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Originally published Friday, February 8, 2013 at 9:20 PM

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At India’s Hindu festival, holy smoke, dust, noise

Part spiritual journey, part commercial circus, the Hindu tradition of Maha Kumbh Mela is a full-frontal assault on senses too often dulled by the debilitating sameness of chain outlets, corporate-sports swooshes and designer coffee.

Los Angeles Times

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ALLAHABAD, India — It’s dusk, and the sun’s rays succumb to the twinkle of amber streetlights at the sacred confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The day’s last bathers, intent on washing away sins and purifying their souls, take a dip in the cold, dirty water and then relax on blankets and launch boats covered in marigolds.

This is as close to peace and quiet as it gets at India’s Maha Kumbh Mela, a Woodstock-gone-viral event billed as the world’s largest religious festival. How big? It’s expected to have attracted 100 million people over 55 days by the time it ends March 10.

Part spiritual journey, part commercial circus, the Hindu tradition is a full-frontal assault on senses too often dulled by the debilitating sameness of chain outlets, corporate-sports swooshes and designer coffee.

As stragglers head inland, they’re greeted by the smoke, dust and noise of this 4,700-acre pop-upfestival site — and its 35,000 portable potties. Lost-relative messages spew from loudspeakers, clashing with movie soundtracks, Hindu chants and religious lectures blasting from hundreds of compounds adorned with fluorescent peacocks, flashing goddesses and twirling signs that read, “I love India.”

“It’s all a bit crazy,” said Baba Nirbhaya Puri, looking on from his (understated) ashram. “We’re here for inner peace, not this stuff.”

The masses arrive from dusty villages and bustling cities aboard tractors, jets and rickshaws.

“Wash your sins in the Ganges, not your clothes,” a sign entreats as women wring out saris and men shiver in wet skivvies, oblivious to the health risks of dipping in one of the world’s most polluted rivers. With 750 million gallons of sewage dumped each day into the 1,500-mile river, any link between cleanliness and godliness is an overwhelming act of faith.

There’s no shortage of that. “Mother Ganges purifies itself,” said Ram Naresh, 70, a farmer. “One drop cleanses the body and the soul.”

About 30 million devotees are expected to attend the festival Sunday, considered the most auspicious bathing day.

Held in some form every three years, with the largest crowds at the 12- and 144-year marks, when it’s believed good karma is strongest, the festival was first written about by a Chinese traveler in A.D. 634, although its roots are older.

Foreigners faced with the sea of pilgrims, pickpockets, beggars, yogis and self-declared god men of this year’s 144-year festival can be taken aback. “It’s a bit overwhelming,” said Andrea Kjirkby, a British tourist, comparing the carnival atmosphere to an English seaside resort. “But there’s also great generosity. India is extreme. You don’t get ordinary days.”

As morning dawns, thousands of pilgrims emerge from tattered tents, thatched huts and elaborate cupola-adorned ashrams seeking wisdom from legions of sadhus.

These holy men — hermits from Himalayan retreats, thoughtful philosophers, eccentric extroverts — are fawned over by star-struck followers,

“I swam five times in the Ganges and cleansed my sins,” said Aakor Singh Maharaj, 40, a sadhu sporting a pink shirt, expensive cellphone and movie-star sunglasses. “Actually I never had that many,” he said of his sins.

In a country with a reputation for poor infrastructure and checkered garbage collection, the management of this spiritual smorgasbord is impressive. The festival site, administered by the Allahabad government in the north-central state of Uttar Pradesh, boasts temporary water pipes, power lines, police stations and 90 miles of makeshift road.

Sri Amar Bharti Baba attracts curiosity-seekers and supplicants eager to see his right arm, held aloft for three decades in a supreme act of denial and willpower. The sadhu’s fingers have fused, their curled, blackened nails resembling talons. His left hand reaches for the hashish he chain-smokes to open his spiritual channels.

“There’s only five or six doing this in the world,” said Horst Brutsche, 57, a German devotee of 18 years known as Datta Bharti. “It’s definitely not for me.”

Tolerance hangs over the fair like the midmorning haze, the best of a Hindu tradition that finds spiritual truth in Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha and its own 330 million gods.

“All people are God’s children, our brothers,” said Naga Baba Bodhi Giri Maharaj, wearing mutton-chop sideburns and little else. “Even Pakistanis.”

Veteran attendees note the growing materialism in an event expected to generate $2.2 billion, part of what a local newspaper termed “the God economy.”

“Sadhus with cellphones and tablets preach religion but aren’t living it,” Mahant Baba Bharti, a naga with Rastafarian hair uncombed. “Those in the big tents with the music and lights, they’re posers.”

Tanvi Sharma in the Los Angeles Times’ New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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