Not like any field research I’ve done before,” is how John Macomber, senior lecturer of business administration at Harvard Business School, describes his Maha Kumbh experience. He is part of a 36-member team from Harvard that was in India recently to study various aspects of the Kumbh Mela and “map the metabolism of the city” .
The team, comprising undergraduates and graduate students, case writers and professors, architects and anthropologists, doctors and documentarians, visited Allahabad for five days last week to undertake interdisciplinary research in a number of fields, such as urban studies and design, religious and cultural studies, environment science and public health, technology and communications. Led by Prof Diana Eck of the Harvard Divinity School, the faculty engaged in different projects at the Kumbh with their respective students.
Eck, a leading scholar of India’s pilgrimage tradition, sees the Kumbh as an opportunity to wed Hinduism’s longstanding reverence for the natural environment and its sacred rivers to a growing campaign to clean up the Ganges. “Definitely the mela is an incredible and astonishing human undertaking. Just the organisational logistics involved in managing so many people over a few months in one spot is tremendous. Our project seeks to understand this unique phenomenon better,” she says.
“I think Harvard has a lot to learn from south Asia,” says associate director of Harvard’s South Asia Institute, Meena Hewett, adding, “One thing you’ll hear from all faculty is the issue of scalability. It’s very easy to transform the lives of one or two individuals. But when you’re working on issues that affect two billion people, the impact is huge. The Kumbh Mela is a microcosm of the region.”
Tarun Khanna of HBS is fascinated by the massive temporary township that springs up on the sandy banks of the converging rivers. “Spread over 1,940 hectares, it’s quite amazing for scholars like us to observe such speedy migration into a city like this. It makes for a unique, rapidly moving laboratory — and offers us a special opportunity to study everything from the process of organisation to the interplay of commerce and technology,” he says.
While the Graduate School of Design (GSD) team envisions this project as a prototype for the pop-up mega city, and has mapped flows of people and infrastructure, the faculty of arts and science team will look at various religious and cultural aspects of the Kumbh, including the kinds of religious groups present at the festival, devotional practices, tourism and environmental concerns. The health team will look at the presence and networks of hospitals, clinics and public health facilities, while the business team gathered information on business practices at the Kumbh, including the interaction of the public and private sectors. They will also examine the way in which technology, media, Internet connections and cellular networks play a role in the 2013 Kumbh logistics as never before. The team will submit its reports in a couple of months.
“This city, laid out on a grid, is constructed and deconstructed within a matter of weeks. Creating this huge encampment entails multiple aspects of contemporary urbanism—city planning and management, engineering and spatial zoning, an electricity grid, water lines and sanitation systems, food and water distribution plans, hospitals and vaccination centres, police and fire stations, public gathering spaces, and stages for entertainments and plays. Most important are the many encampments of religious teachers and monastic orders in neighbourhoods that include devotees as well as volunteers who work on their behalf to provide services and sustenance to the crowds,” a University release on the visit states.
The mela’s lessons, researchers hope, could be applied in many situations. Public health workers and doctors from Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School see the Kumbh as a model showing how to support mass migration of people into small areas in the event of a war or natural disaster. Urban planners from GSD, working with Rahul Mehrotra, one of the project’s leaders and a professor of urban design and planning at the GSD, view the gathering as an example of how India — whose smaller cities are expected to grow dramatically in the coming years — can best support the natural, democratic development of communities.