What they don’t tell you about Varanasi, probably India’s holiest city, is that in addition to being filled with sacred temples, mischievous monkeys and bearded ascetics, it’s also full of waste of all kinds: mountains of fetid cow and other, much worse kinds of dung, muddy tributaries of dubious origin, mounds of fast-decaying flowers, shards of shattered clay cups. As I left the utter squalor of Varanasi, a permanent and ancient city of four million, for a temporary religious celebration of even more people nearby, I could only imagine the enormous crowds, inescapable filth and utter chaos that it would produce.
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It was January, and I was headed 80 miles west to the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, a Hindu religious festival in which tens of millions of pilgrims come together at the convergence of two real rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, and one mythical stream, the Saraswati. They stay for all or part of a celebration—this year’s would last 55 days—that is the largest single-purpose human gathering on earth.
In the mythology of the Kumbh Mela, gods and demons fought for 12 days over a pitcher (kumbh) of nectar of immortality from the primordial ocean, and the nectar spilled onto the earth at four different places, including Allahabad. The gathering (mela) takes place every three years at one of the four locales in a 12-year cycle—a day of the gods’ time corresponds to a year of human time—with the largest (maha) celebration in Allahabad. The first written record of its occurrence dates to the seventh century A.D.
The iconic image to which the Maha Kumbh Mela is invariably reduced is that of millions of worshipers, their ash-covered, dreadlocked sadhus leading the way, converging on the bank of the Ganges for a collective dawn dunk. This spectacle is so overwhelming that it was almost impossible for me to find out what the rest of the vast gathering would be like. And so I had approached my visit to Allahabad with both awe and dread. After seeing the sordid streets of Varanasi, the dread was winning out.
I arrived by taxi at the Kumbh at sunset, expecting throngs of cars, cows and human beings blocking all access points. Instead I glided comfortably into my camp, which sat on a hilltop. I looked out over the fleeting city before me: makeshift shelters constructed on the floodplain of a river that was sure to overflow again in a few months. The soundtrack consisted of dissonant chords of shrill songs, snippets of amped-up holy recitations, a distorted line from a dramatic performance of an Indian epic and the constant rumble of millions of people cooking, chatting, snoring and singing. The horizon was dark and smoky red, with colorful flickers of light piercing the haze in orderly, geometric rows that stretched as far as I could see in three directions.
I’d come to witness the spectacle for myself, but also to meet a group of Harvard researchers from the university’s Graduate School of Design. Led by Rahul Mehrotra, an architect from Mumbai before he went stateside to teach, they would closely analyze this unparalleled feat of spontaneous urban organization. “We call this a pop-up megacity,” said Mehrotra, a bearded 54-year-old. “It’s a real city, but it’s built in just a few weeks to instantly accommodate tens of millions of residents and visitors. It’s fascinating in its own right, of course. But our main interest is in what can we learn from this city that we can then apply to designing and building all kinds of other pop-up megacities like it. Can what we see here teach us something that will help the next time the world has to build refugee camps or emergency settlements?”
Mehrotra gave me a rundown on the place and urged me to plunge in. “It’s the biggest religious shopping mall in the world,” he said. “Every kind of different Hindu group you can imagine comes together here to show off their wares, share their knowledge and vie for disciples. You have to get down there and see for yourself.”
What struck me as soon as I descended into the byways of the Kumbh was something I had not anticipated: It was the cleanest and most orderly Indian city I’d ever seen. Wide boulevards built from metal plates bisected long lines of tents. White splashes dotted the sand where sanitation workers had disposed of waste and then scattered lye. The grounds stretched so far and wide, nearly eight square miles, that there was, at that time, none of the crowding and claustrophobia I’d feared. Clean and orderly streets were inhabited by citizens apparently enjoying an evening of enlightenment from lecturing gurus or entertainment from costumed Ramayana actors. There was little commerce of any kind, save for the occasional street-side snack stand that sold fried potatoes or popcorn, and there was little or no traffic, as vehicles were restricted. Pedestrians seemed to move with purpose, proceeding from mess hall to music performance, from the feet of their gurus to the tiny warming fires they’d lit in front of their tents.
That night, as I wandered the streets of the Kumbh—housing, lecture halls, open-air cafeterias, meeting areas for sadhus, disciples and pilgrims—I tried to make sense of the layout, a grid of 14 designated sectors. Mehrotra and his co-workers had mapped out the Kumbh’s center, sent around a video van to document the main streets and flown kite cameras high above the crowds to capture the event from yet another perspective.