Ash smeared sadhus standing on one leg or lying on a bed of nails while subsisting on leaves; pilgrims who immerse themselves at the Sangam to wash away their sins, attain moksh and be free of the wretchedness of repeated rebirth; unfortunate stampedes that kill hundreds; colour, vibrancy and a desperate yearning to reach out to the Unknowable… the Kumbh Mela, held every 12 years at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna at Allahabad, is all that.
It's also, in the words of Rahul Mehrotra, who has co-edited the excellent Kumbh Mela; Mapping the Ephemeral Megacity, "a pop-up megacity". A 20 sq mile-marvel, the nagari shelters about 70 million visitors on the dry flood plains for the duration of the Kumbh, after which everything is disassembled and the site returns to being rich agricultural land.
The product of a multi-year multi-disciplinary research project focussed on the 2013 Kumbh Mela coordinated by the Harvard University South Asia Institute, the book includes superb photos by Dinesh Mehta and Giles Price and illuminating essays on the significance of the Kumbh from the religious, architectural, public health, government and infrastructural perspectives. Both scholarly and accessible, it's stuffed with the kind of information that would induce salivation in fans of the BBC quiz show, Mastermind.
Like, did you know the site covers 1,936.56 hectares, that it has 99 parking lots, 30 police stations, 50 fire stations, 14 allopathic hospitals, 22,000 street lights, 35,000 individual toilets - that's probably more than the number of toilets in the capital - and that an estimated 200,000 people were lost at the last event?
But more important than the thrills it affords to the hoarder of statistical trivia is the fact that this work and the research projects out of which it grew will provide many insights to those pondering about the big questions to do with public health and rapid urbanisation. Can some of the dynamism evident in the building and administration of the Kumbh nagari be replicated in India's emerging cities? Could some of the methods of the megacity that vanishes almost completely - except, sadly, for the mounds of waste it leaves in its wake - be used to improve conditions in refugee camps? What are the public health lessons that could be implemented at other mass gatherings, both religious and secular, across the world like the Haj and the Olympics? Could the methods used at the last Kumbh to track the spread of cold and flu and the digital cataloguing of complaints at clinics - Sachit Balsari of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights,who co-authored the essay on Health and Safety reckons the Kumbh is an epidemiologist's nightmare "in terms of disease transmission" - be replicated at other pilgrimage spots across the country? We already have the answer to the last question: medical students from Allahabad, who worked with the Harvard team in 2013, are now screening pilgrims at the ongoing Nasik Kumbh for hypertension, diabetes and oral lesions.
The book's strength lies in how well it explains both the spiritual and the temporal aspects of the world's largest gathering. 'Understanding the Kumbh Mela' by Diana Eck and Kalpesh Bhatt discusses the religious and mythic aspects of the event, explains the concept of tirtha, quotes Hsuan Tsang who, back in 643CE, already described the great mela as an "age-long festival", examines the politics of the akharas, and ruminates on the many-layered concept of sacrifice at Prayag -"the foremost place of sacrifice" in the words of a contemporary sadhu.
If you have any complaints about the book, it's to do with references to units of measure like hectares and miles instead of metres, and the naivety of the suggestion that a nominal ticket price be charged: "If the Kumbh Mela is to last and thrive in Allahabad for twelve, twenty-four, forty-eight or 1,200 more years, as India grows and as the rivers get more and more stressed, something like this may be implemented". The Kumbh existed for millennia before the modern Indian state came into being and it'll continue to exist long after we are gone. To a civilization that believes a "day of Brahma" is equal to 4.32 billion years, the idea of an impending environmental doomsday - even if it's entirely probably - seems absurd… as is the idea of charging for a dip at Sangam - even if it's entirely necessary. But these are mere quibbles about a book that is undoubtedly a fine achievement.