Kumbh Mela: The Ephemeral Megacity
What a Hindu pilgrimage can teach us about network states and cloud cities
This is essay 3 of 6 for 1729 Writers Cohort #1. Apply to 1729 today.
With Covid and the advent of remote work, many surmised the demise of cities. I don’t believe in this scenario because, as Alfred Marshall wrote in 1890, in dense clusters, “the mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air.” Urban life brings economic opportunities and better infrastructure. That’s why three million people worldwide are moving to urban areas every week, and this trend is here to stay:
Still, if Zoom won’t end urban life, it does make talent and capital more mobile. So technology could revolutionize the very notion of a city. That’s the ambition of CabinDAO. Its founder, Jon Hillis, defines a ‘decentralized city’ as “a network of distinct physical locations tied together by shared governance and culture.” As crazy as it may sound, decentralized cities are just another instance of a “cloud formation” taking physical shape, as outlined by Balaji Srinivasan:
It’s now common for a couple to meet online and stay together for years. Or for an internet startup with 100 employees to be fully remote. Decentralized cities extend this concept in terms of scale and duration. Digital nomads—remote workers living a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle—were the forerunners of this concept. However, most of them move alone and don’t belong to a community. They’re not (yet) “tied together by shared governance and culture.” On the other hand, participants at Kumbh Mela are. But what is Kumbh Mela?
Most Westerners are unaware of what is the largest celebration on earth. Kumbh Mela is a Hindu festival celebrated four times over a 12-year cycle, its location rotating between four pilgrimage places on four sacred rivers. The Kumbh Mela lasts about eight weeks, and in 2019 it attracted more than 200 million people—the population of Brazil—including 50 million on the most attended day. (As a matter of comparison, Burning Man gathers 80,000 participants over nine days.) On the above “Classification of Cloud Formations,” Kumbh Mela would be classified as a gigantic “Cloud Gathering.” Kumbh Mela is organized in October on a riverbed once the river’s waters recede after the monsoon. In June, traces of the event disappear with the new monsoon as the river floods the site. That’s why Kumbh Mela has been described as “The Ephemeral Mega City,” the “Cyclical City,” or a “virtual pop-up megacity.”
I’ve unfortunately never attended Kumbh Mela, but I followed Tarun Khanna’s “Entrepreneurship in Emerging Economies” MOOC, where he explains that:
This megacity is constructed and deconstructed in record time: approximately two months for each phase. Total budget: US$590 million.
It follows a ‘Sites and Services’ approach. The government provides the essential grid—rudimentary roads and bridges to cross the river, a basic sanitation system, water supply, street light, internet and cell phone capabilities, and free electricity—then blocks are leased to private religious trusts that had been around for hundreds of years (Akharas). In essence, a public-private partnership.
The grid is rigid, but within the grid, every block can self-organize freely. Some blocks are highly hierarchical, while others are more democratic.
Blocks are mostly made of tents for sleeping, eating, religious gatherings, entertainment, and socializing. There are also 14 hospitals, 150 first aid posts, mass vaccination centers, fire services, and police stations.
After the celebrations, bridges, telephone lines, electrical poles, and street lighting are recycled.
Even the governance is temporal. One year before the event, the state’s chief minister sets up a top-down governance structure, and the state bureaucracy allocates resources. Then for six months, during the implementation of Kumbh Mela (construction, event, deconstruction), the administration structure flips, and the commissioner of the festival is giving temporary extraordinary powers. This bottom-up management structure has minimal interference from the state’s chief minister.
It is safe. Despite the size of the event, no major incident happens. The worst incident in the 21st century was the 2013 stampede which killed 42 people. To compare, about 3 million Muslims attend the Hajj pilgrimage every year, and the 2015 stampede resulted in 2,411 deaths.
Although the festival is inclusive and anyone can attend—irrespective of their faith—most participants are Hindu. They’re from different denominations, come from all parts of India, and speak different languages, but they’re there for a common religious and cultural purpose. As a result, politics and potential contestations are all suspended for a few weeks for this incredible celebration. Kumbh Mela becomes the physical representation of what Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community.” Here: the Hindu nation. Therefore, the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage is both a personal journey for the pilgrim and a collective act of faith for the community.
When we talk about cities, urban planning, and architecture, we tend to take permanence as a default condition. Kumbh Mela teaches us that cities can be ephemeral. “Decentralized cities” aren’t that crazy after all.
I also believe that this strong sense of community among Hindu pilgrims makes Kumbh Mela possible. Decentralized cities will have to construct similar “imagined communities” to succeed. Indeed, as Roxine Kee and _marulli noted: “A decentralized city, on the other hand, places a heavier emphasis on culture because it has no set physical location.” Coco Liu from Talent City—a project aiming to build Africa’s “Silicon Valley” in a new city next to Lagos—similarly told me that Talent City would rest on three pillars: physical, digital, and cultural infrastructure. I love this framework because Kumbh Mela shows that the cultural component is essential. As it is intangible, it’ll be the hardest to build and maintain. Kumbh Mela has existed for 5,000 years; on the other hand, how can decentralized cities quickly develop a powerful feeling of community? I don’t know, but I’m excited about this challenge!
And of course, if we can create decentralized cities, the logical next step will be to build decentralized countries, aka “cloud countries.” 🚀 Does this sound crazy to you? Let me know!