Kumbh Mela: Designing the World's Largest Gathering Of People

As the location of the world's largest single-purpose gathering of people, the 2013 Kumbh Mela obviously required a significant organizational effort from those charged with planning it - but what is less obvious is exactly how this need to plan can be squared with the nature of the Kumbh Mela itself. Located in the floodplain of the river Ganges, most of the 23.5-square-kilometer area of the festival (commonly referred to as the nagri) remains underwater until a few months before the festival, and organization is at every stage challenged by the uncertainty and ephemerality of the festival itself. In this excerpt from the recently published book, "Kumbh Mela, January 2013: Mapping the Ephemeral Mega City," Rahul Mehrotra, Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard GSD, and Felipe Vera, Co-director of the Center for Ecology, Landscape and Urbanism at UAI DesignLab, explain how infrastructure and street grids are deployed in a way that not only enables the Kumbh Mela festival itself, but enhances its ephemeral and democratic spirit.

Deployment Process

Standing at the Kumbh Mela at night looking towards an endless functioning city where the temporary construction of the nagri is fused with the city of Allahabad, there are two things that one cannot avoid asking: 1) How was this enormous city planned in terms of scale and complexity? 2) How is the city actually constructed? One of the most interesting elements about the construction process of the city is that unlike more static and permanent cities—where the whole is comprised of the aggregations of smaller parts, constructed in different moments that are tied together by pre-existing and connecting urban infrastructure—the city of the Kumbh Mela is planned and built all at once, as a unitary effort.

Kumbh Mela, January 2013: Mapping the Ephemeral Mega City. A project by Harvard University. Published by Hatje Cantz. Image Courtesy of Felipe Vera

The flow of the deployment process is very dynamic. Even though the 2013 Kumbh Mela was held from January 14, 2013 (the day of Makar Sankranti) to March 10, 2013 (the day of Maha Shivratri), the preparations for deploying the settlement started several months in advance. During the monsoon season, meetings were held in different offices outside the boundaries of the Kumbh Mela while materials were transported into vacant spaces near the floodplain for the fabrication process to start. When the water receded at the end of October 2012, the ground was leveled and the roads were marked, signaling the initial deployment of the grid on the ground. The only part that was constructed beforehand was sector one, which is located outside the floodplain. This sector hosted the administrative apparatus and different governmental institutions. When the river level subsided, the materials were brought in and the pontoons were built. By early November 2012, the layers of infrastructure were in place. Electric poles, sandbags for containing the shifting river, and the temporary walls for the different sectors were all organized from plans drawn up by the administration. Later in November, the road assembly started and the perimeters of the nagri were plotted. In early December 2012, construction started and a settlement rich with texture, using different kinds of fabric, clad over bamboo enclosures began to take form. By January 2013, the city was completed and operative.

In March 2013, all of the constructions were dismantled into parts and taken back to storage or resold. At some point the river will flood the traces of the city until the following October, when the river will again reach its lowest levels and the landscape will become a productive, agricultural site that endures for twelve Ganges cycles, until a new version of the Kumbh Mela emerges again in 2024.

The construction process is made more complex by the short construction and deconstruction timeframes as well as the city’s enormity in terms of the deployment. Given the compressed timeframes and the scale of the city, all decisions necessitate a precise and productive balance that leaves space for readjustment and maneuverability. The design, planning, and implementation of what becomes the city of the Kumbh Mela are led by a specific team, which coordinates the whole as a single project in a very centralized design process. This enables the team to address many complex issues, such as the design response for effective construction delivery; the capacity to allocate people and goods; the management of risks and resources; and the oversight of handling diverse economies driven by public and private agents. The plan coordinates most of the material components that conform the settlement. Vertical limits, pontoon bridges, streets, electricity lines, and health facilities are all deployed systematically, in coordination with the cycles of the river. This process runs in parallel with the development of governance and management structures that drive the negotiations with the anticipated needs of the different religious groups and devotees that attend.

Kumbh Mela, January 2013: Mapping the Ephemeral Mega City. A project by Harvard University. Published by Hatje Cantz. Image Courtesy of Felipe Vera

The Kumbh Mela’s administration has empirically come to develop a vast knowledge of the infrastructural necessities of an ephemeral city. Through repetition and incorporation after every version of the festival, the administration manages high magnitudes of tension with utmost efficiency, providing configurations that function properly in conditions that a more permanent settlement could collapse and become dysfunctional. Each function of the city calls for thick infrastructure, specific in its design and scale. Different layers of groundwork are planned and deployed by various agents. Some are completely financed and managed by the state, while others are financed by public-private partnership systems or via concessions, involving the private sector development. Generally speaking, the infrastructural demands are an exclusive responsibility of the Kumbh Mela’s administration. They are charged with the responsibility of providing electricity, mobility, waste management, and facilities to manage health and risk. On the other side, the deployment of the uncountable tents for habitation is left to the private sector.

The deployment of these overlapping, structural layers is what jumpstarts the temporary city. However, the construction process starts much earlier than most on the ground realize. According to J. D. Mishra, the planning of the Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001 began in 1998, thirty-one months before the fifty-five-day festival was to start. This preparatory time span was more or less repeated for the 2013 version.

Kumbh Mela, January 2013: Mapping the Ephemeral Mega City. A project by Harvard University. Published by Hatje Cantz. Image Courtesy of Felipe Vera

According to onsite interviews, it takes about two months for total deconstruction of the Kumbh Mela. Some of the materials are put in storage in Uttar Pradesh, so they can be reused in future iterations. Each Kumbh Mela provides its subsequent iterations fresh ideas—always trying to rethink deficiencies. When it came to decisions about the quantity, dimensions, and organization of key infrastructural elements, one of the most interesting strategies incorporated in the planning of the city was the implementation of resilience redundancy, instead of optimization. The seventeen pontoon bridges that connected both sides of the river are great examples of this, as they allowed the grid to operate effectively under extreme conditions of flux.

Following the wiring of the whole flood plain, the construction of thin membranes functioning as walls, define the space of the city in more concrete ways. These walls are built from canvas or corrugated sheets or textiles. The physical divisions of the space, defined by the Adhikari who is the district magistrate and his team, designate the structures of the sectors and the camps inside the nagri. The construction of vertical limits begins once the river recedes, defining the area.

By September 20, 2012, the material started arriving. On September 30, 2012 the order to start working was given. It takes five minutes to lift a dividing wall consisting of two pieces of tin and two bamboo planks as part of the enclosure walls. These are used as separating elements for social groups and activities during the Kumbh Mela.

Kumbh Mela, January 2013: Mapping the Ephemeral Mega City. A project by Harvard University. Published by Hatje Cantz. Image Courtesy of Felipe Vera

The Grid

The question of how the floodplain is subdivided and how the area of the river gets occupied takes us to another important dimension in the planning—the incorporation and refinement of “the grid” as a basic planning instrument. From archival documents it is clear that since the mid-nineteenth-century, British colonial influences utilized the grid as the main rationalization for infrastructural deployments and the organization of the space. The implementation of a grid was incorporated as an artifact designed and managed by the state. The grid as an abstract construct is widely utilized in cities as a neutralizing mechanism that supports diversity within regular patterns, becoming the only constant in the evolution of cities. However, at the Kumbh Mela it is not only the built fabric that continues to change as the city develops; it is also the grounded territory on which the grid is deployed. Therefore, the geometry of the grid for each version of the Kumbh Mela must be adapted to a new morphology that informs both its structure and internal organization.

As the final morphology of the floodplain is unknown until the river actually recedes, most of the design is based on a certain level of structural flexibility and the ability to adapt to uncertain contexts. Other than the need for connecting with the pre-existing and more permanent infrastructures of Allahabad, there are no other constraints on the deployment of the network. Therefore, the final form of the city is the result of a progression of uncertainties, ranging from speculation about the possible physical forms that the floodplain might take once the river recedes, to the estimation of the timespan of the monsoon, and the approximation of the expected number of people that would arrive to the city on the major bathing days.

Kumbh Mela, January 2013: Mapping the Ephemeral Mega City. A project by Harvard University. Published by Hatje Cantz. Image Courtesy of Felipe Vera

Very early in the process, before the exact location of the streets is even determined, the whole nagri gets divided into sectors—fourteen in the case of the 2013 Kumbh Mela. Camps are located in each of these sectors, thus creating a well-thought grid for basic infrastructures such as water is imperative to the overall functionality. The physical division of the space gets reflected in the administrative structure. The Sector Magistrate—the principal authority that deals with negotiations during the design process and oversees the deployment and management of the infrastructure within the space—conceived each section as an independent and almost self-sufficient unit. Although sectors are intended to work independently, different sectors accomplish different functions that facilitate the ephemeral city as a whole. Some sectors, like sector four located near the Sangam, are more socially active and culturally relevant while other sectors, such as sector eleven, which is located more in the periphery, serve as logistical nodes or transportation hubs that receive the city’s provisions before they are distributed across the grid.

Unlike other temporary cities where the grids are repetitious in a way that erases originality and identity, the basic idea of the Kumbh Mela provides for unique, open areas with camps that are constructed without preconceived internal regulation over religious communities. This gives each community the organizational authority over their own space in a way that enables the expression of their internal structure and identity by advocating for spatial singularity. The variable spatial organization can be seen walking within the nagri—some camps are more spontaneously and incrementally arranged, while others are more systematically structured into rigid grids. This is how the grid’s neutralizing potential to facilitate democratic self-expression is employed in the initial planning strategies at the Kumbh Mela. Unlike other temporal configurations seen in some refugee camps or natural-disaster shelters, the temporary condition of the Kumbh Mela space does not remove individuality, which ultimately provides for the construction of several identities within the city. One example of this sort of originality is on display in the form of the gardens created during the forty-four-day duration—they provide a temporary yet personalized aesthetic in the face of the fact that the ground in which they are planted will be flooded again.

Kumbh Mela, January 2013: Mapping the Ephemeral Mega City. A project by Harvard University. Published by Hatje Cantz. Image Courtesy of Felipe Vera

The grid not only organizes the residential space, but it also forms the diverse layers of infrastructure such as water, electricity, sewerage, roads, and bridges—built more as relational fluxes than as a collection of superimposed elements. While the word “infrastructure” typically conveys the images of heavy and corporeal constructions, at the Kumbh Mela, smart processes of incremental aggregation reach the scale of the interventions by presenting a soft infrastructure. The roads, for instance, are constructed from steel plates that can be carried by local people without any heavy machinery. The unspecific and adjustable technology of simple metal clamps used for connecting pieces of infrastructure provides for an easy disassembly. These pieces of metal are then reintroduced into the regional construction economies once the festival is over. On account of the ease that this infrastructure can be dismantled, there is prompt and effective recycling of any material used to construct the city. The paraphernalia that is not reused is typically degradable thatch or bamboo and gets incorporated or merged with the natural terrain through organic decomposition. This allows for the seamless return of the space from a temporal city to agricultural fields.

Co-edited by Rahul Mehrotra and Felipe Vera, this book registers the work of over fifty Harvard professors, students, administrative staff, and medical practitioners that with the support of the South Asia Institute made the pilgrimage to Allahabad, India, to the Kumbh Mela site in 2013, to analyze issues that emerge in any large-scale human gathering. It compiles research findings including contributions from different Harvard faculties representing a range of schools participating in the project such as Diana Eck (Harvard Divinity School), Tarun Khanna (Harvard Business School), Jennifer Leaning (Harvard School of Public Health) and John Macomber (Harvard Business School).

Kumbh Mela, January 2013: Mapping the Ephemeral Mega City

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Cite: Rahul Mehrotra & Felipe Vera. "Kumbh Mela: Designing the World's Largest Gathering Of People" 28 Apr 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/624425/kumbh-mela-designing-the-world-s-largest-gathering-of-people> ISSN 0719-8884

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