Mapping the Kumbh Mela

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

After all the planning…

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CAMBRIDGE, MA: Planning for Harvard’s trip to the Kumbh Mela began over the summer, with faculty and graduate students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design visiting the Kumbh Mela site while much of it was still under water. As the flood waters of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers began to recede–so that the Mela officials could begin construction of the many bridges, roads, tent sites, and infrastructure that would enable tens of millions of pilgrims to set up camp for the month-long festival–a group of Harvard faculty, students and staff began planning a multidisciplinary project to study the Kumbh Mela, India’s largest gathering.

Faculty collaborators from HBS, FAS, SEAS, HSPH, HGHI and GSD gather to plan Harvard's Kumbh Mela project

Faculty collaborators from HBS, FAS, SEAS, HSPH, HGHI and GSD gather to plan Harvard’s Kumbh Mela project

The group raised a number of research questions, including:


  • How are businesses set up at the Kumbh Mela?
  • What is the role of technology – internet, cellphones, and media at the Kumbh Mela?
  • How can ‘Big Data’ collected from the Kumbh Mela contribute to our understanding of human behavior, especially at mass gatherings and in urban environments?


  • Who gathers at the Mela?
  • What are the distinctions between self-identity and national identity in relation to the temporary city?
  • How is the Kumbh Mela a ‘microcosm’ of the cultural and religious traditions of India?
  • How is nature viewed from a religious and environmental perspective at the Mela?
  • How does the Green Kumbh use environmental campaign methods to impact conservation and sustainability?


  • How are health services dispensed at the Kumbh Mela?
  • Where are hospitals and facilities located within the encampment?
  • What are the primary medical challenges?
  • How are the authorities at the 2013 Kumbh Mela prepared for crowd-based emergencies?
  • How can public health mapping technologies be applied to toilets and sanitation at the Kumbh Mela?


  • How can the spatial model of the Kumbh Mela be extended to situations outside of religious pilgrimage?
  • How might it be tailored to support national disaster response, or to distribute medical services to the poor?
  • What are the processes involved in designing a pop-up mega city?
  • How are the parade routes and bathing sites determined?
  • How can spatial systems at the Kumbh Mela inform other temporary settlements?

Faculty and student researchers participated in a fall workshop in the pilgrimage, where the students developed research projects to study while at the Mela.

September: Professor Rahul Mehrotra shows an aerial photo of the Kumbh site, still under water.

September: Professor Rahul Mehrotra shows an aerial photo of the Kumbh site, still under water.

After all of the planning, we are ready to go! The first group of students and faculty will arrive in Varanasi in time for the first bathing date associated with the festival – Makar Sankranti on January 14. In Varanasi, the date is also marked by the flying of handmade paper kites.

At the Mela, the group will use GPS instruments to map out all of the different photos taken over the physical geography of the Mela site. The different researchers will form groups each day to visit and experience different aspects of the Kumbh Mela.

Participants at the Harvard Kumbh Mela Pre-Departure meeting.

Participants at the Harvard Kumbh Mela Pre-Departure meeting.

As we begin our journey to the Kumbh, we will update this blog with writings, impressions, and photos contributed by different members of the group. You can also follow us on twitter – #HarvardKumbh

We are excited to share our journey with you. See you at the Kumbh!






Written by jbordo

January 8, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Posted in All

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