Urban Planning

What a Harvard professor believes megacities can learn from the Kumbh Mela

Architecture teacher Rahul Mehrotra has co-edited a new book about the Allahabad Kumbh, the largest temporary settlement in the world.

Once every 12 winters, as the waters at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna retreat, the Allahabad district authorities take over the river banks and set about marking large grids in the sand. In a span of just three months, government and municipal officials build an entire city on the 24-sq km expanse, complete with various styles of tent housing, 150 kms of roads, toilets and drainage systems, electricity grids, bridges across the rivers, new bus and train stations and even hospitals.

From January to March, this “pop-up megacity” of the Kumbh Mela is inhabited by a floating population of more than 35 million people, and then quickly dismantled. By the time the next monsoon arrives, all traces of the massive city disappear and the river banks are once more submerged.

The Maha Kumbh Mela of Allahabad, held every 12 years, is a site of faith for Hindu pilgrims and a source of wonder for anyone keen to see one of the biggest festive gatherings of people in the world. During the 2013 Kumbh, however, a team of 50 researchers from Harvard University decided to go beyond the wonder and study the fair as a remarkable achievement of temporary urban planning.


Pilgrims bathing in the Ganga at the Kumbh Mela. Photo: Dhruv Kazi


The result of the multi-disciplinary study is a new book, Kumbh Mela: Mapping the Ephemeral Megacity, published and launched by Harvard University’s South Asia Institute last month. The book brings together in-depth research by the faculty and students from various Harvard schools, including urban planning, public health, business and religious studies.

For architect Rahul Mehrotra, the chair of Harvard’s urban planning and design department and co-editor of the book, the Kumbh study raises one important question: If a temporary city can be successfully erected and governed for millions of people every 12 years, why can’t we apply the same kind of planning and efficiency to other urban contexts?

Formal-informal, static-kinetic

Mehrotra, who divides his time between Harvard and his architecture practice in India, was drawn towards the Kumbh because of his interest in what he calls “extreme urbanism”.

“The Kumbh is an extreme form of temporary urbanism, and I believe looking at extremes is productive,” said Mehrotra, speaking to Scroll.in at his Mumbai office.


Tents sprawled out in organised grids at the Kumbh Mela. Photo: Dinesh Mehta


At the Kumbh city, a range of government departments work in unison to ensure that there are no stampedes, accidents, epidemics or other public health disasters as millions of pilgrims pass through. And yet, the Mela is just a temporary space that must eventually be dismantled; most of the city is built out of makeshift, disposable or reusable materials that are often stored for future use.

But the Kumbh is also space where formalities and informalities co-exist, something that Mehrotra believes is characteristic of all Indian cities. “The ephemeral landscape of the Kumbh is interesting because of the wonderful mapping of the formal over the informal,” he said. “For instance, the grids within the fair are organised formally by the state, but the akharas (Hindu religious denominations) within the grids are organised informally.”

The transitory nature of the Kumbh Mela makes it easier for the formal and informal to work simultaneously, but smoothly. And when they work together, says Mehrotra, it in-turn challenges notions of permanence at a more universal level.

“Every city has permanent and impermanent components that co-exist,” said Mehrotra, who had also explored these ideas in his 2008 essay Negotiating Static and Kinetic Cities. He describes the “static city” as one comprising the permanent elements it is built on – the concrete, steel and wood, for instance. The “kinetic city” is more three-dimensional and temporary, one that constantly modifies and reinvents itself. “The processions, weddings, festivals, hawkers, street vendors and slum dwellers all create an ever-transforming streetscape,” the essay says.

“But when we design cities, we do it mainly for permanence,” said Mehrotra. “My question is, can one make the temporary more deliberate? Can we build cities where temporary elements are given as much importance as the permanent ones? We need to think of reversibility more strategically when designing our cities for the future.”

Good governance

Deploying cities that privilege the temporary could be extremely useful in the context of refugee camps or housing for urban migrant populations. While the Kumbh system may not be completely flawless, Mehrotra believes its model of governance definitely has helpful lessons.

The Kumbh is organised with the co-ordinated efforts of the central government, the state government and the municipal authorities, and there is a hierarchy of governance to be followed on paper. “But these hierarchies flip during the actual implementation, when the person on the ground is given a lot more authority along with accountability,” said Mehrotra.

The Kumbh has survived as a successful institution and urban system primarily because it has a single purpose and is bound by the faith of millions of Hindu pilgrims. But flexible-yet-accountable governance is also a major factor, says Mehrotra. “In big cities like Mumbai, where there are so many elements of temporary urbanism, this lesson of governance is important.”


Makeshift pontoon bridges built across the Ganga at the Kumbh. Photo: Vineet Diwadkar



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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.