Why a Harvard Finance Instructor Went to the Kumbh Mela

Every 12 years, millions of Hindu pilgrims travel to the Indian city of Allahabad for the Kumbh Mela, the largest public gathering in the world. In this first-person account, Senior Lecturer John Macomber shares his first impressions and explains what he's doing there.
by John D. Macomber

I'm in a winter coat and hat in the January pre-dawn cold and dark, standing on sandbags on a riverbank in the middle of Uttar Pradesh, India. Pilgrims and the faithful and the respectful come to the river this morning by the hundreds, clad in the minimum, praying and splashing and releasing marigold wreaths and rafts of small oil lamps into the river. This is not like any field research I've done before.

Thirty-five Harvard colleagues and I are at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, a mass pilgrimage in which tens of millions of Hindus gather to bathe at the confluence of the sacred Ganga (Ganges) River, the Yamuna River, and the mythical underground Saraswathi. Legend says that on his return to the Himalaya, Vishnu flew over this spot and dropped sacred nectar from a pitcher—a kumbh.

“We are all here to witness how devotion, design, health, and finance come together.”

Six months ago this land was under 30 feet of water. Three weeks from now this will become the largest city on earth, the largest single-purpose gathering of humanity in history. Every 12 years, when the moon and stars are aligned, this becomes the most auspicious spot in Hinduism, and there is a six-week-long festival, or mela, for the millions of pilgrims. The Maha Kumbh Mela is happening right now. It's expected to draw close to 200 million people over almost eight weeks, and as many as 30 million in a single day. The Harvard team is here to learn about why and how.

Our team is led by Prof. Diana Eck of the Harvard Divinity School. She is a world expert on pilgrimages and the author of definitive books about the rivers of India. Prof. Rahul Mehrotra, chair of the department of urban planning and design at the Harvard Design School, has a team on site mapping and photographing the city that has sprung up here. Prof. Greg Greenough of the Harvard School of Public Health is directing researchers interested in everything from the pH of the Ganga to the quality and quantity of toilets to the structure of the medical response teams in place; after all, from time immemorial pilgrimages have been perfect places to transfer and share not only information, but disease as well. From Harvard Business School, I am here to discover what the Kumbh Mela can teach me about real estate, urbanization, sustainability, and infrastructure. We are all here to witness how devotion, design, health, and finance come together.

You hear the Mela before you see it. I had expected serenity, sanctuary, devotion. What I experience instead is a nonstop cacophony as each of the major Akharas (aligned but competing religious denominations; there are about 17 of them) blasts its own music, prayers, and programs all day and night, with just a slight pause from about 11 pm to 3 am. You smell the Mela before you see it—a combination of wood smoke and dust. And to see it is like nothing I've witnessed—and I've done field research in cities from Vietnam to Peru to China to Saudi Arabia and in five states in India.

The popular press focuses on the colorful: the globally known swamis; the ash covered monks; the business people and penniless people together in the Ganga; the elephants and orange robes and crazy hair and the blend of true believers and true hucksters. There are photo-essays galore all over the world-wide web. But there is much more to the Mela than shahi snaan and naga sadhus (sacred dips and naked ascetics).

Kumbh MelaWe are on a bluff above a sandbar. On the sand below from south to north, from my left to my right, a "pop-up megacity" has been built. It's at least eight kilometers from the business end—the Sangam or the point where the Yamuna and Ganga merge (think of Battery Park in Manhattan or the Bund in Shanghai)—to where the northern suburbs peter out in District 7. The organizers say this is 1,900 hectares (4,700 acres or more than 8 square miles) and it's all built out with roads, bridges, electric power, tiny tents, midsize tents, and impressive multi-story temples.

I'm here to see if the lessons of a pop-up megacity , built around a duodenary pilgrimage, are lessons we can extend to the building of other new cities. I believe there are three global trends that will drive much of the global conversation of the next 30 years. First, rapid and massive urbanization: hundreds of millions of people are migrating to cities for better lives. Second, worsening scarcity of critical resources like clean water, clean air, electric power, and land (and increasing oversupply of traffic, pollution, and greenhouse gases). And third, government logjams: federal governments are stuck and can't take long term action on these problems—stuck in the US or India over politics and stuck in China and South Africa over funding.

The sandbank below me is a proxy for many new cities that need to be built in India and throughout Asia, Africa, and South America; the research will draw from our observations of how these lessons fit in the framework of infrastructure and urbanization.

I'm here to look at the roads, the pedestrian corrals, the water, the sanitation, the provision of electricity, the thoughtful deployment of public-private partnerships, and the land allocation necessary to support up to 200 million pilgrims. There are extensible leadership and finance lessons for me here, and they can become Finance and Strategy teaching material. We can think of decision points, analytical skills, and universal frameworks that we can apply to HBS style case studies—the core of participant-centered learning in our MBA and Executive Education programs.

The people who planned this pop-up city had to wait until the monsoon receded to assess the banks. They needed to understand how many hectares each Akhara required. (The Juna Akhara, the biggest, has four separate quadrants.) They had to figure out how to provide on the order of 30 MVa of power to 22,000 temporary poles (provided by a bank of diesel generators out of sight of the main event, supplementing the state grid), not to mention designing a route to the river, into the river, and out of the river for millions of pilgrims. There are said to be more than 156 kilometers of double track checker plate steel creating drivable roads in the sand and more than 4,000 hollow steel floating pontoons supporting 18 temporary bridges spanning the Ganga and Yamuna.

We are witnessing back-of-house success in administration that leads to front-of-house success in the experience for more than a hundred million pilgrims. This event is a big deal for the Republic of India and for the state of Uttar Pradesh and for the city of Allahabad. It needs to go well.

    • YRC Bharadwaj
    • Sr Manager Underwriting
    Real and Nice way of narration about Kumbh Mela. HBS Team has invoked new dimension of learning by observing the great event on the earth. I thank HBS R&D Team for their contributions.

    Thanks & Regards
    • Vandana Sonwaney
    • Professor & Director, SYmbiosis Institute of Operations Management
    Kumbhmela is operations challenge indeed. A never seen before complex project, and a reservoir of research potential. Kudos to John Macomber and the HBS team for exploring the mega event
    • Swapna Vora
    As a veteran visitor to the Kumbh Mela, I look forward to the HBS report. My visits were absolutely fabulous and people well informed and kind. We got excellent food by requesting local housewives to cook their 'best' dishes. The lost and found center worked well. Wonderful local sugar cane juice!
    • Ramesh Deshpande
    • President & CEO, Investment and Finance Consultants
    This is amazing. I must congratulate Prof John D. Macomber for writing this story beautifully. However, the Kumbha Mela is not just a ritual; there is a philosophy behind it, emerged over thousands of years, that one has to consciously give up the worldly pleasures to be able to make progress toward accomplishing spirituality -- perceiving unity between one's energy and the universal energy. Kumbha Mela is just one of the many ways that Hindus in India practice to make an advance on the path of spiritualiy.
    • Anonymous
    It is really very interesting to see the attention of the mighty Harvard Business School on this great event
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Kumbh mela is something unique India in general and the state of Uttar Pradesh in particular can truly boast of. Managing the millions who throng Prayag (Allahabad) every day is a mammoth task and watching this happen without much hassle is something to be seen to be believed.
    It gives us a great feeling that HBS team has visited the spot to deeply observe everything that has happened to create the large agglomeration.as also to notice how the various activities are being carried out.
    One can fathom the depth of religious sentiments and what it means particularly to Hindus associating with the festival.
    • Vidyashankar Hoskere
    • Director, Dhaatu
    The last paragraph in the above article sums up the phenomenon of the Kumbh Mela, as it sums up the secret of success of every worthwhile endeavour - that administration must be back-of-the-house if success must be front-of-the-house!

    The Ganga represents knowing while the Yamuna represents devotion. These are what are seen and experienced on the face of it in the Kumbh Mela. The river Saraswati that represents knowledge is the back-of-the-house aspect amongst the three. The existential and experiential aspects of life enable us to celebrate it only when the knowledge that goes into the organisation and administration is buried and unseen. It is there and yet it's presence is subtle.

    There is no advertisement for this phenomenal gathering of the Kumbh. A single line in every traditional Indian calender proclaims the date as the beginning of the Kumbh. And people pour in. Not because of some publicity given or because of media coverage nor because they can say that they have been there. Mostly it is not even mentioned or talked about in the families that visit the Kumbh. It is essential to them like having a meal. Part of what is required for their sustenance. Part of what is food for the rejuvenation of one's spiritual dimension.

    The Kumbh means a pot. While it melts within itself all the variety and colour in human spiritual exploration, it surfaces as the sand banks surface after the monsoons to become a plateau above and beyond that which has melted, into a single point of union of knowing and of devotion that marks the centroid of man's spiritual quest. This point of sacred unity is within the Kumbh and the Mela is outside. That is why devout people of all faiths trudge to this place and take a dip in the Ganga and the Yamuna - this is their dip into the Kumbh - a moment of merger with the universal away from the Mela which exists outside.

    No one who has not dipped his head in the waters of the Ganga has visited the Kumbh. He has only visited the Mela. Together it forms a microcosm of the Universe - of the varied manifestation of the external phenomenal world and of the unity of truth that is hidden deep inside the cave of the heart of this universe. The external celebration and the internalised knowledge are two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the human nature, two aspects of nature's design and two aspects of the play of the life. Let us dare to submerge ourselves in that sacred river of life before we express in the colourful world on the banks.
    • kprvittal
    • Retd Director, NIASM, ICAR, MoA, GoI
    I congratulate all the planners, executors behind the scene and managers on the front for their abilities and devotion to run the show smooth. Its an mammoth task, believed to be real on participation only.
    • Malefetsane Soai
    • CSO, LeBOHA
    Nicely written! Well done!
    • ravindranath
    Well Understood by the author and concluded well about the event .Well written .
    • Jameel Madhani
    • Managing Partner, Vistaar Capital LLC
    From a sustainable city building perspective, the Kumbh Mela is a fantastic, possibly inimitable, experiment. The HBS video on this topic provided a powerful visual of an organized group of volunteers collecting debris by the shores in an effort to clean the river bed, while drawing attention to the impact our new cities are having on the global pollution mentioned in this article.

    If the Mela represents the principles of cleansing and having a collective concern for humanity, then may the HBS Team generate practical insights which inspire our State and Non-State actors to apply these same principles in building the next generation of our world's great cities.
    • Ravi VVN
    • Project Manager
    A nice article on Kumbh.

    Was just thinking / wondering how organizing Kumbh is different from organizing Olympics (in terms of volumes and cost) ?