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A sea of humanity in Kumbh Mela holds clues to how we behave

For a team from Harvard Business School, the Kumbh Mela is a metaphor for 'temporal urbanism'.

Indian devotees carry containers with water from the Sangam or confluence of the Yamuna, Ganges and mythical Saraswati rivers at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad on February 10, 2013. Robert Schmidt / AFP Photo
Indian devotees carry containers with water from the Sangam or confluence of the Yamuna, Ganges and mythical Saraswati rivers at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad on February 10, 2013. Robert Schmidt / AFP Photo

One early morning last month, a group of students from Harvard University joined thousands of pilgrims as they walked through the predawn mist towards the Sangam, the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers on the banks of Allahabad, a city in north India named by Akbar, the Mughal emperor in the 16th century.

The pilgrims walked quietly, whole villages from across the Indian landscape, alongside indistinct shapes in white or saffron or black, colours that denoted the various sects of Hinduism. They had all gathered to participate in the Kumbh Mela, a festival that celebrates the eclecticism and capaciousness of the Hindu faith and is considered the largest gathering of people anywhere in the world; on the major bathing and purification days, upwards of 80 million people attend.

A dip in the Sangam during the Kumbh is considered so holy that it is supposed to wash away the sins of several accumulated lifetimes. Once every 12 years the Kumbh is deemed to be particularly special, which is when a tented city springs up on the mudflats left behind by the river, complete with electricity and facilities to house the thousands of ash-smeared holy men and women.

The Kumbh lasts six weeks, from mid-January to March. There are millions of holy sadhus and ordinary people from all parts of India, many who have simply come to partake of the Kumbh spirit, to listen to holy discourses, to bathe in the holy river and to generally take in the air.

The Harvard students and their professors, nearly 40 in all, had a somewhat different agenda. They were here in January to "map the Kumbh" to understand the dynamics of a temporary city during pilgrimage.

"The Kumbh Mela is a metaphor for temporal urbanism," said Rahul Mehrotra, chair of urban studies and planning at the Graduate School of Design. "From a Harvard perspective, we would like to see what lessons we can draw from a city that comes up overnight on the Ganges river bed, for example, with displaced refugee populations elsewhere who are sometimes forced to live in similar conditions.

"And other Indian cities can learn from the sense of community and cleanliness that exists here, an outcome of the public-private partnership model between the government and the akharas," he said, referring to the 13 sects of holy men that occupy pride of place at the heart of the gathering. He noted that the Kumbh administrators had divided the city into 14 sectors, to allow Hindu religious sects to organise their spaces according to religious prescription inside these demarcated zones.

But it is the drama of life and how differently it unfolds in sectors closer to the Sangam than those on the periphery, for example, between Sector 4 in the heart of the Kumbh and Sector 13 on its fringes, that interests these scholars most.

Each sector has a little field hospital attached to it, which means that School of Public Health experts Gregg Greenough and Pooja Agrawal are plotting the kind of ailments that doctors see on a daily basis. There are four medical emergency boats deployed on the river to deal with possible accidents. A major stampede occurred here in 1954 and several people died, while a couple of weeks ago another stampede at the Allahabad railway station - but not at the Kumbh site itself - killed 30 people.

Harvard Business School students are studying whether "game theory" really works in the positioning of unlicensed potato-sellers near the entrance of the Kumbh versus licensed tea and snack stalls in the interior. The business school has also tied up with a local mobile phone operator to study the mass data - most pilgrims and holy men happily use technology alongside their scriptures - that may be used to answer a variety of questions, including the location of pilgrims on the Kumbh site, their movement from one part of the site to another, what part of India they come from depending upon the language they use, and if the spread of infection or disease can be related to the movement of these pilgrims.

And then there's Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at the Harvard Divinity school, whose decades-old study of the sacred history and geography of India has made her an authority like few others.

"Our concern is to look at this Kumbh in a much larger context, and not look only at the spectacular and the exotic," Ms Eck told the Harvard Gazette. And if they succeed, we may all learn something about ourselves from one of the most mystical, and massive, gatherings on the planet.


Jyoti Malhotra is a political and foreign affairs analyst based in Delhi