INDIA, January 15, 2013 (World Time by Ishaan Tharoor): What's billed as the largest single gathering of humanity is taking place right now in the northern Indian city of Allahabad. At the confluence of the Yamuna, Ganges and (mythical) Saraswati Rivers, as many as 100 million people will participate over the next month in an ancient Hindu festival known as the Kumbh Mela. The pilgrimage, which dates back millennia, occurs in 12-year cycles -- in 2001, the Indian government estimated a staggering 70 million congregated by the Ganges' banks to ritually bathe in its sacred waters.
At first glance it is difficult to understand what would tempt anybody to join such an immense throng. On certain auspicious days, as many as 10 million to 30 million people may flock to the waters of the Sangam, the meeting point of the Yamuna, the Ganges and the Saraswati.
Imagine the entire population of Shanghai--about 23 million--camping on a 4 by 8 kilometer field. Add to that mass of humanity every last man, woman and child in New York City and you're getting closer to the Kumbh's expected attendance. And imagine the pollution, the press of bodies, the baseness of camping conditions, the difficulty to simply move from one site to another.
The Kumbh Melas in Allahabad have become incredible feats of mass-scale planning, and the event in 2001 was noted for its lack of incident and the smoothness of its proceedings. Some 30,000 police officers are deployed to patrol the camp grounds; the transient city that emerges is replete with cell-phone towers, makeshift hospitals, fountains and wells that pump clean drinking water, sewage facilities, a security apparatus threaded together by CCTV cameras and myriad markets and food kiosks. The scale of the operation is so unprecedented that a team of Harvard scholars have dubbed it a "pop-up megacity."
According to a separate team of academics, what was once "horrid spectacle" for outsiders is now not only instructive but also actually good for you. Based on six years of studying smaller Melas on the Ganges, a group of Indian and Western researchers have published a paper in PLOS One journal arguing that the experience of participating in such mass, collective rites has long-term benefits for the individual. Compared with a sample group not attending the festival, those who did, the study found, reported improvements both in their health and broader state of well-being. The cause for that, researchers say, is not the result of being immersed in the Ganges' muddied waters, but the act of discovering oneself amid an endless sea of others bent on the same spiritual quest.