About the Book
Mela is the largest religious celebration on earth
and the biggest public gathering in the world. The resulting settlement is a
virtual mega city! The Kumbh Mela
deploys its own roads, pontoon bridges as well as tents serving as residences
and venues for spiritual meetings, and social infrastructure such as hospitals,
sanitation outlets and vaccination clinics-all replicating the functions of an
actual city. The pop-up settlement seamlessly serves upto
seven million people, who gather for 55 days, and an additional flux of [0
people, who come for za-hour cycles on the six main
bathing dates. In 2013, a team
from Harvard University, representing faculty from multiple disciplines,
researched the large-scale event from its preparation to the actual celebration
itself. This was the first systematic study on the Mela
as a City: a planned entity, and covers issues of social inclusion, diversity,
and even democracy that emerge under the framework of a neutralizing grid of
roads that is the organizing armature of the city. This subdivision of the city
forms clusters of freedom and facilitates space for individual and group
expression. The volume presents the comprehensive research findings
includes city maps, aerial images, analytical drawings and photographs of this
spectacular Ephemeral Mega City for the Kumbh Mela.
About the Author
Mehrotra is a practising architect and educator.
He works in Mumbai and teaches at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard
University, where he is Professor of Urban Design and Planning, and Chair of
the Department of Urban Planning and Design as well as a member of the steering
committee of Harvard's South Asia Initiative. His practice, RMA Architects
(www.Rlvlaarchitects.com), founded in 1990, has
executed a range of projects across India. Mehrotra has written, co-authored
and edited a vast repertoire of books on Mumbai, its urban history, its
historic buildings, public spaces and planning processes.
Kumbh Mela is a Hindu
religious fair that occurs every twelve years at the confluence of the Ganga
and Yamuna rivers on the plains of northern India. Since its inception, early
in the first millennium CE, the Kumbh Mela has become the largest public gathering in the world.
Today, it draws tens of millions of pilgrims over the course of a few weeks.
The most recent observance of the festival took place from January 14 to March 10,
2013 in Allahabad, with an estimated attendance of
seventy million people. Due to its size and complexity, Kumbh
Mela inspired interdisciplinary research in a number
of complementary fields at Harvard University, including business, technology
and communications, urban studies and design, religious and cultural studies,
and public health.
On the broad
sandy flats left by the receding rivers after the rainy season, a temporary
city is built for the Kumbh Mela.
This "pop-up megacity" houses the Kumbh Mela's many short-term pilgrims as well as the Hindu
faithful and working personnel who stay for the duration of the festival. The
city is laid out on a grid, which is constructed and deconstructed within a
matter of weeks. Creating a huge encampment of tents
entailing multiple aspects of contemporary urbanism: city planning and
management, engineering and spatial zoning, land allocation, an electricity
grid, water lines and sanitation systems, food and water distribution plans,
hospitals and vaccination centers. police and fire stations, and public gathering spaces for
entertainment. The public health challenges and opportunities of the Kumbh Mela are enormous.
Pollution abatement is necessary to keep the water quality of the Ganga and
Yamuna within acceptable limits for bathing. Sanitation systems must be put in
place with enough hired workers to provide waste removal. There are also sites
for mass vaccination campaigns at the rail- way stations and on the grounds in
an attempt to thwart disease. From a business perspective, the festival
provides the opportunity to examine collaborations between private companies
and the Indian government. Technology, media, Internet connectivity, and
cellular networks played unprecedented logistical roles. Finally, the religious
aspect of the festival is important as we try to understand the social,
cultural, and religious in- dependency and interdependency of Hindus from many
different places, sects, and social strata.
Keeping this in
mind, the Harvard University South Asia Institute (SAI) served as the
coordinating unit for this multi-year research project titled, Mapping the Kumbh Mela. SAI's mission is to connect
faculty across disciplines to conduct research on issues critical to the
region. The study of the Kumbh Mela
was seen as a keystone project to undertake. While faculty published their own
research on the Kumbh Mela
specific to their respective disciplines, it was agreed that it would be
beneficial to have Harvard's cross-disciplinary perspectives in one book. Prior
to this effort, SAI faculty identified three types of literature that existed
on the festival: I) academic work
by scholars, 2) memoirs from administrators, and 3) photo collections by photographers.
This book aims to examine the festival through these listed lenses.
July 2012 and continuing
through the fall semester, SAI hosted several meetings at Harvard where faculty
gathered to discuss the different directions their disciplinary foci would take
them. From the end of July 2012 until
the visit to the Kumbh in January 2013,
project grew from two faculty and a few student participants to over fifty
faculty, staff, and students from five different disciplines across the
University, including the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), the Harvard
Graduate School of Design (GSD), the Harvard Business School (HBS), the Harvard
Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), and the Harvard Divinity School (HDS). The
conversations at the meetings provided faculty with the opportunity to frame
their own research questions bearing in mind the inquiry of others.
Prior to the
SAI group meetings, beginning in March 2012, a
team from the GSD travelled to Allahabad, the site of the Kumbh
Mela, for preliminary research. There, they met with
officials, gathered materials outlining the organization of the Kumbh, and documented the processes leading up to the
construction of the pop-up megacity For the students,
researching appropriation of the terrain was as important as what would
eventually happen at the festival. Subsequently, faculty members used the
initial information to hone their research questions and revise their research
to coordinate the growing interest in the project and partnered with the
Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) to provide administrative support. This
resulted in the production of a website with content that included research on
the Kumbh Mela, contact
information of Harvard team members, maps of the site, and other internal
resources generated during preliminary research. The website served as a nexus
for various research teams to connect and share their progress with each other.
SAI took on the
responsibility for raising and managing the funds for this growing project.
Working during the summer and into the beginning of the fall semester, funding
was secured from a variety of sources: the President's January Innovation Fund,
the Provost's Fund for interfaculty Collaboration, HGHI, and the Harvard
University Asia Center. The Francois-Xavier Bagroud (FXB) Center for Health
and Human Rights, HBS, and the Harvard Center for the
Environment (HUCE) also contributed funds for students to travel to the Kumbh site.
project began to take shape, SAI's role in coordinating logistics became vital.
Responsibilities included ensuring vaccinations and visas, booking domestic and
international travel, taking personal information in various forms to report to
the Harvard Travel Services and the US Consulate; the collection of risk and
release forms from students, making contact lists and name tags with photos for
each participant and securing cell phones and internet dongles for use in
India. SAI also liaised with officials to secure permission for faculty and
students to interview the Kumbh Mela
administration and have access to important information and documents for their
Harvard professors, students, administrative staff, doctors, and researchers
made the pilgrimage to the Kumbh Mela
site. The duration of stay on the site varied from two days to multiple weeks.
A few members of the team travelled over a period of a year, documenting and
photographing how the terrain was appropriated, speaking with fabricators and
construction workers, and interviewing the festival's administrators. An
important role for SAI was to develop a partnership between the Kumbh Mela administration and the
Harvard team in order to streamline research in a way that is free of
architecture and urban planning team systematically documented the various
sectors at the Kumbh site, revealing a rich and
sophisticated urban typology-the components of which can be useful in the
future for more precarious contexts relating to disaster response, public
health, and sustainability.
health team gathered data about onsite, temporary hospitals, mapped and
documented the various kinds of toilets being used,
and studied provisions made by public health officials for potable drinking
water. The team studying religion and culture focused on the concerns
participants and planners had about the pollution produced throughout the
course of this festival. One group of researchers examined the use of trees and
plants at the Kumbh Mela.
Another group gathered data on how flowers used in worship at the festival,
point to a burgeoning concern of their wider-scaled use in India. This led to a
deeper analysis of the effects religious practices have on the environment.
studied the ways in which vendors and suppliers managed risks and uncertainties
in this temporary, ad-hoc, ever-changing marketplace. The lessons learned from
this research could serve as a model for global markets, especially in urban
and temporary settings. Another business team created a case study to examine
massive and rapid urbanization. They looked into the problems of excess traffic
and pollution, the scarcity of basic resources such as clean
air, water, electricity, and the role of the government in effectively
addressing these problems. A third business team analyzed data from cell phones
used at the Kumbh to understand the patterns that
emerge in large scale social networks within a bound timeframe and undefined boundaries.
the various research teams over a short period of time relied upon careful
planning and preparation by SAI throughout the duration of the project. SAI
managed the media during and after the Harvard visit and also collected the accumulated
materials required for precise oversight. Upon return of the research teams
from the festival, SAI coordinated several additional meetings where the
faculty and students gathered to outline their next steps.
"working meeting" in August 2013 was
funded by the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard. The workshop
brought together five government officials from the Indian state of Uttar
Pradesh, who were responsible for planning and
managing the Kumbh Mela, with
the Harvard faculty, students, and administrators to discuss what each team
learned, and to share each other's research findings. The spirit of
interdisciplinary collaboration and academic curiosity that made Harvard's Kumbh Mela study so successful was
on vivid display at this session.
the problems that emerge in any large-scale human gathering, pilgrimage, or
cultural event, Kumbh Mela, January 2013: Mapping the Ephemeral Megacity serves
as an example of sophisticated, interdisciplinary research that produced a rich
set of teaching tools useful across the disciplines of public health, data
science, architecture, urban planning, business, religion, and culture. The
project serves as a model for research focused on geography rather than a discipline
or one particular issue. It demonstrates that the role
an institute such as SAI can serve as a catalyst in bringing the professional
schools together. Over the last thirty years, geographic knowledge has been
deemphasized at Harvard. This notion, however, is changing with schools such as
HBS requiring all incoming students to travel to another country with the idea
that bringing back their field experiences enriches classroom learning.
Ultimately, the Kumbh Mela
project leaves the institution with a critical question: is there more to gain
from insights specific to geography or should the emphasis be on disciplinary special ties?
the Kumbh Mela
During the Kumbh Mela: January 14 to March
During the Kumbh Mela Photo Essay
Safety at the Kumbh Mela
the Minimalist Platform: Bussiness at the Kumbh Mela
and Organizational Structures
the Pop-Up Megacity: Reflections on Reversibility and Openness
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