Joseph J. Green
Northern Arizona University
The Kumbh Mela festival is an important ancient festival, religious pilgrimage, and temporary city from Hindu tradition. The festival’s history is linked with ancient Hindu tradition, and has much spiritual significance. However, as a subject of study and testing, the festival also has great significance outside of religious contexts.
In the Hindu tradition, there was a mythical war between the Devas and the Asuras over the Nectar of Immortality. This resulted in drops of nectar spilled over four spots on earth which now contain the cities of Haridwar, Prayag, Ujjain, and Nashik. It is within one of these four cities that the Kumbh Mela springs up. The festival happens every 12 years during the cycle when the sun, moon, and Jupiter are all within the Leo constellation (Cameraculture.media.mit.edu, 2015). The festival has been said to have started in the early first millennium, and has been going on ever since (Gsd.harvard.edu, n.d.). What’s most interesting about this festival is that all the infrastructure relating to the festival only exists once every 12 years, for a period of 40 days, before it is torn down (Depts.ttu.edu, 2017), and the land is used for various agricultural needs between festivals (Gsd.harvard.edu, n.d.).
The Kumbh Mela is exceptionally significant in terms of religion and human gatherings. This festival is the largest pilgrimage in the world with over 100 million attendees (Depts.ttu.edu, 2017). Many consider this festival to be a sort of pop-up mega city which also makes it the largest city in the world, even if it only exists for a short period of time every 12 years. This is reminiscent of a more recent American event in which more than 70,000 people gather every year to create Black Rock City that exists only for one week (Scallan, 2018). During this festival, pilgrims use this time to express individual as well as collective expressions of faith. What makes this pilgrimage especially significant to Hindus’, indeed the primary purpose of the journey, is the prospect of potentially breaking the cycle of reincarnation and hopefully ascend to heaven after death. The people gather to bathe themselves in the “three sacred rivers in India, the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, to touch the divine and wash away their sins” (Depts.ttu.edu, 2017). What greater significance could a Hindu seek than to achieve paradise?
Outside of the obvious religious importance of the event, the Kumbh Mela provides an opportunity to encourage the adoption and spread non-religious ideas. One such idea that has been implemented is the idea of mass vaccinations. When the infrastructure to support the festival is created, that brings with it the full infrastructure of any city from basic sanitation to medical facilities. With this infrastructure, and its incredible amount of visitors, it provides an ideal place to provide vaccinations to the public (Gsd.harvard.edu, n.d.). It’s also a great time to encourage technological advancements in the medical field. For example, a Harvard project from the South Asia Institute, the Jane Swasthya Project, looks to surveil health during the festival to prevent disease outbreak. This surveillance has already proven beneficial when a mobile health surveillance system detected an outbreak of diarrhea which quickly prompted the government to respond by testing the waters. Another success from the project introduced the idea of using tablets by the medical professionals. The tablets were used to input patient data from the various attendees, and the software would try to track illness patterns. The team was initially told that medical professionals wouldn’t see value in the system, but after having training and using the tablets in the field, the medical professionals began to see the value. The local government, after seeing the benefits, decided to sponsor the systems, and it is hoped that mass adoption to daily practice will occur (Feldscher, 2015).
There is one more important general idea that can be gained simply by studying the festival. The idea of successful temporary cities. This is a gathering of over 100 million people where physically and metal safety is exceptionally important. The more success this festivals sees, the more relevant it is to study it for other purposes. For example, there could be a situation where a large group of people leave a country for various political reasons such as when the United State invaded Iraq and many people fled the country to escape the violence (Humanitieswritlarge.duke.edu, 2016). For other countries to accept these refugees, they need a way to house and care for them in a humane fashion. Observing how the Kumbh Mela manages its temporary city could help countries accepting refuges create an adequate place to keep them. Similarly, these studies could help care for people temporarily displaced by disasters such as those who were displaced by the damages caused by hurricane Katrina (Locke, n.d.).
Not only is the Kumbh Mela historically an important Hindu event, it is also a significant contribution to human ingenuity. The Hindu people are cleansed of their sins and obtain a shot at paradise. Every 12 years, an impressive infrastructure is built to include all the necessities to care for more than 100 million period for about a month and a half before it is torn down. The Kumbh Mela is truly a marvel of humanity. All thanks to a mythical war over the Nectar of Immortality.
Cameraculture.media.mit.edu. (2015). Kumbh Mela – The World’s Largest Moving City | Camera Culture. [online] Available at: http://cameraculture.media.mit.edu/kumbh-mela-the-worlds-largest-moving-city/ [Accessed 21 Apr. 2018].
Depts.ttu.edu. (2017). India’s Kumbh Mela (Festival of the Pot) | OIA Events | International Affairs | TTU. [online] Available at: https://www.depts.ttu.edu/international/events/2017/kumbhmela.php [Accessed 21 Apr. 2018].
Feldscher, K. (2015). Tracking disease at the world’s largest religious festival • Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute. [online] Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute. Available at: https://southasiainstitute.harvard.edu/kumbh-mela/post/tracking-disease-at-the-worlds-largest-religious-festival/ [Accessed 21 Apr. 2018].
Gsd.harvard.edu. (n.d.). Kumbh Mela - Harvard Graduate School of Design. [online] Available at: http://www.gsd.harvard.edu/project/kumbh-mela/ [Accessed 21 Apr. 2018].
Humanitieswritlarge.duke.edu. (2016). Arab Refugee Oral History | Humanities Writ Large. [online] Available at: https://humanitieswritlarge.duke.edu/projects/arab-refugee-oral-history [Accessed 21 Apr. 2018].
Locke, W. (n.d.). Understanding Katrina. [online] Hurricane Katrina. Available at: https://serc.carleton.edu/research_education/katrina/understanding.html [Accessed 21 Apr. 2018].
Scallan, M. (2018). Once each year, a city pops up in a desert. See the art of Burning Man without the dust. [online] Smithsonian Insider. Available at: https://insider.si.edu/2018/04/once-each-year-a-city-pops-up-in-a-desert-see-the-art-of-burning-man-without-the-dust/ [Accessed 21 Apr. 2018].