Connect with us

When the River Crosses a City: Communities and Activities during the Kumbh Mela Festival

In the next installment of the blog series "When the River Crosses the City," we discuss Kumbh Mela and the communities and activities that occur during the festival.
kumbh mela
Figure 1: Participants bathing in the river’s water.

The Festival

Kumbh Mela is a religious gathering that happens every three years in an Indian city on the floodplain of a river (the Kshipra, Godavari or Gange rivers). The celebration follows a twelve-year cycle, shifting among four different locations: Ujjain, Nasik, Haridwar and Allahabad, the most sacred and popular one. The event implies a pilgrimage to the river and is accompanied by a purifying bath in the sacred waters. Kumbh Mela lasts around fifty-five days and entails the creation of a temporary city hosting five to seventy-two million people. The process to create, govern and dismantle this infrastructure represents a unique example of temporary urban-rivers activities. 

Figure 2: The four locations where Kumbh Mela takes place, respectively from top right to bottom left: Ujjain, Nasik, Haridwar and Allahabad.

The Temporary City


The temporary city is based on a grid system. The grid defines an amount of sectors which constitute the physical and administrative backbone of the metropolis. The number and disposition of sectors slightly changes at every cycle depending on the morphology of the location (which remain unknown till the water recedes from the plain) and the expected number of participants during the main bathing days. Consequently the grid’s design has to be based on structural flexibility and on the possibility to adapt to unpredictable contexts.

Figure 3: Example of the grid’s evolution in the 2012 edition in Allahabad. The diagrams showcase the situation in the months of July, October, November and January.

Figure 4: The making of the grid.

Each sector of the city functions as an independent and self-sufficient unit. However specific roles are given to each space during the planning process. For example a central area will probably be more socially active than a periferic one which would more easily serve as a transportation node. 

Figure 6: The grid and sectors of the 2012 edition.

The required infrastructures to guarantee the functioning of the city (such as water and electricity access, transportation systems and police, health or fire stations) are all installed within an initial effort. On average around 150 km of roads are deployed on site, additional bridges to cross the plain are assembled and parking lots are located in the peripheries. Once the main system is achieved, the individual sectors are responsible for designing and building the sleeping and living accommodations. The camp managers can also negotiate and take care of additional infrastructure requests in their area.

Figure 7: Additional bridges are placed along the plain.

Unlike other temporary metropolises, the Kumbh Mela grid system allows independent and free arrangements within each camp to avoid repetitive and characterless spaces. Camps are built following the individual religious communities liking and achieved incrementally.


The creation of the city is a complex process starting months before the opening of the festival. Kumbh Mela is managed by reproducing the typical structure of any city council. Responsibilities are shared among a temporary central state, district governmental agencies and offices on site. The administrative positions linked with the festival are seen as prestigious opportunities and covered by governmental officials.

Each department splits the city into sectors and representatives notify both their state-level home departments and the district magistrate known as the Mela Adhikari. The institutional body taking care of the festival is known as the Magh Mela Administration. The Magh Mela is complex to describe since, as the city itself, it is not a static body. The administration transforms over time and serves diverse stages of the process. The governing structure of Kumbh Mela also works in collaboration with the local administrative bodies which vary at each cycle. 

A specific team leads the design, planning and implementation of the city. In parallel, governance and management structures handle the negotiations with the different religious communities to accommodate their needs.

Figure 8: Habitations units during the festival.

The construction of the city is done in close consideration of the river and its natural cycles. The first logistic meetings and material deployments are done in vacant spaces located outside the floodplain. As soon as the water starts to recede the more intense building phases begin: the ground is leveled, and the roads are placed. The making of the city is kept simple using light and modular components that can be carried by people on site. 

Figure 9: Material ready to be used when the water recedes.


The reversibility of the process is one of the unique aspects of the Kumbh Mela city. Unlike traditional urban areas which are built to last as long as possible, temporality is the core of the whole idea behind the festival. Once the religious celebration is finished the plain has to be given back to the river and be ready for agriculture activities to restart. The natural materials used to build the city (such as bamboo) are left on site to be integrated in the landscape. Metal plates, wires and toilets are reintroduced in the local market. The redistribution of the components and dismantling of the city is managed by the Kumbh Mela institutions, however scavengers play an important role in the clean-up of the area.

Figure 10: Toilets being dismantled at the end of the festival.
Figure 11: The floodplain being freed after the celebrations.

Reflections and Conclusions

The Kumbh Mela festival offers an example of a city growing and disappearing on a floodplain. The temporary urban area is strongly connected and centered around the river. The pilgrims have the possibility to exist in an urban environment while in proximity of and interacting with a freely flowing river.

The complete ephemeral aspect of the Kumbh Mela city allows it to achieve what many traditional urban river communities are struggling with: a functioning relation between the waterway and the settlers. The festival can be interpreted as a relevant input for  researchers investigating synergies between cities and rivers, displaying new approaches to urban waterway design.

Could ephemeral neighborhood communities located along urban rivers become a new form of settlements within permanent cities? 

The Kumbh Mela model might be replicated at a smaller scale along metropolitan riverbanks and plains which could be inhabited at certain times and kept free at others to allow waterways to flow, move and flood when needed. A shift in the way of building and existing within cities in areas in proximity of waterways would allow urban rivers to be healthier, better integrated and beneficial for the overall metropolis.

Such vision is an extreme option and a more realistic solution might lie somewhere in between. An initial stage could envision specific urban functions as part of the experimental neighborhoods and only in a further future include residential communities.

Nevertheless, Kumbh Mela shows a functioning reality of an urban community coexisting with a natural flowing river. It invites researchers to focus not only on ways to restrain rivers through dams construction or channelization but also consider possible alternative urban dynamics for communities residing along waterways.

Follow & subscribe for updates.

November 16-18, 2023 | Kigali, Rwanda


You won’t want to miss the first-ever Africa’s New Cities Summit!