first known foreigner to have written his impressions of the festival was the seventh-century Chinese monk Xuanzang (though some scholars have doubted whether he actually saw the Kumbh).

More recently, Mark Twain wrote of his visit to the festival of 1894 in Following the Equator. Of it, he said: "It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint on such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining."

In the century and more since the celebrated American novelist and traveler passed through, the numbers have swelled exponentially. India's vast current network of roads and railroads, not to mention dozens of national and international airlines, convey pilgrims in tens of millions to the tent city at Prayag, outside Allahabad in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Putting on the festival involves logistics and crowd management on a jaw-dropping scale. Almost 5,000 acres are allocated to the fairground, which is divided into more than a dozen sectors, constructed on a grid. Four electrical substations power the tens of thousands of streetlights, giving the tent city an eerie yellow glow between dusk and dawn. There are police stations by the dozen, and mobile field hospitals, too, meeting points and government offices, fire stations, shops and cafés, shrines, bandstands, and more than 35,000 makeshift toilets.

Naga sadhus, or Hindu holy men, cover themselves in ritual ash on the banks of the Ganges. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Straddling the receded waters of the Ganges and the Yamuna, the Mela's location makes for a complex geographic patchwork. With pilgrims in constant need of access to the Sangam, the confluence area, the Mela's organizers have erected dozens of impressively sturdy pontoon bridges. Each one is buoyed up by a series of giant iron drums, with an improvised road network laid out across the entire tent city, every inch of it floored in thick iron sheets. The immensity and fine-tuned planning are reminiscent of a massive military campaign.

But spend more than a moment at the Mela and you see that it's not about the logistical achievement, or the mind-numbing scale, but about what it all means to the millions of ordinary Indians who have ventured there. In many cases they have staked every penny they have to travel to this place at the auspicious moment, to be redeemed and for their prayers to come true. The extraordinary thing is that everyone there is on the same wavelength—every man, woman, and child in tune with the next.

Almond-eyed Assamese bathe at the confluence, along with thick-set Punjabis from the north and dark-skinned Tamils from the Bay of Bengal. There are Hindus from the Himalayas and from Kolkata, from the Great Thar Desert, and from the vast Indian diaspora that spans the world.

Many of them have arrived laden with sacks of food and supplies, having brought everything they will need from their villages far away. Every head is crowned with a bundle, each one packed with pots and pans, rice and ghee, flour, oil, and fuel. And all the while more people are arriving. They stream in from every side in single file over the pontoon bridges through the morning mist. Some are singing, hands clapping, all moving with a sense of purpose and anticipation, their journey having ended and just begun.

Devotees bathe at the confluence of the holy Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati rivers. Daniel Berehulak/Getty

The thing that sticks in your mind from the first moment you get there is the sense of goodwill. In the days I spent at the Kumbh Mela, I saw too many spontaneous acts of kindness to recall—a pilgrim pressing a folded bill into a blind beggar's hand; a woman taking off her shoes and giving them to another who had lost hers in the mayhem; a little boy presenting his banana leaf bowl of rice to a crippled old man on a cart.

The Kumbh Mela isn't about the India we hear of often in the news—the boom-time India of the skyscrapers, the shopping malls, and the new jet-set. Instead, it's about medieval India, the one that holds the urban modernity in check. An immense cosmic counterbalance, an Indian Woodstock devoted to peace and love, it's the distilled essence of the subcontinent.

Pass a few days at the Mela's world within a world and you can't help but be sucked into it and swept along. As you learn to block out the ubiquitous hum of background noise, you begin to piece together the fragments that form the grand mosaic that is the Kumbh.

Sequestered at its heart is the Juna Akhara, the Ancient Circle, a monastic order of sadhus, yogis, and ascetics, a kind of spiritual core. Residing in a cloistered labyrinth of tents, the sadhus spend their time in devotion. A great many of them are naked, their bodies caked in ash, their long, matted hair wrapped up in twisted dreadlocks. When they're not reclining in the lotus position in meditation beside the sacred fire, they are sucking hard on a chilam. A ritualistic clay pipe representing Shiva's body, it's stuffed with hashish.

Pilgrims to the Kumbh Mela bedeck themselves with marigold garlands, an auspicious flower. Kuni Takahashi/Polaris

In lives dedicated to renunciation, the sadhus shun all material chattels. Many practice feats of austerity or self-chastisement. Some have a few devotees, but most are focused on repelling, not attracting.

Among them is Baba Amar Bharti. His right arm wizened and gnarled, he's said to have held it up in the air since 1973. Beside him is a holy man whose body is doubled up on itself, twisted like a circus contortionist.

Nearby on a dais is a pale sadhu wearing an orange shirt and loose saffron yellow pants. He goes by the name Rampuri Baba, and has a thick, graying beard and rimless glasses behind which lie piercing sapphire eyes. He's giving instructions to a devotee in fluent Hindi, who touches his feet before ambling away into the crowds. What makes Rampuri Baba different is that he's American-born and bred.

We get to chatting, and I learn that he's read some of the books I've written. It's no surprise—he's read everything from Gandhi to Proust. I ask what it's like to be a man worshipped as a god. Rampuri Baba waves a finger hard in my direction. "It's not about me," he affirms, "but about the order of which I'm a small part. This institution has the ability to pass learning down through the time. I've been in India since 1971 and have devoted my life to the Ancient Circle of the Juna Akhara. And in that time I've seen that most foreigners miss the point. You all go on about how a pilgrimage like this is about nurturing the self. Well, it's not about the self but the group experience!"

Rampuri Baba may be part of an ancient order dedicated to self-realization and charity (they feed more than 50,000 pilgrims at a time for free), but he's in touch with the brave new world of social media as well. He's got a website, and is on Facebook, and he even sends the occasional tweet. "I've got all that stuff," he says casually, "and why not? I'm all for it if it spreads the word."

American-born guru Rampuri Baba takes the Kumbh into modernity with the occasional tweet. Nick Danziger

Despite the American guru's eagerness to broadcast goodness in cyberspace, his vows of rejection are slowing the process down. The cloistered Juna Akhara order is a muffled force against the mighty, well-funded world of the guru business.

And what a business it is. Away from the naked sadhus, the sacred fires and chilams stuffed with hashish, a streamlined and well-oiled machine has rolled in. Having rented the biggest and best spots at the Kumbh Mela, the self-proclaimed godmen and godwomen attract attention on a whole other scale.

Unhindered by vows of austerity or renunciation, the big-business gurus offer their own blends of cosmic enlightenment to the masses—and have made themselves millions in the process. Some are bent on political power, and use the Kumbh Mela to rub shoulders with the voters on an unprecedented scale. For a great many more, the draw isn't about political posturing so much as good old-fashioned cash.

The organization that sticks out in sheer sleekness is that of Her Supreme Holiness Sai Maa. Born in Mauritius in 1954, the mother of two came to guruism relatively late. Having been naturalized as a French citizen, she served on the City Council of Bordeaux (where she has a château) in France, before turning her hand to becoming a fully fledged god.

Sai Maa's mission is Global Enlightenment, and most of her devotees are middle-class folk from Europe and the United States. With her main ashram just outside Denver, Sai Maa is constructing another in the shape of two intersecting hearts, downriver on the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi.

All dressed in purest white, some with shaven heads, her devotees have flocked to the Kumbh Mela on long-haul international flights. They've come to bathe at the sacred confluence, and to be in the presence of the woman they regard as a supreme being. Awash with blue-eyed assistants, all with blinding perma-smiles, Sai Maa's entourage reeks of good, solid American organization. There are press packs and social-media sites, florid soundbites and merchandising, photo ops, prayer sessions, printed schedules, and documents summarizing Maa's accomplishments. And there are plenty of hangers-on as well.

Among the festival’s sleek holy rollers: Sai Maa, whose followers view her as a supreme being. Nick Danziger

During an audience with Sai Maa, one explains in a whisper that she's broken her daily vow of silence in order to speak to me. After a short pause, there's a sense of agitation and Sai Maa glides in. On her head is an ochre-red turban, and on her lips the most serene of smiles. She perches on a couch in a small room adorned with plastic flowers and strings of marigolds.

All of a sudden, a stream of American devotees prostrate themselves at her feet, exultant at being in the presence of their living god. After much fawning and jubilation, the devotees shuffle out. When they are gone, Sai Maa erupts into a well-rehearsed sermon of inner peace and unconditional love. Halfway through, her BlackBerry rings. She picks it up and chatters away in French.

Fifty yards from where the godwoman is sitting with scrubbed-clean devotees waiting at the door, a wizened old woman from Bihar is lying on the ground. She's weeping hysterically, her ragged clothing all covered in mud. "I lost my son in the crowd," she sobs, "and I don't know how I will ever find him again."

As I watch, a stall keeper selling fried orange jalebis strides over and helps her up from the ground. He points up to a loudspeaker that's blaring a distraught appeal. "You're not the only one lost," he says tenderly. "I'll take you to the place where you can speak on this thing, and it will find you your son." He hands her a bowl of hot jalebis and together they set off toward the setting sun.

The next morning, after a night of heavy wind, I was taken to see the smoldering remains of a large encampment hit by disaster. An electrical short circuit had sparked a terrible fire, fueled partly by a vehicle's gas tank. Amazingly, only two people had been burned to death. Those who survived were picking somberly through the charred remains. All of a sudden the sky darkened as though the end of the world had come. A sense of panic prevailed. Time was running out before the deluge struck.

A young holy man wrapped in a saffron robe saw me standing in the makeshift street wondering what to do. Tugging at my wrist, he led me fast through the maze of uniform tents as the wind whipped up once again. It was late morning but the sky was as dark as midnight. As the first raindrops gushed down, the young sadhu thrust me into his tent. His name was Hardwar, and his expression was so composed that I couldn't take my eyes off his face.

The last time the Maha Kumbh Mela occurred, Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House. Daniel Berehulak/Getty

We sat in silence listening to the rain. Behind him was a cluster of sadhus drawing quietly at their pipes. And beside him was a boy of 14 with almond eyes and an orange turban wrapped tightly around his head. Recently ordained into the order of the Juna Akhara, he was lying on his stomach playing a videogame on his phone.

"We will be leaving soon," said Hardwar, straining to make himself heard against the thunderous roar of rain, "down to Varanasi, where we will camp at the crematorium ghat. Our prayers here are almost done."

I asked what the Kumbh Mela meant to him. Hardwar's lips were touched with the faintest tinge of a smile. "It's a mirror," he said, "in which is reflected the heavens, the universe, and the world."

As the rain flooded down outside, turning the dust into ankle-deep mud, I told Hardwar about Sai Maa and her jet-set devotees. He thought for a moment, then tapped me on the knee. "God descends to Earth and is always present at the Kumbh," he said softly, "but to find him you must search for the most unlikely person. In him or her is God."

Later that day, I took refuge on higher ground at Lakshmi Kutir camp. With an unmatched view down over the plateau on which the Kumbh Mela is played out, it's a sanctuary of luxury in which well-heeled Indians and foreigners hang out. The tents have heaters and electric fans, flush toilets, and little bars of fragrant soap. There are even chocolates on the pillows at night.

Tragedy struck this year when pilgrims were crushed to death in a train-station stampede. Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty

A New York couple called Hal and Marge were reclining on a sofa in the great dining tent, sipping tea from fine porcelain cups. Weighed down with camera gear and high-end accessories, they had a glow about them, as if they had been touched deep inside. "This is something we'll tell our grandchildren about when we're old," said Marge with a grin. "It's a human extravaganza, a meeting point of waters and of cultures—a Disneyland of the Soul."

Lakshmi Kutir has prided itself on its green credentials, amid the first Kumbh Mela to be genuinely interested in protecting the environment. Enormous sums of public money have been spent to ensure that the sacred waters of the Ganges are not harmed by the massive influx of people. Plastic bags have been banned in the tent city, and the water's edge has been lined in sandbags to prevent erosion. Despite all the good planning, the levels of organic pollution in the river, from the colossal stream of untreated raw sewage, have levied a severe toll, one that will take years to repair.

Back down at the water's edge at dusk, another wave of pilgrims was immersing themselves in the cool gray water. Some were making offerings of little folded newspaper boats, upon which candles and marigold flowers were cupped. The naked sadhus may have been heading off on foot to distant Varanasi but, for the millions of ordinary Indians still at the Kumbh, it was a moment to savor.

Among the sea of people came an extended family with a blue cord tied around them so they wouldn't get separated in the crush. They lumbered down through the thick mud to the water's edge and set about filling containers with the precious Ganga water before immersing themselves one last time.

Mark Twain attended the Kumbh in the 1800s and marveled at the “power of a faith like that.” Kuni Takahashi/Polaris

That night I drove to the Allahabad Railway Station to take my train. The route was flooded, and tens of thousands of pilgrims were wading through the overflowing sewers and conduits. With the traffic gridlock for miles ahead, I climbed down and joined them, my suitcase on my head.

Inside the station there were people everywhere. A great many were sprawled out on the platforms. Some were lying on carpets they had brought from home, others sharing their food with strangers, or in prayer. The atmosphere was convivial, a far cry from how it had been a few days before on which a footbridge had collapsed. In the resulting stampede, 36 pilgrims had been trampled to death.

The dark blue sleeper train to Delhi rolled in, iron wheels grinding against the tracks. All of a sudden there was a frenzy of commotion as the pilgrims threw themselves at the train. As I wondered how I would ever get aboard, I saw out of the corner of my eye a familiar face. This time it was smiling—the wizened old woman from Bihar, her son's hand clasped tightly in her own.

Tahir Shah's most recent book is the novel Timbuctoo.