Public Health at the Kumbh Mela

Home » 2013 Kumbh Mela » FXB-Led HSPH Team First to Research Public Health Concerns of the Kumbh Mela

FXB-Led HSPH Team First to Research Public Health Concerns of the Kumbh Mela

ALLAHABAD, India – Every twelve years, on the flood plains of northern India where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers intersect, the rainy season recedes only to be replaced with a s

urge of humanity that blankets the plains anew. The occasion is the Maha Kumbh Mela, or the “great urn fair,” a month-long Hindu religious festival that is the single largest public gathering on earth. Tens of millions of people from all walks of life journey to this site to bathe in the rivers, where it is believed the gods spilled an urn containing the elixir of life. The Kumbh Mela is celebrated at rotating sites on a four-year basis, but the festival reaches historic proportions on the twelfth year in Allahabad, when the stars align and it is thought that a dip in the sacred waters can purify the bather of any wrongdoing. The human mass is so immense that it can be deciphered from space; in the last Maha Kumbh Mela, upwards of 30 million people participated in one bathing day alone. The 2013 Maha Kumbh Mela is now underway.

During the course of the festival, a temporary city is erected and

demolished over mere months. The city represents an extraordinary feat in urban planning and mass gatherings, as the authorities create in the short term all the elements of a booming, contemporary city, including housing, electricity, medical centers, water distribution and sanitation systems, and police and fire stations.

One of many pontoon bridges over the Sangam.

One of many pontoon bridges over the Sangam.

This transient city will be the focus of an inter-disciplinary team of Harvard faculty and students who are traveling to Allahabad to assess the festival. The FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, under the leadership of FXB Director Dr. Jennifer Leaning, is sponsoring a team of Harvard School of Public Health researchers, who are joined by colleagues from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, School of Design, Business School, and Harvard Global Health Institute. The inter-disciplinary collaboration is organized and supported by the South Asia Initiative and the Harvard Global Health Institute. The HSPH researchers will be the first team to ever study the public health implications of the Kumbh Mela.

Each discipline has varying objectives:

  • Harvard School of Public Health: Under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Leaning MD, MPH, the health team is led by Dr. Satchit Balsari MD, MPH (Fellow, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights; Attending Physician, New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical College) along with Dr. Gregg Greenough MD, MPH (Director of Research, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative; Assistant Professor, Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School; Attending Physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital).  The team is conducting a qualitative and quantitative study on the key parameters of health, security, and protection as they apply to mass public gatherings and the creation of a virtually spontaneous city.
  • Faculty of Arts and Sciences: Under the direction of Dr. Diana Eck, (Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies and Fredric Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Member of the Faculty of Divinity), the FAS team is studying the religious practices and cultures of the festival, as well as the environmental implications of the mass gathering.
  • Harvard Graduate School of Design: Under the direction of Prof. Rahul Mehrotra (Chair, Urban Planning and Design; Professor of Urban Design and Planning), the design team is treating the festival as a case study for temporary construction, and recording the movements of people and infrastructure.
  • Harvard Business School: Under the direction of Prof. Tarun Khanna (Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School; Director, South Asia Institute), the business team is examining the makeshift economy and markets of the Kumbh, and the transformative role of various technology networks.

Stay tuned for updates, photos, and more!

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