Immaculate Immersions

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They come from across india-not in the thousands, but in the millions: simple farmers and their families, businessmen, whole villages, holy men with tangled hair. They are all head-ing for the Kumbh Mela, the greatest festival in the Hindu religious calendar, a holy gathering at the confluence of India's Ganges and Yamuna rivers. By the time it ends in late February, more than 50 million people will have taken a dip in the waters hoping to purify themselves and break the cycle of reincarnation. Twenty to 25 million people bathed on a single day last month at the most astrologically auspicious moment. A rare alignment of constellations is why this Kumbh Mela bears the prefix maha, meaning great. (Think maha-raja.)

When the margin of error for estimating the number of pilgrims is 5 million, we're talking some major maha. Whatever the exact figure, the multitude at the Kumbh Mela was something only a sage could have envisioned. As the sun rose over the two rivers near the city of Allahabad, thousands upon thousands of Hindus stripped and dunked themselves devotedly in the frigid waters. The bathing went on all day and into the night. At the most sacred spot, the confluence of the two holy streams, a vanguard of 5,000 naked ascetics known as nagas dashed down the riverbank in ecstasy. "We feel wonderful after bathing. There is so much energy in the water and it flows into us," says Surinder Bharti, a leader of the Juna Akhara, one of the four main monastic orders of holy men. They see themselves as warriors for Hinduism. Their weapons: a trident, a sword and-times being what they are-an occasional mobile phone.

The festival grows out of Hinduism's great creation myths. As the almighty Brahma rested in the midst of creating the universe, gods and demons decided to speed up the process by churning the ocean using a giant snake tied to a mountain. From the sea came an urn, or kumbh, filled with the nectar of eternal life. The demons grabbed the urn and the gods tried to reclaim it. One succeeded, and flew it to safety. The myth has two conclusions: either the god landed briefly in four geographical spots or spilled nectar on them in passing. They became holy, the most propitious being at the site near Allahabad.

The Kumbh Mela (mela means festival) occurs every 12 years. Pilgrims flock to a colony of tents on the sandy banks of the two rivers. For the length of the festival, this bend in the river is home to more than 5,000 ashrams, or spiritual schools, and more gurus than you can count. Last month, the 21-sq-km tent city boasted 5,000 barbers-male pilgrims traditionally shave their head before bathing-7,000 garbage collectors, 160 km of plumbing and 20,000 toilets. The crowds put enormous pressure on the city's makeshift public utilities and, for a while, water ran out.

There was no shortage of religion in this dusty, chaotic, ersatz city, or of entertainment. Troupes of actors sing and perform plays on the lives of the gods. Food is free in the bigger establishments, but you usually have to listen to a sermon first. The most extreme statements of religious conviction are performed by the naked holy men, or sadhus. One has held aloft an arm for the past 12 years. Another stands forever on one leg. A saint, as people call him, lies on a bed of thorns and under a blanket of more thorns. A female ascetic from Japan spent three days buried underground. It's India at its most extraordinary-a spectacle, a leap of faith-but the atmosphere was calm, good humored and, of course, crowded. The masses are so thick that no one can go against the flow. But no one wants to. After all, everyone at the Kumbh Mela is en route to salvation.