Disegno No.5

Learning from Kumbh Mela


5 December 2013

In Disegno No.5 we examined the Kumbh Mela, a mass Hindu pilgrimage that is supported by a vast mega city, erected and dismantled in a matter of months on the back of the Ganges.

Akhara encampments in sector four

To support itself the Kumbh Mela deploys a pop-up city comprising of roads, bridges, tents of different sizes and an array of other temporary structures built in bamboo and cloth that house social infrastructure like clinics, hospitals, social centers – all replicating the functioning of an actual city. This settlement is laid out on a grid, constructed and deconstructed within a matter of weeks. Within this grid, multiple aspects of contemporary urbanism come to fruition, including spatial zoning, an electricity system, food and water distribution, physical infrastructure construction, public health programs, public gathering spaces, and nighttime social events. The ultimate goal of the pilgrims is to bathe at the convergence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, but even this act is organized into a larger procession, where pilgrims are given specific times and opportunities to bathe.This schedule is determined by the sect and community group a person belongs to, with time allocations made to facilitate crowd management. When the festival is not in session, the ground on which the temporary city sits is used for agriculture.

The article was a collaboration between the photographer Giles Price and architect Rahul Mehrotra. Price visited the event and shot a series of portraits and overview photographs, while Mehrotra is the leader of an interdisciplinary team from Harvard University that is investigating the architectural and urbanist implications of the festival.

This week, Mehrotra is lecturing on his architectural work in Mumbai at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montréal, while Price has recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to attract funding to support 21st Century Kumbh, a photography book of his time at the Kumbh.

To mark these events, here we republish a portion of Mehrotra's text about the urbanism of the Kumbh Mela from Disegno No.5.

Much of the popular literature on the Kumbh Mela treats the festival primarily as a spectacle, with its huge crowds and religious fervor, and the proliferation of images of exotic sadhus rushing to bath. A mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith, it is the largest public gathering in the world; held every four years, it sees millions of people gather to bathe in India’s sacred rivers.

Yet beyond this literature, what is more fascinating about the event is the mechanism of the city that supports this incredible spectacle. The Kumbh Mela is a massive human undertaking involving the government at all levels, as well as civil society and religious organizations. What is constructed for 55 days is a mega city, with all the incumbent infrastructure, and one that is yet to be mapped and analysed in a systematic way. With this objective in mind, in 2012 the South Asia Institute at Harvard University assembled an interdisciplinary team from various schools at the University, sending students and faculty to Prayag in Allahabad to camp at the 2013 Kumbh site for 8 days. While there, they observed and mapped the phenomenon.

One of several temporary akhara religious centres, tented areas in which sadhus and their disciples gather to meditate and perform rituals

The disposition of the city seamlessly articulates various layers of infrastructure and urban flows, serving approximately six million people who gather for 55 days and an additional flux of 10 to 20 million, who come for cycles of 24 hours on the main bathing dates. Pontoon bridges connecting opposite banks of the rivers, iron plates forming streets and cotton tents serving as residences or venues for spiritual meetings, are only some of the ephemeral components that comprise this spectacular temporary city.
The South Asia Institute assembled its research project from a number of complementary fields: public health, pilgrimage and religious studies, design and planning, business, governance, and technology. It was felt by the participating Schools that the temporary city was a venue where all these facets converge to facilitate and celebrate the festival. Our role was to make legible the intelligence that goes into the production of the temporary mega city, and to eventually make this study available to a wider audience interested in urban design for large and evolving populations. Cartography, our chosen method of analysis, is a tool that can accommodate many types of data and the processes that occur at the Kumbh will be placed into a framework that both analyses this data and suggests its potential usage in similar sites in the future. 

A branch of the Reserve Bank of India in the main marketplace

The fieldwork trip to the 2013 Kumbh Mela collected the key information necessary to produce this analysis of the ephemeral city. The goal of such analysis is to understand how the formation of a temporary city as mature as the Kumbh Mela might inform other sites and situations. The team considered the Kumbh Mela to be a case study or prototype of a pop-up mega-city, and a model that could potentially be extended to situations outside of religious pilgrimage. Understanding the Kumbh Mela could allow us to deploy its systems in a variety of places and situations of temporal urbanism: refugee camps, military settlements and other forms of temporary occupation. One potential deployment of such a city would be to aid in disaster relief: how could the various systems established at the Kumbh be used to support populations in need of rapid infrastructural assistance?
From the Kumbh we believe we can learn about planning and design, but also about cultural identity and urban adjustment. Issues of social inclusion, diversity and even democracy emerge under its framework of a neutralising grid of roads. This subdivision of the city forms clusters of individual expression, creating spaces where people can enact their individual and group identity, and which challenge our usual conception of cities as permanent and stable entities. The Kumbh Mela is a case study in which we can see a process that has already mastered certain systems; how can these now be used for low-impact and economical urban design, educating large populations on sustainable living strategies or disaster response?