Kumbh Mela by Harvard University South Asia Institute


This illustrated book on Kumbh Mela came to me as a gift a couple of years ago. I had all the intentions to read it, but as always, books are read when you are ready to read them. I picked it up to read before visiting Kumbh Mela but time permitted reading of only a few pages. In the meantime, I received the book Kumbha by Nityananda Misra and I carried it with me on the trip.

Kumbh Mela By Harvard University South Asia InstituteI had all intentions to read it after experiencing the Kumbh Mela for a few days. However, it was an invitation to speak at an event about the Mela that I sat down and read this book. I expected it to be a clinical study of the Mela and it turned out to be exactly that.

I appreciate the study of this biggest congregation of humanity on earth from different angles, especially how the crowds are managed and how the facilities are put up such a short time span. There is a need to study how the temporary city of such scale can be built with all possible infrastructure needs of millions who visit for the Kumbh Mela. There is a need to study how people peacefully visit and meet their spiritual goals in such large numbers.

Read More – Kumbha – Traditionally Modern Mela by Nityananda Misra

The book does study them well from these angles. There are many photo essays that bring alive some aspects of the Mela. I liked the fact that they not just covered the Mela but also covered the dismantling the infrastructure and the re-used material for next melas. These aspects are often not talked about in most Kumbh news and literature.

Buy Kumbh Mela: Mapping the Ephemeral Megacity by Harvard University South Asia Institute at Amazon

Graphic representation of the Kumbh area lets you see the scale of Kumbh Mela in a new light. You appreciate the nuances of immaculate planning that goes into the making of this unique festival. The graphs that show how the pontoon bridges made on the river are at different places every year makes you wonder about the will of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna. In another book I read about a year when the rivers met at two different places, creating two Sangams. It demanded a different level of planning from the administration.

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Having said that, I have a big objection to authors stating that the Kumbh Mela got organized only after British Administration came into the picture. There may have been recorded in the modern sense of recording since then. Thousands of years old practice cannot run for so long without a sense of organization. Self-organization is the way in many festivals in India, and Kumbh Mela is the biggest of them all. Giving credit to anyone but to the sages who started this long-standing tradition is unfair.

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The conclusion is also troublesome. The suggestion of ticketing the Kumbh Mela is hilarious. In a place where people come to donate and practice austerities, ticketing is a nauseating word. It is a place, where even in today’s materialistic world, you can survive on what others give, where you are offered food with folded hands, where you can sleep for free, talking of ticketing is blasphemy. It is not a commercial event even if commerce is an integral part of this Mela.

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Spiritual Angle

The spiritual angle was completely lost in the book. Now it is ok if that is not your focus, but in that case, authors should keep quiet on this aspect. I wish some authors had spent some time understanding the divine atmosphere of Kumbh Mela, looking at the absolutely divine faces of people taking a dip in the Sangam or the people attending the various spiritual discourses. This aspect is a big let down in the book.

Read it only for the graphics. Photographs you can access on social media by people who visited.

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