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The Kumbh transforms the Sangam into a dynamic urban space

Written by Anthony Acciavatti |
March 11, 2013 2:58:53 am

The Kumbh transforms the Sangam into a dynamic urban space

Every twelfth year,the sleepy university town of Allahabad is transformed into a colossal tent city populated by millions of pilgrims. And it all seems to happen so fast. The waters of the Ganga and Yamuna slowly recede after the monsoon. A city grid is tattooed into the banks and shoals at the Sangam. Tents and temples pop up in October. Pontoon bridges stretch from one bank of the Ganga to the other and pilgrims begin to arrive in January. Then come reporters and camera crews from all over the world. They come to document the life of what must at first appear to be the world’s largest Instant-Mega-City: an ephemeral tent city with the major infrastructure of a permanent city.

Yet how can an instant city possibly provide a constant flow of running water and electricity,a coherent layout of avenues and roads defining 14 sectors,18 pontoon bridges,38 hospitals,30 police stations,30 fire stations and 35,000 toilets? Given the months (even years) of planning involved to make the Kumbh happen,it is anything but an instant city or a permanent metropolis. It is a methodically planned ephemeral city. To make this happen,government officials collaborate with public health workers and akharas to organise the physical layout of the temporary city. While at first glance it might have the ephemeral qualities of a pop-up city,its deep structure is that of a carefully planned metropolis in an ephemeral and dynamic landscape. It is ephemeral and dynamic. But it is not instant.

A similar cyclical process takes place every year when the Magh Mela,a bathing festival like the Kumbh,takes place at the Sangam at the same time of the year. There,too,a gridded city plan is laid out. Plumbing is buried in the sandbars dotting the Ganga. And an electrical grid provides power for millions of pilgrims and news crews. If anything,the Kumbh and Magh Melas are so regularly timed that they just seem part of the annual cycle of the Ganga to residents of Allahabad.

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But what is more spectacular than the reliable delivery of water and electricity,and the planning for millions of pilgrims — no doubt feats unto themselves — is the inherent ephemeral nature of the Sangam and its place in the larger system of the Ganga once the bathing festivals end in March. After the tents and temples are dismantled and the cameras are gone,the gridded city remains etched into the banks of the Ganga. Footprints of tents remain in the grey silt. Farmers use these residual lines from the sprawling metropolis to cultivate wheat and rice. Herds of cows and goats graze while water buffalo plunge into the river. In other words,the ephemeral metropolis is transformed into an agropolis. This process occurs every year: from a pastoral landscape to a densely populated tent city to islands of wheat and rice paddies to a monsoonal deluge of gelatinous silt. This process is not instantaneous. It happens in slow motion.

This process of slow motion change that takes place at the Sangam in Allahabad is a microcosm of the changes that take place all along the Ganga. Seasonal farmers along the river divide the silt deposited after the monsoons into fields. They build temporary thatch homes and dig shallow wells to take advantage of the high water table level. Desolate dirt paths that terminate in the river,when connected by pontoon bridges,turn into bustling corridors and marketplaces. Stalls open and children swim in the river and play cricket on the shoals. The entire Ganga corridor is transformed into a continuous quilt of agropoleis.

And while the Kumbh Mela appears as a spectacularly dense,yet ephemeral,mega city in the months surrounding Magh,the whole stretch of the Ganga already constitutes a mega-city. The Ganga corridor is one of the most densely populated river belts in the world. Uttar Pradesh alone,a state roughly the size of Great Britain,has a population of almost 200 million people (if a nation,it would be the fifth most populous country in the world). Having personally mapped cities and hamlets along the Ganga from the glacier at Gangotri to Patna by foot,boat and occasionally,car,over the past eight years,I have witnessed how changes that take place at the Sangam in Allahabad resemble changes all along the river. Such changes are impossible to capture in a couple of months. They must be measured and drawn in maps that account for dynamic change.

Perhaps,what makes the Kumbh Mela so spectacular,besides its density of population and infrastructure,is just how the Sangam offers a dynamic model of urban space in northern India. The cyclical changes of the Sangam offer a view into a world — an ecosystem — at the scale of a small city. Even though its intensity is definitely unparalleled,the slow motion changes that take place here may proffer insights into how to better integrate change and temporality in the design and life of cities. It offers another way to think about how infrastructure might be used to better organise space and integrate different communities and environmental change. One must be careful not to romanticise the spontaneity and changes that take place annually at the Sangam in Allahabad. Otherwise,we are likely to suffer the consequences of sight without the benefits of insight.

Acciavatti,a New York-based architect,is the author of the forthcoming ‘ Ganges Water Machine: Designing New India’s Ancient River’

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