Student and Faculty Researchers Reflect on Trip to Hindu Festival

Courtesy of Isaac Dayno

Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies Diana L. Eck leads Harvard researchers through an alleyway in India.

On Sunday evening, a team of faculty, staff, and students from across the University will gather in Lowell House to present their field research on a Hindu festival that is widely purported to be the largest gathering of humans in the world.

Last month, more than 50 Harvard researchers traveled to Allahabad, India, to study the Kumbh Mela, a two-month-long religious affair that attracts tens of millions of visitors to a rotating location in India every three years.

At the festival, teams composed of members from Harvard’s various schools conducted research on urbanization, public health, economics, religious performance, poverty, and crowd management as part of a yearlong coordinated by the South Asia Institute and the Harvard Global Health Institute,

Now, a month after finishing their fieldwork, they are currently reflecting on their trip and drawing up plans to consolidate their research in palpable ways.

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

For most researchers who journeyed to India for the Kumbh Mela project, work began long before the festival started in January.

Last summer, Graduate School of Design professor Rahul J. Mehrotra, principal investigator of his School’s team, began working with his researchers to monitor the construction of the festival. For each Kumbh Mela, organizers build a tent-city in a matter of weeks to accommodate the millions of pilgrims who attend.

“We have been following the emergence of the city from its inception to its establishment and operation,” Mehrotra wrote in an email.

Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies Diana L. Eck, who specializes in the sacred geography of India, taught a course in the South Asian Studies department this past fall centered on the Kumbh Mela in preparation for the research project.

“We did as much reading and study of the Kumbh Mela as possible,” said Eck, who was one of the main leaders of the Harvard trip. “The course in the fall was a way of attracting students who might be interested.”

Eck said the sheer size and complexity of the festival necessitated such advance planning.

THINKING ACROSS DISCIPLINES

Though the focus of each researcher’s work differed based on individual interests, students and faculty alike said that interdisciplinary collaboration enhanced their work at the Kumbh Mela.

“One of the things that this [project] has really exemplified is that there are many things that you can study that are going to be better studied if you are looking at it with people from other disciplines and other schools,” Eck said.

For many undergraduates who went on the trip, the opportunity to work with researchers across many disciplines was the main highlight of their experience at the festival.

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