The Temporary Megacity


No, not Burning Man. Kevin Hartnett investigates the holy celebration of Kumbh Mela, “considered the largest migration of humanity on earth”:

It takes place every twelve years at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, where pilgrims come from all over India to participate in ritual bathing (there are also smaller melas, which take place annually in other parts of India). The scale of the event is staggering. The mela has a steady population of a few million people spread over seven-and-a-half square miles of precisely organized encampment, but on a handful of main bathing days officials estimate the population surges towards 30 million—with as many as 80 million people attending over the 53 days of the festival.

One of the most important qualities of the mela, for researchers, is the speed at which it comes together. The festival site is covered for most of the summer with water from the Ganges, which is swollen by the monsoon rains. The water begins to recede in October, leaving government officials and NGO workers with only a couple of months to build the mela’s infrastructure—the roads, electrical grid, water, sanitation, and hygiene systems that will support those millions of people. During its peak days the mela is the largest city in the world, and it’s built nearly overnight.

Researchers collected data on this year’s mela:

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. They plan to release preliminary findings at a seminar hosted by the South Asia Institute in August.

(Photo: Temporary tents for devotees are pictured at dusk at Sangam, the confluence of the Rivers Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati, during the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad on February 13, 2013. By Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)