On my last morning I traveled to the central sector where the 16 major akharas were located. The Juna akhara is the most powerful and influential of these. Inside a large compound, consisting of orange tents arrayed around a massive orange flag hoisted high above the encampment on a pole, the sadhus sat next to fires that their disciples helped keep burning day and night. The first sadhu I saw was a peculiar sight: a bearded, dreadlocked white guy smoking a stone chillum filled with hashish who, after he exhaled, began speaking with a distinctively American accent. Baba Rampuri, a 63-year-old U.S. native raised in California who joined the Juna akhara over 40 years ago and has since ascended its ranks, gestured to me to sit down before him. One of his followers, also clad in the orange robes of the akhara, prepped and passed Rampuri another chillum of hashish, which sadhus smoke as part of a holy ritual to improve their focus while meditating. He carefully wrapped a piece of white cloth around the bottom hole and proceeded to inhale deeply before passing it along to another follower.
“This event is almost always described by the Western media as this huge gathering of the superstitious and primitive masses,” he said. “But I would contend that if you compare the people here to their equivalent in Europe or the United States and assess them with the yardstick of culture, you’d see things very differently. If you look at the number of different kinship terms people use, or the sophisticated storytelling culture they have, then you realize that these are not ignorant people drawn here by blind faith.” Like Mehrotra, he recognizes that there is a deep knowledge and intelligence at work in the Kumbh Mela that doesn’t boil down to spectacles—or miracles. Rampuri told me about his first Kumbh Mela, in 1971, when there were no latrines, little running water and only the most basic tents. I asked whether in creating the vast and relatively modern city at this year’s event, some of the essential spirit of the Mela has been lost. “How do you effectively pass your traditions down through time,” he said. “You can’t just keep things as they were. Stasis is death. You have to be dynamic to survive.”
A couple of weeks after I left the Kumbh Mela, on the most auspicious bathing date, February 10, crowds coming from the railway station converged on a small bridge at the edge of the Kumbh grounds and a stampede ensued, killing at least 36 people. What exactly started the stampede and why it got so bad remain a mystery. When I met Mehrotra a couple of months later in Cambridge, we talked about the tragedy. “It’s terrible and regrettable, of course, and there are some crowd management techniques that, if implemented, would almost certainly have prevented that, but I don’t think it means that we can’t learn from the good parts of this pop-up megacity, of which there were many.” He proceeded to describe what he and his students had concluded after sifting through their documentation of the event and comparing it with other pop-up cities, everything from refugee camps to Burning Man.
“When you look at structures like refugee camps, you often see everything planned out in advance, with rows of identical houses built for refugees to just move right into,” he says. “But the theory of urban planning for the Kumbh Mela is very different. The authorities provide the infrastructure—roads, water, electricity—and they divvy up the sectors between groups. But each individual organization has to build out their own space, which makes for much more of a community than when you just move people into something you’ve built for them. There’s some rigidity to the Kumbh Mela planning system, with its preordained grid structure and its map of the sectors and their essential resources ahead of time, but there’s also a profound flexibility. Individual communities can shape their spaces to be exactly as they want them to be. And that combination works.”
The Kumbh serves to expand Mehrotra’s knowledge of what he calls the kinetic city. Traditional architecture, Mehrotra said, looks at the planned, built and permanent structures that constitute the formal, static city. But increasingly, especially in places like India, a second kind of city shadows the traditional one. The kinetic city is made up of things like informal settlements, shantytowns and improvisational market areas erected in a transitory fashion without official planning or permission. In many small- to medium-sized cities of the developing world, which Mehrotra sees as vital to our future, you have a large rural population, much like most attendees of the Kumbh, flocking to newly expanding cities and often ending up in the kinetic, informal areas. He hopes his research can inform how city governments or urban planners respond to these new waves of often unforeseen urban expansion.
“There are a few central insights,” he says. “First, you need flexible infrastructure that can be rapidly deployed for sanitation, transport and electricity. Second, public-private partnerships can work if it’s very clearly understood what each side will do. Here the religious groups knew exactly what they would get from the government and what they would have to fill in for themselves. Third, we can see that when there is a common cultural identity, as there is among the Kumbh Mela attendees, it means that they can much more easily conform to the norms of a new place and live together.”
What’s most interesting to me about Mehrotra’s insights is that he has found such practical wisdom woven into the fabric of the gathering. That this public-private conglomeration could pull off such a massive event is no small achievement and, as Rampuri, the California-raised guru pointed out, it’s not clear we’d be able to stage an event of this magnitude in the West. Can you imagine, he asked, if millions and millions of people suddenly descended on Kansas City?