Mapping the Kumbh Mela

Interdisciplinary faculty and student research on a “Pop-up Mega City”

Archive for January 2013

Mapping the Mela in the Media

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Over the past few months, media outlets across the globe have captured Harvard’s project on the Kumbh.  Below is a snapshot of the media coverage.  The South Asia Institute at Harvard is collecting these and will keep posting them as newer articles are published.

A pop-up city becomes an 80 million person laboratory (, April 24, 2013)


“Over the next few months the researchers will be tagging and sorting images, analyzing patient flows at hospitals, breaking down cellphone data, and generally trying to wrestle their mela research into something useful—both for improving the next mela, in 2025, and for understanding how temporary settlements operate anywhere in the world.”

Maha Kumbh miracle: Harvard to hear it from CM (The Times of India, April 14, 2013)

“Following the success of the 55-day Maha Kumbh mela, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and his team of officials has accepted an invitation by the Harvard University to make a presentation on how the government organised and managed the religious congregation.”

Harvard to get Kumbh lesson from Akhilesh (The Indian Express, April 13, 2013)


“Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has accepted the Harvard University invitation to make a presentation on how the state government organised the 55-day religious congregation during Kumbh, which attracted millions of people from India and around the world, and went off smoothly.  The chief minister will speak at the university campus on April 25.”

Lessons of a Temporary City (Harvard Gazette, April 4, 2013)


“Presenters from the GSD, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard School of Public Health, and the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights described their findings — from archival research into melas as far back as the mid-1800s to epidemiological data on disease outbreaks at this year’s festival — all of which the project’s coordinators hope to make available online with the help of the Harvard libraries.”

Inside the ultimate pop-up megacity (India Abroad, March 15, 2013)

“With high-powered handheld cameras mounted to a kite and zoomed high in the air, a handful of Harvard students joined Graduate School of Design Professor Rahul Mehrotra at the Maha Kumbh Mela, the mystical, magical and mind-boggling phenomenon, which every 12 years draws over 100 million pilgrims.”

What does Kumbh Mela mean to Harvard? (HBS News, March 11, 2013)

“The Maha Kumbh Mela came to an end yesterday in Allahabad, India, after 55 days. Senior Lecturer and Dauten Real Estate Fellow John Macomber, a member of the School’s Finance Unit, reflected on his recent visit to the world’s largest religious gathering and the impact it will have on his teaching and research.”

Ganges turns fecal lab as wealthy bathe with nude mystics (, March 11, 2013)

Ganges Turns Fecal Lab as Billionaires Bathe With Naked Mystics

“’I don’t know if you can pollute the Ganges or the Yamuna any more than they are already,’ Harvard’s Cash said. ‘That water is sewage. And God knows what else is in it — chemicals to destroy the bacteria as well.’”

India’s Kumbh Mela Ends (Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2013)

“Part of Harvard’s research was aimed at exploring how cities of the future will be constructed as the world urbanizes. ’30 years from now there will be twice as many people living in cities,’ Mr. Macomber said.”

Harvard Business School at the Kumbh Mela (, March 7, 2013)

Video with team member John Macomber

Pop-up megacity is a lesson for India (Financial Times, March 1, 2013)

Temporary tents provided for devotees during the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad

“Onno Ruhl, head of the World Bank in India, calls it ‘an incredible logistical operation’. Harvard researchers describe it as ‘a pop-up megacity’.”

Tracking disease in a tent city (Harvard Gazette, March 1, 2013)


“The Harvard visitors’ ambitious plan was to track diseases spreading among four of the Kumbh’s 14 sectors in real time, tracing them back to their sources, and hopefully stopping their spread before large-scale damage could be done.”

Management, Maha Kumbh style (The Hindu, February 28, 2013)

“How does one manage a human sea along a river! No surprise that Harvard Business School, among others, evinced interest in studying the organisation of the mammoth gathering at Maha Kumbh 2013 on the banks of the Ganga in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Without doubt the occasion holds important lessons for future managers.”

Harvard’s tips for Kumbh organisers (, February 28, 2013)

“Stunned by the scale and magnitude of this ‘city’ raised on the sandy riverbed, a team of 50 faculty members and students of Harvard University spent 20 days here, documenting and analysing how this largest gathering of humanity is organised.”

Among millions, a blank slate (Harvard Gazette, February 22, 2013)


“The Kumbh, at first glance, wouldn’t seem to offer [Tiona Zuzul and Vaughn Tan, both pursuing PhDs at Harvard Business School] much: It’s the last place one would look for haute cuisine or high-tech startups. But for Tan and Zuzul, and for many of the Harvard researchers drawn here, the Kumbh offered the promise of a true blank slate.”

The Sangam of Three Waters – Clean, Grey and River (FXB Center Blog, February 21, 2013)

By team member Michael Vortmann

Women collecting greywater for drinking - in spite of message that the water isn't potable.

“One of the key logistical challenges at the Kumbh is managing water flows for the millions of people who come to bathe… In addition to the extensive systems providing clean drinking water, greywater also has separate and actively managed catchment systems.”

Kumbh Mela and Burning Man: What the world’s two craziest pop-up cities have in common (, February 20, 2013)

“You can’t be at the Kumbh Mela long without hearing a comparison between the Hindu festival and Burning Man, the offbeat American gathering that takes place in the Nevada desert. While they are vastly different in size (see graphic above), they share the extraordinary similarity that both are pop-up cities built and disassembled in a matter of months. But on closer inspection, that’s just the beginning of the similarities between these two fascinating events.”

EMcounting the Mela: From Chennai to Prayag (FXB Center Blog, February 20, 2013)

By team member Satchit Balsari

FXB/EMcounter Team consolidating a long day’s work

“Yesterday, our team crossed the 30,000 mark. Since January 27th, 2013, the four sector hospitals that we have been following have seen over 30,000 patients… The tool we used to log data is called ‘EMcounter’.”

A sea of humanity in Kumbh holds clues to how we behave (The National, February 20, 2013)

Indian devotees carry containers with water from the Sangam or confluence of the Yamuna, Ganges and mythical Saraswati rivers at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad on February 10, 2013. Robert Schmidt / AFP Photo

“The Harvard students and their professors, nearly 40 in all, had a somewhat different agenda. They were here in January to ‘map the Kumbh’ to understand the dynamics of a temporary city during pilgrimage.”

Mapping the Kumbh Mela (Times of India, February 18, 2013)

“Kumbh Mela, the world’s most grandiose religious festival, saw an unusual group of visitors for an unusual purpose this year. A multi-disciplinary team of over 50 faculty members, staff and student researchers from Harvard University visited the event to document and analyse the processes involved in its successful functioning.”

Harvard impressed with Kumbh’s orderliness (Times of India, February 17, 2013)

“The first verdict from the international health experts at the Kumbh Mela to record diseases among pilgrims has been positive. The team comprising mainly medical doctors from Harvard University in Massachusetts, USA, is ‘largely impressed’ with the orderliness of the Mela and the lack of any major disease outbreak.  However, the caveats follow.”

Harvard doctors give Kumbh health facilities thumbs up (Times of India, February 16, 2013)

The main objective of the Harvard team, which had the support of the National Disaster Management Authority and the Allahabad Medical College, was to map patterns of diseases, water distribution, sanitation and disaster management plans.”

Harvard docs impressed by Kumbh Mela orderliness (, February 15, 2013)

kumbh mela

“Largely impressed with the orderliness of the Mela and the lack of any major disease outbreak there, the team of international health experts comprising mainly medical doctors from Harvard University in Massachusetts, USA, stationed at the Kumbh Mela to record diseases among pilgrims have given a positive verdict so far.”

Das Kumbh Mela in Indien (ZDF Media – Germany, February 14, 2013)

[German television spot featuring Public Health team]

Saving the mother river (Harvard Gazette, February 14, 2013)


“On this afternoon, the group [of Harvard students] was headed to a stretch of beach at the Sangam to track down Swami Chidanand Saraswati… one of the leading faces of the ‘Green Kumbh’ movement, a new feature at this year’s Maha Kumbh Mela and an offshoot of a broader push for environmentally conscious pilgrimage in India.”

US takes market tips from Kumbh vendors (The Telegraph – Calcutta, February 12, 2013)

“‘We’re trying to understand how the vendors cope with the risks and uncertainty in a fast-changing market,’ said Breza, an assistant professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School in New York. ‘What we learn from the Kumbh may some day help small and large business firms elsewhere in the world,’ Breza told The Telegraph.”

Ephemeral Hospitals, Enduring Insights: Healthcare at the Kumbh (FXB Center blog, February 11, 2013)

By team member Dhruv Kazi

Ambulances stationed at Central Hospital.

“Delivering health care to 100 million people is an enormous task anywhere, but it’s even more challenging when the city – and hence its hospitals – must be temporary.”

Kumbh Mela: Case study in chaos attracts Harvard Business School (International Business Times, February 11, 2013)

“Macomber’s case study will home in on three global themes: massive and rapid urbanization; scarcity of basic resources such as clean air, water, electricity, land, coupled with excess traffic and pollution; and the inability of governments to effectively address these problems.”

How the deadly stampede outside the Kumbh Mela could have been avoided (, February 11, 2013)

By team member Logan Plaster

” Based on the observations made by our research team from the Harvard School of Public Health, there are at least five simple ways that Kumbh organizers can decrease the chance of a repeat event without laying a single concrete block of new infrastructure.”

Mahakumbh 2013 becomes a subject of public health research for Harvard University students  (India Today, February 10, 2013)

“The PHT [Harvard’s Public Health Team] has roped in 10 medical students and interns from Allahabad and Mumbai. Using specially developed smartphone applications, they spend hours at four of the 14 selected medical centres at the mela to collate data that go to a central server.”

Maha Kumbh Mela: City gears up for biggest gathering of humanity (Gulf News, February 9, 2013)

“The pop-up city has generated a lot of interest among academics, researchers and companies who are coming here to study crowd dynamics, crowd behaviour, mobile and internet phone usage among other things.  Over 300 journalists from 50 countries and hundreds of Indian journalists are camping here to cover this mega spectacle of faith that has baffled Western academics.  A team of Harvard University is here to study ‘economics and logistics’ behind the city.”

How a gathering of 30 million holds the answer to medical record keeping (, February 8, 2013)

By team member Logan Plaster

iPad used in a health clinic

“Our team from Harvard’s School of Public Health arrived at the Kumbh Mela this week with a simple goal. Deploy an electronic record system to help health clinics record and collate complaints so that they can be tracked over time… Harvard’s team created a simple iPad-based electronic medical record that tracks chief complaints and prescriptions and then deployed an enthusiastic team of Indian medical students and interns to gather the data from four clinics each day.”

Read the rest of this entry »


Written by deonnie

January 31, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Posted in All, Articles, Media

Toilets, Poop, and Sanitation at the Kumbh Mela

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By Stephanie Cheng, PharmD, MPH Candidate 2013 – Harvard School of Public Health

When I found out that I was going to the Kumbh Mela to map toilets and sanitation at the Kumbh, I wouldn’t say I was exactly jumping for joy and cringed slightly at the thought of wandering around the Kumbh taking pictures of toilets and asking strangers personal questions about their bathroom habits. Not exactly a glamorous topic.  However, considering the massive scale of migration of people from all over the world to this relatively small and compact area, water and sanitation becomes a huge public health issue in terms of preventing the spread of diseases, particularly those associated with waste and improper sanitation such as cholera.

The water and sanitation team, which consisted of Dr. Richard Cash, Candace Brown and myself from Harvard School of Public Health and Leila Shayegan from Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, would not proclaim ourselves as experts on toilets.  However by the end of our visit, we could confidently identify the various types of bathroom facilities.  The variety of facilities takes into consideration the fact that pilgrims come from all sorts of backgrounds and are use to a wide variety of toilets.  A sign designates which toilets are for males and which are for females. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by jbordo

January 28, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Posted in All, Green Kumbh, Sanitation

Q&A for “International Business” magazine

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Questions from reporter (via Meena):

Q: The HBS team has just spent time at a completely unique event. Understanding that your research is not complete, can you share any initial impressions about the research experience, especially given all of the prep that went into it?

Q: What do you expect the HBS case study to contribute (again, realizing that your results are not out) to discussions on business or management, especially given that there is no other event in the world like the KM?

Q: During the visit to the KM, were there any particular “teachable moments” that stood out to you? Any anecdotes (that you’re comfortable sharing at this point) that illustrate some bigger lesson?


Q: The HBS team has just spent time at a completely unique event. Understanding that your research is not complete, can you share any initial impressions about the research experience, especially given all of the prep that went into it?

A: Our team included faculty and students from four schools at Harvard, including Divinity, Public Health, Urban Planning, and Harvard Business School (HBS). It’s unusual in academia to have four disciplines doing research together. At the Kumbh Mela, it’s quite obvious that religion, well-being, cities, and finance all combine to lead to a successful experience for tens of millions of pilgrims. The scale of the Kumbh Mela, the explosion of sensory inputs from sound to sight to touch, and the clear spirituality of the pilgrims made it that much more real, that much direct, and that much more intense for all of us. It’s a lot different than, say, a finance professor working alone and doing academic finance work by creating panelized regression on a stock market dataset. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by jdmacomber

January 28, 2013 at 2:48 am

Studying India’s Maha Kumbh Mela Festival, Harvard Business Review Blog

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Tarun Khanna, Director of SAI and Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at HBS, writes on the Mapping the Kumbh Mela project in the Harvard Business Review Blog: Studying India’s Maha Kumbh Mela Festival

Written by Nora Maginn

January 26, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Posted in All, Business, Media

Why a Harvard Finance Instructor Went to the Kumbh Mela

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HBS Working Knowledge at Forbes   Forbes

by John Macomber

…I’m in a winter coat and hat in the January pre-dawn cold and dark, standing on sandbags on a riverbank in the middle of Uttar Pradesh, India. Pilgrims and the faithful and the respectful come to the river this morning by the hundreds, clad in the minimum, praying and splashing and releasing marigold wreaths and rafts of small oil lamps into the river. This is not like any field research I’ve done before.


Two pilgrims pass an Akhara façade in the evening on Triveni Marg, a temporary boulevard. (Photo credit: John Macomber)

Thirty-five Harvard colleagues and I are at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, a mass pilgrimage in which tens of millions of Hindus gather to bathe at the confluence of the sacred Ganga (Ganges) River, the Yamuna River, and the mythical underground Saraswathi. Legend says that on his return to the Himalaya, Vishnu flew over this spot and dropped sacred nectar from a pitcher – a kumbh.

Six months ago this land was under 30 feet of water. Three weeks from now this will become the largest city on earth, the largest single-purpose gathering of humanity in history. Every 12 years, when the moon and stars are aligned, this becomes the most auspicious spot in Hinduism, and there is a six-week-long festival, or mela, for the millions of pilgrims. The Maha Kumbh Mela is happening right now. It’s expected to draw close to 200 million people over almost eight weeks, and as many as 30 million in a single day. The Harvard team is here to learn about why and how.

Our team is led by Prof. Diana Eck of the Harvard Divinity School. She is a world expert on pilgrimages and the author of definitive books about the rivers of India.   Prof. Rahul Mehrotra, chair of the department of urban planning and design at the Harvard Design School, has a team on site mapping and photographing the city that has sprung up here.  Prof. Greg Greenough of the Harvard School of Public Health is directing researchers interested in everything from the pH of the Ganga to the quality and quantity of toilets to the structure of the medical response teams in place; after all, from time immemorial pilgrimages have been perfect places to transfer and share not only information, but disease as well.   From Harvard Business School, I am here to discover what the Khumb Mela can teach me about real estate, urbanization, sustainability, and infrastructure.   We are all here to witness how devotion, design, health, and finance come together…

Read more on Forbes Working Knowledge

Read more on HBS Working Knowledge

Written by jdmacomber

January 25, 2013 at 3:21 am

On Pilgrims and Refugees: A Comparative Reflection Susan Holman, Senior Writer, Harvard Global Health Institute

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On Pilgrims and Refugees: A Comparative Reflection

How does the Kumbh Mela compare with a refugee camp? I found myself reflecting on this question in our research project on the Kumbh Mela during a bumpy ride on Monday through “Sector 7,” the northmost tract of the fairgrounds. I am participating in the Harvard Kumbh project as part of the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI), a university-wide institute under the Office of the President and Provost. As a co-sponsor for the Harvard Kumbh project, HGHI provided funding for faculty and students from the School of Public Health, the Divinity School, and the College; course support for the fall 2012 Kumbh Mela Workshop co-directed by Professors Mehrotra and Eck; a resource portal on its website as part of its focus on urbanization and its effects on global health; and  ongoing collaborative development of educational public goods.

The Kumbh’s Sector 7 is a vast flatland, where wandering pilgrims, workers, and all-terrain vehicles wind their way across the mud-and-metal-plate road and between a medley of corrugated metal and temporary frame huts and tents. It is miles away from the flashy, carnivalesque akharas; even the holy river is barely a glimpse in the distance. In such a setting, what can the Kumbh Mela teach about temporal urbanism that might help improve responses to humanitarian emergencies and refugee settlements?

After four days at the Kumbh, experiencing this amazing event very much as a subjective encounter, it strikes me that the Kumbh Mela radiates with at least three elements that seem characteristically very different from conditions in urban emergencies, worth considering in developing discussion on this unique liminal space:

1) “Mood.” This was undergraduate Isaac Dayno’s instant response to my wondering aloud about these differences as we bumped along in the van. There is an atmosphere of energy. Everyone is excited to be here, to use this temporary opportunity for good, whether spiritual or material. As the land waits, and construction continues for the millions still to come for the major bathing days, there’s a buzz in the air. This is true even though people are living in conditions that often look to me very much indeed like those of refugees. And yet their focus is religion. It is religious meaning that is at the heart of this mood, the very pulse of this temporal urbanism.

2) Committed governance. The whole shebang is funded and supported by the local and state government. Public commitment to governance is everywhere: police sit prominently at all the road junctions. Tractor-drawn water trucks keep the dust down. Corrugated tin latrines are marked by prominent signs every few hundred yards. A daily truck ploughs through the roads emitting a cloud of insecticide in its wake. I haven’t seen a mosquito yet (and yesterday actually watched a fly die). Workers in dun-colored garb and official caps trudge along carrying round wicker baskets that, dropped at intervals, mark the road with mandala-shaped impressions of a white antiseptic powder. Of course this process is not perfect. But there is high motivation for a public show.

3) Profit. Unlike urban crises, where refugees come as “losers,” pilgrims come to the Kumbh by choice. The religious, government, and medical officials come because it is expected, and though they are on call 24/7, both the mood and governance processes generate a confidence in a happy outcome to the event. Everyone comes expecting to receive something profitable—be it holy water, release from reincarnation, a blessing, or market profit. The patronage and gift exchange is liberal—and consciously time-limited. Even the most devout pilgrims who arrive on foot, with nothing more than the clothes on their back, will go home again. Even when the river rises once again, closing over the grounds with its sacred flow for another year, everyone knows the festival is not over: it merely waits for next time.

Written by jbordo

January 23, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Posted in All, Health, Urbanization

mapping the marigolds

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IMG_4754 IMG_4764 IMG_4758

After a twenty-minute drive from the Sangam out of the Kumbh’s main grounds, we reached the flower market I’d been hoping existed.  A flower seller in Sector 4 thought her garlands came from Gau Ghat, and so our search began.  Our driver remained visibly befuddled by our directions and objective throughout the morning, but following a few inquiries he was successfully directed by locals past a main market and ferris wheel lot toward the city of Naini.  After passing a truck piled with orange buds traveling in the opposite direction, I knew we were going the right way.  Pulling up to this market it was clear we’d reached something bigger and more established than the market we’d been to in Varanasi.  Wooden booths stood in rows along the main road and each had a sizable stock. In addition to the 30 or so stands I saw lining each side of the road and a fork in between, men stood above piles of loose buds and garlands resting on scarves.  I counted about 16 piles and 10 men standing above them.  Women did not seem present in this method of sale but were rather perched inside stalls, stringing roses.  My method was to approach each seller who reciprocated a smile and seemed receptive to my clasped hands.  The first woman was helpful, friendly, and eager to talk.  Our very kind driver decided we were struggling (or continued to think we were crazy) and came over after a couple of minutes.  With his and Nicholas’ translation help, we were told that the market opens at 7am and closes at 10am, though it was then 11am and clearly open.  The woman reported there were 100-150 vendors and she saw 200 buyers each morning, making roughly 1000 rupees per day.  There wasn’t a typical sale- people bought both garlands in bulk and single strands.  She’d been here for the last Kumbh and didn’t see a difference in demand based on this year’s sales.  The marigolds and roses came from Allahabad and the chrysanthemums from Kanpur.  Nearby, a motorcycle loaded with saffron-colored garlands took off in the direction from which we’d come, headed to a “store nearby.”  From the next sellers we heard conflicting reports.  Minivans came at 5am after collecting flowers from trucks.  No, ten trucks came directly and everyone at the market bought from them.  One-hundred-fifty sellers.  No, 500.  No, 1500.  Two-thousand regular customers.  The market didn’t close at 10am but rather noon.  We only saw one actual customer, who was standing by as loose rose petals and four red and orange garlands were packed into a blue plastic bag a few meters from a “no polyethylene” sign.  Overall, the market scene from 11-11:30am consisted of 30-40 booths with a woman or two in each, 20 men standing over twice as many flower piles, 5 motorcylces and a few more bikes, one customer, one cow, one goat, one baby single-handedly manning a stall, and three westerners with their perplexed driver.

Written by rachelmarissa

January 23, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Posted in All, Green Kumbh, Religion