Kumbh Mela (Mapping The Ephemeral Megacity)

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Item Code: NAK644
Author: Rahul Mehrotra
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Language: English
Edition: 2015
ISBN: 9789385285073
Pages: 450 (Throughout Color Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch x 7.0 inch
Weight 1.30 kg
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Book Description

About the Book


Kumbh 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 to 20 million 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 and includes city maps, aerial images, analytical drawings and photographs of this spectacular Ephemeral Mega City for the Kumbh Mela.


About the Author


Rahul 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.




he 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.


Beginning in 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, the 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 plans.


SAI continued 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.


As this 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 research.


Over fifty 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 administrative bottlenecks.


The 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.


The public 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.


Business teams 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.


Coordination of 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.


A critical "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.


By analyzing 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 of 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?










Understanding the Kumbh Mela




The Ephemeral Megacity


Setting the Megacity Vignette


During the Kumbh Mela: January 14 to March 22


During the Kumbh Mela Photo Essay


Health and Safety at the Kumbh Mela


Maximum Load Vignette


Investigating Population


Deployment & Deconstruction


Deployment Photo Essay


Deployment Maps


Physical Infrastructure Vignette


Deconstruction Photo Essay


Governance and Bussiness


Government and the Minimalist Platform: Bussiness at the Kumbh Mela


Governance and Organizational Structures




Learning from the Pop-Up Megacity: Reflections on Reversibility and Openness


Individual Portraits










Image Credits







Sample Pages

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