Pilgrims of the Sacred River

Exploring India's Big Bath

Pilgrims of the Sacred River

Over the course of fifty-five days earlier this year, the Maha Kumbh Mela turned the city of Allahabad in Northern India into a popup mega-city. On February 10th, thirty million pilgrims dipped themselves in the Ganges in what is considered to be the largest human gathering in history. Harvard finance professor, John Macomber, explores the urban infrastructure of the event for Makeshift Magazine and finds that just as much planning goes into the festival as prayer.

It is the largest gathering on Earth. Most Westerners understand the Maha Kumbh Mela, if they understand it at all, to be about spectacle and tradition—the naked priests and sacred baths, the ash, fire and splashing. Most of the 80 million pilgrims—yes, 80 million—experience the Kumbh Mela as a spiritual journey, a respectful quest for learning and the cleansing of sins. Me, I’m incongruous at best and maybe misguided: I experience the Kumbh Mela as a Harvard finance professor. So my gaze follows not so much the religious undertones but the roads, bridges, electricity and water that underpin this amazing combination of religion, salesmanship, urban design, crowd control and focused investment.

It’s hard to be an objective, passive observer here. The Mela is loud and blinding. Acreage is divided up based on Akharas—Hindu sects who carved out their position at the Mela during centuries-old battles—each one projecting its modern message from its temporary home base. Recordings, music, prayers and advertisements blast from competing Akharas at all hours. Organizers erected 22,000 temporary electric poles, most of which beamed around the clock (imagine a parking lot between a Walmart and a Safeway at 3am). Millions of pilgrims are poor and it’s cold and wet; firewood, trash and the hand-dried and -carried cow chips that are sold everywhere leave a thick smoke hanging in the air. I expected sanctuary and reflection, but this is all frenetic, all the time. Earplugs help.

The Kumbh Mela occurs every three years, but only every twelve in Allahabad, when Jupiter and the Moon make a rare alignment. This year, however, marks the Maha Kumbh Mela—an event that happens here just once every 144 years. It is, by most counts, the largest celebration on Earth. An explosion of humanity, culture and economic opportunity that will disintegrate and lie dormant for another twelve years. And it happens here on a piece of sandy, silty land that is one-third the size of Manhattan; land that lay beneath water in September and will do so again when the rains return next July.

A female devotee bathes in the sacred water of the Ganges
A female devotee bathes in the sacred water of the Ganges

There’s a lot to learn in this blitzkrieg of humanity. An analog, human-based SimCity plays out as a microcosm of the world’s street trade. Sellers, vendors, builders, cooks and other temporary occupants descend here once a decade to make business decisions based on a scale of months. This is not the slow growth of permanent street economies: this city arrives with drastic force and recedes with equal quickness.

It’s simultaneously a compressed history and accelerated future of the many massive informal cities that have sprung up over decades to house tens of millions of workers in South Asia’s informal economy—though not nearly as well-equipped as the hyper-organized Mela. It is also a vision. With its focus on effectively designed roads, properly allocated water and electricity, a purpose-driven community and city administrators who earn authority through effective provision of these services, the Mela is a potential learning tool. Its success serves as a conceivable model for more attractive, competitive cities that better provide resources to millions of economic pilgrims seeking prosperity in the way the Mela offers millions of Kumbh pilgrims a space to seek salvation.

I attract quite a crowd. I appear obviously American or European and move in the company of a videographer, translator and a researcher. Yet, I don’t seem to be camped out with the other journalists and academics on the Sangam—the place beside the multi-colored convergence of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical underground Saraswati rivers that draw the pilgrims to this precise location. I’m not getting to know the religious and historical significance of the Akharas, like my colleagues from the Harvard Divinity School. I’m not measuring bacteria counts in the river or interviewing first responders in the medical tents, as tasked to my colleagues from Harvard’s Global Health Initiative. I just want to know what supports this massive congregation.


I take off down a road, pacing my steps to gauge width. Under the sand roadways, hundreds of kilometers of thin steel plates keep thousands of tires from sinking into sand and mud. The roadways are wide—maybe 15 or 20 meters, or a six-lane interstate in the paved world. Along the edge, split-rail wood fence posts pound into the sand, doubling as crowd control. Wide roads with good fences also keep the rival Akharas apart. A good idea, perhaps, since within recorded history competing Akharas arrived at the Kumbh site with elephants, lions, weapons and warriors to battle fiercely for the best spots close to the Sangam.

Nowadays, the Akharas follow a hierarchy of location, an order of bathing and a negotiation of acreage. Things are not so testy as they were in the days of the 150 kingdoms. I expected perpetual battles over land allocation, problems with roads, issues with informal settlements and convoluted street scenes found in Mumbai and Kolkata. What did I find? On non-bathing days: order and even a little resignation.

Roads matter. With the opportunity to build a new layout on a blank slate, the location, width and demarcation of roads—even when made of sand and delineated by sticks—offer great help. Roads mark zones designated for activities and passageways for tens of millions of pilgrims on main bathing days. I briefly drift back to sandbox city-building at eight-years-old: rake to clear some land, fingerpaint the roads, repeat.

From a nice dry bluff above the Kumbh Mela floodplain, the tents look as regular as can be. An evocative, multi-layered Hindu temple below forbids pictures inside. But the real image lies twenty meters lower, as more than eight kilometers of tent city stretch out. The Akharas each have a large façade or storefront in the center of their block—some five or six stories high, made of brightly-colored canvas or nylon that is spread over an immense bamboo scaffold. We walk down a little farther.

My curiosity tilts from roads to the holding ponds. Here, water waste filters down into the sand allowing residual “solids” to be extracted and removed (each day, groundwater for drinking is pumped from below that same sand; one hopes that twelve years of natural filtration is enough time). From here, the tents take on a disorderly resemblance to a blue tarp that has been stretched along a rope. My translator, well-dressed and proper, is openly hesitant as we walk down the bank, trying to wave at children while side-stepping through the slippery muck. We ask a resident, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”—the essence of a lengthier, more delicate set of questions.

The resident is one of many families of migrant sanitation workers who have traveled here for work, shoveling other peoples’ poop. After figuring out that our entourage is sympathetic, they ask the videographer for help with a commercial issue (they figure the person with the big camera might advocate for their plea). They want to set up small roadside stands to sell things—something the informal market rules evidently dictate you can’t do here in Sector Four. Out of nowhere, some official types appear and shoo us away. The squatters stay put.

The immensity of the tent city at the Maha Kumbh Mela
The immensity of the tent city at the Maha Kumbh Mela

Mela’s chaos could not exist without formal systems. But the street layout and infrastructure is inevitably an unspoken compromise between what the government will do, what the organized economy will provide and what the street economy will fill in. I think about roads, bridges, electricity, buildings and buses; I look at objects more than individuals.

This pop-up city comes with a civic headquarters. Organizers, police and health centers each set up shop. This zone regulates the Mela grounds, while some more permanent offices assist from nearby (after all, just above the plain, more than three million people live permanently in Allahabad). The main Akharas have land allocated based on the number of members and a variety of complicated protocols.

Sporting fancy storefronts, this section feels like a formal downtown, defined by its built environment. To the north on the other side of the elevated permanent-highway bridge, the grid continues, but the height and density drops off. Fancy storefronts yield to more ramshackle tea shops, cow chip sellers and small goods and supplies vendors. Organizer tents space out amidst this ephemeral iteration of suburbs, becoming fewer and fewer as the waves of tents reverberate away from the central hub. Here, people and their activities define the space around them.

Compared to most cities, the width and forethought of the street layout has inspired a version of control. The Mela found an opportunity to design an intentional institutional zone, while purposefully allowing a casual, entrepreneurial zone to evolve on its own. There is more attention to land allocation, roads and electricity, though in fact, these seem to be overwhelmingly the largest investments in Kumbh infrastructure.

I can’t resist revisiting basic tenets of finance. Who invests? Who benefits? In most urban areas, the answer to this question is difficult to track since the many stakeholders have contradictory goals. Goals in a legacy city tend toward catchphrases: Clean air. Clean water. Jobs. GDP growth. More corporations. Fewer corporations. Better transit. Better schools. Cheaper electricity. Lower carbon emissions. But the Kumbh Mela is not an ordinary city. The sole objective is easy to articulate: everyone wants a successful, temporary event. The objective is a rewarding pilgrimage for tens of millions. The role of government here is to allocate land, put down roads, provide a lot of electricity and secondarily to help with water and food. The organizers focus on three things, not on fifty.

Who invests? At the Kumbh, the administrators (funded by the Indian federal government and the Uttar Pradesh state government) lease the land, put down roads, provide electricity and work (a lot) on security. The Akharas finance and take on physical construction and “content programming” for their devotees. Often, they feed them, too.

In the end, it’s a mutually beneficial win. Governments show rare competence and generate economic activity. The Akharas and other religious organizations have a chance to reach their members and to court new ones. And the pilgrims get to walk away from this emotional, sensual and chaotic experience knowing that they touched something greater than just the largest convergence of human beings.

A Naga Sadhu, Indian Holy Man, bathes amongst fellow pilgrims in the Ganges
A Naga Sadhu, Indian Holy Man, bathes amongst fellow pilgrims in the Ganges

You can see the line in the river today; the Yamuna is black, the Ganges is white. I’m standing up to my hips in the Mother Ganga, dipping and indeed praying with countless others. It’s powerful. There are no thoughts of roads, there is no financial rubric with which to watch this moment. I’m not sure I was in the water long enough to wash away my five decades of sins—if that indeed is the goal.

This is the essence of the central goal: a successful Mela. We can prioritize spending because the benefit flows to all. Focusing on a few components of a larger opportunity, investing in non-government buildings and services, and, most importantly, declaring a common goal causes everyone to pull together much more than they would in the usual city.

This temporary metropolis, this pop-up megacity, this dusty, intermittent, messy gathering of humanity is a success. Compared to what? Compared to any city of a lakh (100,000) or of a crore (10,000,000) of souls with divergent goals and no ability to prioritize spending. Compared to the racial, ethnic, cultural, infrastructural and economic progress of most cities across India. I kick the sand between my shoes as I walk down the temporary roads and ponder if this noisy, bright and smelly incarnation of a city is perhaps the most realistic blank slate of a modern day laboratory for an increasingly urbanized humanity.

Further Reading:
The Pink Sari Gang: Journalist and author, Amana Fontanella-Khan, investigates the Gulabi Gang—the band of female activists who are behind North India’s 400,000-strong Pink Sari Revolution.