Are you from Allahabad?

It's still quiet at night when the icy winds blow over the tents, the swaying pontoon bridges, the miles of sand roads. Only the big billboards of the ashrams and babas and gurus fidget in the wind.

"Hey, come here, come here. Why aren't you naked?" It hisses from the dark. A small, scrawny Naga Baba, hair piled high, tries to get away from it all. "Who told you to wear something?" The holy men crouch by the fire, they do not let go of the tiny man.

A Naga Baba carries ashes, not clothes. "My guru said so," whispers the baba, the tiny cloth hanging on him like a rag. "Sit down," say the holy men and pass the chillum pipe around. It smells of fire, hash and never-dried clothes. Little Baba sits there like a frightened animal, he gets a cup of tea, like normal mortals, the Baba gawkers, the spectators at this spectacle. He's no further than her, he didn't understand anything. He is a holy man without power. A beginner.

He drinks the tea quickly and hastily, thanks him and disappears into the night. "There are too many fake babas," says one.

Then they freeze, Mahant Amar Bharati Ji walks past, his right arm stands up like a dry branch, his fingernails fall like curls from his crippled hand. No ascetic test is so painful, no one demands as much strength as that of stretching one's arm in the air for decades. In the early 1970s he is said to have decided to raise his arm. The babas bow.

When Amar Bharati disappears into the night, the babas begin to speak softly again. Her eyes are red, like spit soaked in betel nut juice. They nod to Mukesh Kumar, the policeman guarding them, for 55 days, from January 14th to March 10th 2013, until it is over, the Maha Kumbh Mela, the most important of all pilgrimages for Hindus, the largest of all crowds.

Every twelve years, when the sun, moon and Jupiter are in a certain constellation, the Maha Kumbh Mela takes place in Allahabad, at this place where at the beginning of the time when the universe was still an ocean of milk, gods and Demons quarreled around the jar (kumbh) with the nectar of immortality. In the scuffle, four drops fell on the earth: in Ujjain, in Nashik, in Haridwar. And in Allahabad.

100 million should come in the 55 days. Pilgrims from all over India will flock to Allahabad, tens of thousands of saints will leave their temples and caves, their ashrams and hermitages. The number wafts through the 20 square kilometer tent city like the chants of the saints. Or 110 million? They all want to immerse themselves in the water at the Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges, the Jamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers. It is water that turns into pure nectar for Hindus during this time - Amrita.

The policeman Mukesh Kumar stands in the night with the gun next to him. The babas in the tent discuss the bathing times allotted to them for this Sunday, Mauni Amavasya Snan, the day of the new moon, the day the universe was created, the most sacred of all holy bathing days. Those who immerse themselves in the icy waters of the Sangam on this day will be freed from all sins. It is the quickest route to salvation from the wheel of eternal rebirth. It is the shortcut to nirvana. 30 to 40 million people are expected to come on February 10, 2013. All with the goal of Sangam.

Mukesh Kumar already had the smaller bathing days, the eleven million on January 14th, the five million on January 27th. At some point the mass becomes a humming, trembling whole that divides in front of obstacles in order to reunite behind them, always in the direction of Sangam, a swirling, grinning, nagging pulp, gently guided by kilometer-long wooden fences, like a gigantic herd, towards the water where everyone can dive in for a moment and perform the holy rites, and is immediately driven on by the police, out again, backwards, in a large, eternal cycle to make room for the millions behind them.

Raja Ram Tiwari smiles coolly. The biggest bathing day is always the big one. He's been here for as long as he can remember, Sector 2. He has participated in five Maha Kumbh Melas, 62 smaller Magh Melas and Ard Kumbh Melas. He was here in 1954 during the great panic when 800 people were trampled to death on the big bathing day. He was there in 1977 when one of the elephants on which the holy men rode to the sangam freaked out.