The book is dead: that’s what I hear every time I’m in London or New York. How can a bound stack of printed pages begin to hold us in an age of search-engine attention spans? And why would anyone pick up a novel when she can stream movies around the clock? Publishers these days sometimes look like officers running frantically around the deck of the Titanic; reading a novel can sound about as exciting as riding a horse-drawn cart.

Then I get off a plane in Jaipur, in northern India, to see 600 bodies crowding into a tent to listen to a professor from Harvard or the author of a debut collection of short stories. At the signing lines afterward—which can go on for two hours or more—I’m surrounded by software engineers, C.E.O.’s, and physicians who seem not just to devour every new novel that comes out but to be writing their own on the side. By now around 200 such festivals explode across South Asia every year. But the granddaddy of them all—and the epicenter of many a conversation—is the Jaipur Literature Festival, which draws visitors every winter all the way from Sydney or New England.

A performance during the opening ceremony of the festival, at Diggi Palace.

I will never forget first traveling up to the romantic city of palaces for an early edition of the festival, in 2009, a cheerfully improvised gathering in which a few of us sat on folding chairs on the front lawn of the rather dilapidated Diggi Palace as uniformed schoolgirls circled around with autograph books. These days, roughly 300,000 people stream into the J.L.F., as it’s affectionately known. Oprah Winfrey once showed up, and so did the Dalai Lama. Whenever I wish to see my London editor, my favorite bookseller from Seattle, or the distinguished novelist I’ve barely seen since we were at elementary school in Oxford together in 1970, it’s to the J.L.F. I head, knowing I’ll meet all of them and many others.

Heads of state and tech billionaires come together with schoolchildren and accountants and homemakers.

Part of what draws people to the Mahabharata of literary festivals, which is bigger, bolder, and far splashier than anything I’ve experienced in 30 years of such events in Shanghai and Bogotá and New York, is that it’s a feast of discussions by day that gives way after dark to sumptuous parties in candlelit palaces in every corner of the Pink City. Authors and their spouses are driven up to an old imperial pile in vintage Rolls-Royces. Guests clamber onto elephants another night and lurch, one by one, through the triumphal archway of a hilltop fort. The Jaipur brand has become such a pull that in recent years the festival has taken me to spin-off events in London, in Toronto, in Belfast—and, last summer, even on a remote atoll in the Maldives.

Roughly 300,000 people stream into the Jaipur Literature Festival each year. Oprah Winfrey once showed up, and so did the Dalai Lama.

That’s how I found myself, last May, in an open-walled thatched hut a few feet from where blue-green waters were lapping against expanses of white sand, listening to two Oxford professors—both best-selling authors—discuss the emperors of ancient Rome. A little later, on the same stage, a former Indian ambassador to Washington and London, author of nine works of fiction and nonfiction, was explaining mystics in the Himalayas as 40 or so filmmakers, entrepreneurs, and O.B.E.’s in sundresses reclined, rapt, on pink and blue and orange cushions.

Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama have both attended.

The next morning, Vikas Swarup, another diplomat-novelist, whose book became the 2008 best-picture winner, Slumdog Millionaire, discussed the state of the movies with, among others, director Shekhar Kapur, whose 1998 film, Elizabeth, we’d all taken in on a giant screen on the beach just two nights before. As the rich and spirited conversations went on, I realized I could only have been at the offshore version of the greatest literary show on earth.

A large part of the unexpected success of the J.L.F. derives from the dream team at its center. Its master of ceremonies is William Dalrymple, the genial and prolific British historian and traveler, long based in India but on first-name terms with everyone in the know in New York and London. His co-director is Namita Gokhale, author of more than 20 books and conversant with seemingly every significant figure in South Asia.

Sanjoy Roy (second from left), William Dalrymple (third from left), and Namita Gokhale (fourth from left), the trio that puts the festival together each year.

The third in their triumvirate is Sanjoy Roy, a cool maestro with white hair down to his shoulders whose Teamwork Arts event company puts on 33 seamless and dazzling festivals across the globe. It’s he who helps ensure that as soon as Tom Stoppard and Michael Ondaatje stop speaking, musicians and dancers flood the central stage while those who are blessed stream off to lavish parties where Belgravia brushes against New Delhi.

Authors and their spouses are driven up to an old imperial pile in vintage Rolls-Royces. Guests clamber onto elephants another night and lurch, one by one, through the triumphal archway of a hilltop fort.

There’s never any shortage of heads of state at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, at Davos, and there are any number of tech billionaires at TED’s annual conference, in Vancouver. But in Jaipur, both those groups come together with schoolkids and accountants and homemakers, blending high style with high intelligence in service to that forgotten engine of society, culture.

The Penguin Random House India party.

When the J.L.F. flew my wife and me over for the 10-day festival in the Maldives last May, we were driven to a gleaming, four-story seaplane terminal in Male and then skimmed low in a DHC-3 Otter above coral reefs and deserted atolls to a barely visible sandbank. A speedboat whisked us onto the Soneva Fushi island resort, where we were led by our “Barefoot Guardian” in a buggy to a private villa. A rabbit greeted us at our private pool, inches from the most pristine white-sand beach we’d ever seen.

The festival in the Maldives was a much more intimate affair than the extravaganza in Jaipur itself, a kind of civilized and elegant house party in the tropics. Among the two dozen or so seated around me at two long tables were a Bollywood actress, a runway model, the classicist Mary Beard, and three winners of the Booker Prize for fiction.

An evening concert at the festival.

Maverick novelist DBC Pierre delivered an opening lecture about speeding through the streets of Mexico City as a teenager. Britain’s veteran war correspondent Christina Lamb reminisced onstage about first traveling with the mujahideen into Afghanistan when she was 21, just out of college. The co-founder of Soneva Resorts, Sonu Shivdasani, spelled out at another event his commitment to slowness and sustainability, citing the Shakespeare he mastered while studying literature at Eton and Oxford.

All of us knew that very few are able to fly off to the Maldives for a weekend to partake of seafood dinners that can otherwise cost $1,200 a person, and ravishing festivals of light in which the whole jungle island is turned into a series of food stations (courtesy of Soneva). But the main festival in India is open to everyone, and all events are free of charge. Roy speaks movingly of seeing a man with his son appear at the entrance some years ago. They lived on the street outside a nearby hospital, the man explained, and since he knew he’d never have the funds to send his son to school, he was here in the hope he could offer some education to his boy. A literary festival might be the closest to a university that his son could get.

The Soneva Fushi island resort, in the Maldives, where a recent spin-off event was held.

On the final Sunday afternoon in the Maldives, Booker Prize winner Damon Galgut interviewed the British entrepreneur William Sieghart about his “Poetry Pharmacy.” Sieghart uses some of his money to encourage poetry across Britain and now offers a service whereby people can come and visit him, free of charge, for 20 minutes and receive a poem that might help with loneliness or anxiety or loss. As he reads aloud some of the works he prescribes—“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths / Enwrought with golden and silver light,” begins the classic work by Yeats—it’s easy to feel that words really can at times be both a balm and a tonic, that nothing can supplant.

Pico Iyer is a Columnist at Air Mail. His most recent book, The Half Known Life, came out last year, and his next one, Aflame, will be out next January