The spectacular first Maha Data Kumbh
Five weeks on, the world’s largest religious gathering will end where myth and sanctity meet at the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical river Saraswati. It is also the site of a huge data gathering exercise by scientists and social anthropologists. In the last one decade, Delhi’s population rose from 15 million to 22 million. Since mid-January, a temporary city has come up near Allahabad—the Maha Kumbh Mela populated by around 10 million people. Last year, three Harvard University dons—Diana Eck, professor of religion; Rahul Mehrotra, design professor; and Tarun Khanna, director of the university’s South Asia initiative—decided to embark on the daunting adventure of studying the mela. “It took 60 years for the population of Istanbul to grow from one to 10 million, and 50 years in the case of Lagos. At Allahabad, though, the population rose from zero to 10 million, give or take a few million, in just a week’s time,” observes Khanna.
It’s perhaps the most successful mammoth project undertaken in chaotic India. Creating a city of tents once every 12 years tests the limits of urban planning, public civil works and law and order which form the essential blueprint of an urban behemoth. An equally daunting prospect is the immediate vanishing of the city when the Kumbh ends. Apart from being a confluence of millions of pilgrims, the mela is also a destination for devotees of another kind—those who worship science. The Harvard team and a legion of social anthropologists have gathered to study how the mela authorities respond to unexpected situations in the event of disasters, and the processes that enable efficient and swift decision-making. Khanna calls the Kumbh ‘a laboratory setting that scientists of all sorts constantly look for. While there are other large gatherings of folks, such as the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, those are a tenth of the size in terms of the number of participants.’ Social anthropologists are also studying how the complex social groupings develop harmoniously, where rules that govern people’s movements—both traditional and informal—develop and keep the festival going smoothly.
The researchers call this year’s mela as the first Big Data Kumbh. The millions of cellphones at the Kumbh will be tapped as mobile sensors. Local cellular providers and government authorities will help the team to collect the biggest ever telecom data bank ever created. The information will help understand disaster management by analysing how calamities can be prevented or contained; massive religious gatherings are usually venues of disasters. The Big Data project promises to be a treasure trove of information for statisticians, engineers, mathematicians and social scientists. On the sandy shores, science and belief meets to understand the edifice that is human civilisation.