Mark Stratton takes in the Kumbh Mela, the Ganges' 55-day festival with 150 million visitors.

Bar some very cool sunglasses, Baba Rajharati is stark naked. Smeared in ash, symbolising his commitment to the Hindu deity Shiva, this renunciate naga baba lives a mendicant life of austerity in pursuit of self-realisation. At least that's what he tells me in between puffs of ganja.

I meet him at the Kumbh Mela currently under way in Prayagraj, formerly Allahabad, in northern India: a 55-day festival running until March 4. By its end, an anticipated 150 million salvation-seeking Hindus will have attended one of the greatest spiritual gatherings on Earth.

Occurring four times within a 12-year cycle — its dates determined by astrology and ancient Vedic scripture — the mela (gathering) rotates between four sacred river cities: Prayagraj, Haridwar, Nashik, and Ujjain, each sanctified by an elixir of immortality that spilt from a kumbh (pitcher) during a struggle between celestial forces of good and evil.

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Throughout the festival, Hindus arrive from across India to bathe in the Ganges and accumulate good karma, which they believe will contribute towards them breaking free from a cycle of reincarnation to ultimately attain a liberated soul free of worldly concerns. On the opening day of this mela, 1.5 million pilgrims bathed together en masse.

This is my third mela. I once again feel the gravitational pull of a spectacle that distils everything that appeals to me about India: the fervently colourful theatricality of Hindu worship and the country's ability to magic surprises such as elephants moseying down public roads and decorated holy cows.

Prayagraj's mela squeezes on to a floodplain where the Ganges meets the Yamuna. The first sight of its temporary tented city simply beggars belief. According to the Times of India newspaper, it encompasses an area of 35sq km.

My accommodation is in a luxurious tented camp called Sangam Nivas on the Ganges' left bank, on Jhusi hilltop. The 44 large en suite tents are for those not ready to renounce hot showers. There are three vegetarian meals per day, yoga, Ayurvedic massage and experienced guides to navigate guests through the bewildering chaos beyond one's canvas walls.

The first thing that hits you is a bludgeoning soundscape that continues for 24 hours a day. Loudspeakers blast devotional songs and mantras, bells ding repeatedly, and booming vibrato calls to prayer remind how this former Mughal city retains a strong Muslim presence. My own advice for exploring the mela is to venture among the pulsating crowds and see what karma sends your way.

Six particularly auspicious "royal bathing days" (the next falls overnight NZT) attract the biggest influx. On those days the Sangam is claustrophobically crowded; the energy palpable. Thousands of naked sadhus waving tridents plunge into the river yelling invocations to Shiva. On less auspicious days the atmosphere among pilgrims is of infectious joy, splashing around on the Ganges' edge like happy children at the beach.

A sadhu takes a break. Photo / Getty Images
A sadhu takes a break. Photo / Getty Images

They chant mantras entering the water and light little wax lamps and josticks as offerings.

Women bathe fully dressed and dry their saturated saris in the breeze, flying them like kites. You might take your bathing suit and join them. But check out the unappealing colour of the water first before deciding whether to take the plunge.

The most compelling viewing, however, is the 200,000-or-so attending holy men: from orange-robed sadhus and full-bearded gurus to the naga babas, who are more commonly seen dwelling in their birthday suits in the Himalayas. They are the festival headliners, ordered into akhara, or sects, dependent on their spiritual loyalties, usually to Shiva or Vishnu. During the mela they reside inside compounds fronted by faux temple facades fashioned from painted cloth and wooden scaffolding. Here they hold court sitting cross-legged in front of burning firepits, smoking pot and dispensing blessings to visitors for a few rupees. Their devotional austerity is almost lost to their photogenically freakish appeal.

Besides my baba in shades, I meet a naked cowboy who renounces everything bar his stetson; a sadhu who has kept a now-withered arm raised for years as a test of his devotion, and Khade Siri, who hasn't sat or lain down for nine years. He sleeps on a suspended swing, upright, his dreadlocks almost touching the floor. "I'm doing this for world peace," he says.

Between stops for addictive masala chai, sweet and milky tea, I take a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw to the mela's newest akhara — the Kinners. They are transgendered and identify as women. Devotees queue to receive a blessing from this much discriminated against minority, who are nonetheless revered for the power of their curses and blessings.

Finally at sunset an aarti beckons me. These are beautifully choreographed fire purification ceremonies performed by seven Brahmin priests on plinths alongside the Ganges. They twirl lit camphor lamps that leave trails of fire in the velvety blackness as the raucous sounds of souls being saved carries on throughout another sleepless night.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines

flies from Auckland to Delhi, via Singapore, with return Economy Class fares from $1145, on sale until February 26.

DETAILS
Cox & Kings offers a five-night Kumbh Mela trip from $3340pp (two sharing), including two nights in a B&B in Delhi, three nights' full-board with guided excursions at The Ultimate Travelling Camp's Sangam Nivas, international flights and all transfers. It will offer trips to the next Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in 2022.

ONLINE
kumbh.gov.in