Why a Harvard Finance Instructor Went to the Kumbh Mela
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.
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…
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