As the Maha Kumbh Mela, the ancient Hindu festival and the world's largest religious gathering, came to a close in Allahabad yesterday, it brings to mind the classic question — 'if a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear, does it make a sound?". For once the people are gone, the tents disassembled, and the pontoon bridges taken away — does the city still exist?
The creation of space undergone in the city of Allahabad entailed building a pop-up city over 5,000 acres (20.2 sq km), making this event more than just a quest for spirituality for the estimated 100 million pilgrims who bestowed their presence on the camping grounds over the course of the month-long festival. This pop-up city is made manifest at the confluence of the Yamuna, Ganges and Saraswati rivers and creates space for markets, religious music, meditation and games. The event is supported by an infrastructure of waste and water management, healthcare, and lost-and-found services. Worshippers come with all the necessary equipment from pots, pans and kerosene stoves to tables and chairs to make their stay at the Kumbh just as if they were at home. The city of tents is organised around a system of roads and bridges with specific routes making circulation quite fluid, putting to shame most of India's traffic-jammed roads where rules are rarely followed.
The Kumbh is created along the same guidelines as any other formalised economy. A set of documents denoting the "city limits" determines the area to be reserved for festival activities. A set of rules is put in place, initially ordained in 1938 and revised in 1940.
A rare display of successful urbanism
What's interesting is the way this overnight and temporary city is formalised and organised by the same people who operate in cities which otherwise have no street design guidelines, poor traffic circulation patterns, and many problems in waste and water management. While much praise is due to the operators of the Kumbh Mela, there is much to be observed and learned from the overall emergent behaviour of this pop-up mega-city. So much so that Harvard's South Asia Institute initiated a programme to send students and professors to the festival to study everything from the quality of water to sanitation techniques and health clinic facilities. This kind of study drawing on business school, public health and urban design disciplines is a first for Harvard, which raises the question — what is it about this pop-up city that draws the attention of Harvard when cities across India could benefit from exactly the same type of study?
There are endless connections to be made between this pop-up city and "real" cities in India — the cacophony, the endless stretch of crowds, the smell of food cooking out in the open, acts of spirituality in a public setting and yes, lots of naked or near-naked people. At the Kumbh all of this activity arrives, is organised, activates, disassembles and leaves, and somehow this lends great appeal. The fantastical nature of such events such as the Kumbh or the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, US are attractive to urban planners and architects for this ephemeral quality — a small microcosm of a larger society, picture, or problem that we face in today's cities.
The Kumbh is created along the same guidelines as any other formalised economy. A set of documents denoting the "city limits" determines the area to be reserved for festival activities. A set of rules is put in place, initially ordained in 1938 and revised in 1940. These documents lay down the laws of the land regarding illness, waste, police authority and power of arrest, proper handling of animals, damage loss, how to dispose of dead bodies, and photography. What the rules fail to address are handled by various organisations aiding the lost, the wounded, the new, the travelling, the worried. Soft and hard infrastructures are set in place and areas are categorised as residential, commercial, religious, and circulation. Activities include recreation, shopping, eating, worshipping. All is centred on a large water body, a common environmental feature of many urban centres. This past Kumbh hosted moments of celebration on the most auspicious bathing days when parades and music lined the streets, tempered by moments of desperation when a stampede caused a train station platform to collapse resulting in 36 deaths.
New technologies, new challenges
Technology plays a new role at this Kumbh: the 2013 gathering is the first that overlaps with mobile phone towers and has a critical mass of people using mobile phones. This does two things: on the one hand it helps in navigating around the grounds, keeping in touch, and finding available services; on the other it encourages services to move to technological platforms which not everyone can access yet. The lost-and-found system is one such service supported by new technology which can help when festival goers lose touch with loved ones, but which must also be supported by physical points of contact (another first for the festival).
The Maha Kumbh Mela dates back millennia, long before New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and many other Indian cities were even on the drawing board. So then why is it that these time-tested systems have been ignored in the planning of Indian cities?
One challenge for these lost-and-found platforms, whether physical or digital, is the plethora of languages spoken at the festival. It's hard for volunteers to aid the distressed and frantic as they rattle off their lost ones' last seen whereabouts in upwards of 30 languages; and while the online system is innovative it can only help those with access to both a computer and the internet, a luxury most people coming from rural India do not have.
The Kumbh has another layer to it, one that goes beyond infrastructure or technology, and that is one of community. Indian society is defined by its relationships and sense of community as is underlined by its traditional chowk housing and the ideologies behind familial relationships. The Kumbh allows for these traditions and ideologies to exist as a societal safety net and comfort to the millions who are on the same spiritual quest. Yet the irony is that this is happening in a city — the very kind of place that many find to be ruining India's societal traditions and family values.
So what becomes of these systems put in place, the websites created, and the photographs and memories of a city that no longer exists? What is learned from this temporary urban phenomenon and can we use methods and tactics that are successful in a temporary system in the same way for a permanent city?
Does the city still exist, even if only in our minds?
The Maha Kumbh Mela happens every three years in one of four cities on a twelve-year rotation and the tradition of the event — the creation and destruction of a city — dates back millennia, long before New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and many other Indian cities were even on the drawing board. So then why is it that these time-tested systems have been ignored in the planning of Indian cities? India is one of the oldest cultures on this planet, and the Kumbh portrays its obvious ability for organising and sustaining an urban setting of millions, yet India notoriously has some of the worst urban environments today. Perhaps it is the overwhelmingly spiritual nature of the Kumbh Mela that does not inherently bring to mind ideas about urban planning, architects, or the Harvard Business School; or maybe it's that the supporting organisation and infrastructure fade into the background each year. Whichever the case, this urban phenomenon may hold many answers and ideas for India's urban march forward, and that in itself is the real phenomenon.