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