Studying the Maha Kumbh Mela

Between 2000 and 2010, the population of Delhi burgeoned from 15 million to 22 million while Shanghai’s population swelled from 14 to 20 million. Compare that to the recent rise of an impromptu city near Allahabad in India: In the week after January 14, 2013, the first day of the Maha Kumbh Mela festival — during which Hindus gather for a sacred bath at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers — around 10 million people had gathered there.

When the event ends five weeks later, approximately 100 million people would have moved into and out of Allahabad. (I say “approximately” because the precise numbers are difficult to come by.) It took 60 years for the population of Istanbul to grow from one to 10 million, and 50 years in the case of Lagos. At Allahabad, though, the population rose from zero to 10 million, give or take a few million, in just a week’s time.

That’s a slightly unfair comparison because the local government isn’t going to put in place all the fixtures of a functional metropolis. However, it’s only partly unfair. The Indian authorities do have to pull off the creation of a huge temporary tent city with minimal mishap. An enormous amount of urban planning, civil engineering, governance and adjudication, and maintenance of public goods — physical ones like toilets as well as intangibles such as law and order — and plans to deal with unexpected events goes into the creation of this city. Those are pretty much the main elements surrounding the creation of any city in the world.

There will also be a reasonably efficient dissolution of the city when the Kumbh Mela ends in late February, but that’s another story. Some cities have declined over time, but I can’t even imagine what it would take for one of the world’s major metropolises to unwind.

The mammoth people flows at Allahabad got me excited when two colleagues at Harvard University, religion professor Diana Eck and design professor Rahul Mehrotra, broached the idea of studying the Maha Kumbh Mela some months ago. As a child growing up in India, I had read about the festival, but had never entertained the idea of visiting it or studying it. Having lived outside India for over two decades, I now find myself in a position to revisit the event, intellectually and physically.

Below are some pictures. Read the complete article here.





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