Urban Transformations: कुम्भ मेला

by Ivan Valin

Haridwar Kumbh Mela in 1854

Good urban design should accommodate diversity. With terms like open-endedness, improvisation, and flexibility, we are attempting to describe the structure needed to achieve diverse experiences and uses, nuanced economies, or a vital spatial democracy in our cities. Usually, these variations are a daily occurrence--the transformation of urban space is continuous and gradual. At times, however, this change can be dramatic and instantaneous. No urban transformation is as massive as the one that will be sparked next month by the Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar, a small city along the Ganges in the Uttarakhand State of India.

Haridwar Kumbh Mela in 1986

Starting on January 14th, this city of 300,000 people will grow to accommodate an expected 70 million visitors over the course of the 45 day event--a population growth of more than 23,000%. On the most important day of the festival, at least 10 million people will come to bathe in the Ganges or watch the spectacle, making it one of the single largest gatherings of human beings for a single purpose in history. To put this in Olympian terms, it will be as if 110 separate "Bird's Nest" Stadiums full of people have all come to the river for a dip after the game.

The Kumbh Mela Festival occurs every three years in one of four cities in Northern India: Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik, and Ujjain. For the Hindu pilgrims, the festival centers around a series of ritual events in which immersion in the holy water grants absolution of past sins. Between bathing events, many visitors settle in to makeshift cities with temporary populations to rival major cities in the US. In Allahabad, even during the slightly less-attended 'half' Kumbh Mela, the figures of this instant city are astounding. According to the BBC, 30 square miles of floodplain (thats 1.3 Manhattans) were filled with 50,000 tents (think wedding tents, not camping tents), secured by 20,000 police (1.3 times the size of Chicago's entire force) and served by 25,000 toilets (that's all?). As in any city, hospitals, marketplaces, downtowns, tourist ghettos, slums and posh areas were also found.

Satellite image taken before and after 2001 Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. One can clearly see traces of previous festivals on the flood plain and the incredible impact the bathers have on the course and boundaries of the river.

Despite their size, these urban areas are still stitched into the fabric of the original cities. These four cities have been born of and evolved along with these events. The ability to expand ten-fold or more is inherent to the evolution of the city. The economy of Haridwar, it seems, is devoted to supplying visitors to the sacred waterfront. Har-Ki-Pauri, the main bathing area or 'ghat'--is at the terminus of the main commercial avenue filled with jug-sellers, icon-pawners, hotels, and restaurants. Har-ki-pauri extends the waterfront with a canal, making three river-fronts where there was once only one. Bridges extending to each of the bathing edges are extensions of the commercial streets, being good places to hawk wares and witness the daily rituals of sacred bathing. In Nashik, a larger Kumbh Mela city, the river has similarly been divided into separate streams, doubling the 'surface-contact' of the city with the river. When not in full use during a bathing event, these edges function quite well as laundering areas. At certain times of the day, the banks are plastered with a mosaic of drying saris.

Nashik waterfront, site of a future Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh Mela events in India demonstrate a capacity for cities to facilitate extreme fluctuations of people and purpose. The particular event described is predictable and more or less known (give or take 10 million souls. . .), but can be considered a 'screen-test' for more unpredictable events having similar outcomes. War, political conflict, natural disasters, climate change, and disease can also displace millions of people and force cities to function as triage centers or campgrounds. In Hollywood, fortunes have been made in visualizing the destruction and subsequent moody transformation of important cities. Since 9-11 and Katrina, city planners--we are told--have become more aware of the possibilities of such extreme transformations, but I have a feeling that the spatial outcomes are quite undesirable (anyone want to live in a football stadium for a month?). Perhaps we should be asking our visionary city planners to take a trip to India next month to see how it is done.

Har-ki-pauri ghat in Haridwar at nightly ritual prayers.

Credits: Historic etching by JMW Turner, found here . Image of Haridwar Kumbh Mela from adventures-india.com. Historic photo of Haridwar ghat from Wikipedia. Satellite image and photo of Allahabad from BBC news. Photos of Nashik and Haridwar ghats by Ivan Valin.


  1. This is fascinating, for the conclusions you draw about learning from the way these cities accommodate such massive influx of people and for the way the events transform the landscape. I wonder how long this festival has been happening. It seems the cities must have many years of experience, and it would be interesting to see whether the festival and its management have changed with economic development, technology, population growth, etc.

  2. Peter, this is a question I was asking myself--and it is hard to know. The event has been going on in at least some of these cities since the 7th century and reached its current form and size by the 14th century. But even with this much practice, there seem to have been tipping points after which works were undertaken to significantly improve capacity, access, or safety. My guess is that between these interventions, management is a combination of practiced improvisation and crowd consciousness--after all, most are there to do (roughly) the same thing in (roughly) the same way.

  3. I like those ideas, practiced improvisation and crowd consciousness. They apply to so many aspects of city planning and other pursuits. Thanks for these insights!