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Lessons for Harvard at Kumbh Mela: Erecting and dismantling a megacity!
On 15th January 2019, over 2 crore devotees splashed down and took a dip in the holy waters at Triveni Sangam; the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical river Saraswati.

This marked the beginning of the present Ardha Kumbh, on Makar Shankranti day.  Devotees from all over the world converge towards Prayagraj (Allahabad), as an article of faith. It is claimed, that a dip in the holy waters washes away our sins and relieves us and our future generations from the cycle of rebirth, leading to salvation.

While the origins of Kumbh melas hover somewhere in the twilight zone, between mythology and history, it certainly finds mention in the Rg Veda!

 The earliest authentic eyewitness account of the Kumbh comes from the Chinese pilgrim and Buddhist scholar, Hieun Tsang who visited India in the 7th century. He observed that apart from the 'presence of sadhus, saints, mendicants and beggars', Buddhist and Jain monks also participated in the festival and the rituals. He has particularly mentioned that the Gupta king Harshvardhan not only visited the site, but also generously distributed jewellery and clothes to the poor.

About 1200 years later, in 1895 American writer and humourist Mark Twain was also awestruck by the sheer magnitude of the Kumbh Mela. "It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvellous to our kind of people, the cold whites", he wrote. 

The various aspects and programs at the Kumbh involve many disciplines like astronomy, astrology, spirituality, ritualistic traditions, socio-cultural customs etc.

Apart from its religious, spiritual, social and possibly political significance – the Kumbh melas have been a subject of study and wonderment by noted travellers, scholars and lay persons alike. Why? Apart from being the largest religious gathering in the world, how does Allahabad a city with a population of just 12 lakhs handle a transient population of over 2 crores, for almost two months? By the time the mela is over, about 12 crore pilgrims, tourists and scholars, etc. would have come, stayed for a day or more - not only to have the holy dip, but also to participate in various pujas, bhajans, religious discourses, exhibitions and cultural programs.

How does a temporary 'city' sprawling over thousands of hectares along the Sangam area cater, fairly efficiently to all the daily needs of over 2 crore pilgrims and others, for over two months? This temporary Kumbh settlement has been named as                 the greatest 'ephemeral' city in the world. And a team from South Asia Institute at Harvard is currently studying this phenomenon at the site.

According to the Harvard team, the present throbbing Sangam settlement houses a population larger than the entire population of Shanghai and New York put together. To quote them: "the scale of the gathering can be gauged by imagining the entire population of Shanghai, about 23 million, camping on a four-by-eight kilometer field, along with the mass of humanity every last man, woman and child in New York City and you're getting closer to the Kumbh's expected attendance, but still not quite there."

By studying the huge 'ephemeral' city at Sangam, there are lessons to be learnt. We may not realise, that the world is full of ephemeral cities – which pop up suddenly, last for a few days or years and then have to be dismantled.

Where else are these 'ephemeral' cities and why should they interest the Harvard team? Natural catastrophes, sudden need for huge political refugee camps, or wars like in Syria, all require mobilising manpower, materials, water, power, sanitation, medicines etc, with the necessary 'urban' infrastructure! Complete with schools and hospital and policing etc.

Said a researcher, "By studying a pop-up mega-city (they) would learn lessons applicable to a wide range of mass gathering events, from refugee camps to festivals: How do people move en masse? How can the spread of disease be kept in check using minimal technology?"  Harvard had initiated an inter-disciplinary project, as it sees, "the Mahakumbh Mela as an unprecedented opportunity, to study everything from water quality to sanitation techniques to health clinic readiness."

As a student at Allahabad University, when some of us went to the Kumbh mela in the 50s, even then we were overawed by the sea of humanity and the maddening assortment of facets of devotion and oddities, which we saw around us.  But it never occurred to us, what enormous challenges went into organising the greatest show on earth! The following Harvard release will give an idea of these awesome challenges, in various areas of administration:

"The Mela inspires interdisciplinary research in a number of complementary fields. Pilgrimage and religious studies, public health, design, communications, business, and infrastructure engineering converge at this festival, producing a complex atmosphere that can be understood through rigorous documentation and mapping, both on-site and in post-field processing. We consider the Kumbh Mela to be a case study, or prototype, for a concept we would like to call the pop-up mega-city. This spatial model can be extended to situations outside of religious pilgrimage: understanding the spatial, social, and logistical elements of the Kumbh Mela through interdisciplinary research will allow us to propose the deployment of these systems in a variety of places and situations, in particular camps for refugees of war and natural disasters."

According to Rahul Mehrotra, Professor of Urban Design and Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the project was a "fascinating" experience from an urban planning perspective, as a temporary megacity with an expiration date is not only constructed, but also disassembled. 

Says Rahul Mehrotra, "For the pilgrims, bathing is the climax of the journey. But for many who participate in the melas, however, these huge human gatherings are opportunities for the practice of commerce, politics, services of many kinds, or public health" — exactly the sort of interactions that bear fruit for academics across Harvard's Schools".

It is very difficult for any one person to grasp every aspect of this ancient and enormous religious and spiritual congregation. We can only marvel at the Faith, which draws devotees from all over the world for the holy dip. And salute those who over centuries have made such a complex operation possible – Kumbh after Kumbh!

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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