Final Project: The Kumbh Mela Pollution, A First Hand Account From Indians and Westerners

Posted on May 17, 2013 by


The Kumbh Mela Pollution, A First Hand Account From Indians and Westerners

On January 14th, 2013 is when Hinduism’s Kumbh Mela in Allahabad takes place. This 55-day festival is the largest religious gathering in the world and the centerpiece of which is the bathing in the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers at the point that they converge. It is believed that when individuals bath at the proper times during the Kumbh Mela that all of their sins will be washed away, their soul purified and their ties connected to this world severed in order to escape the repeating cycle of rebirth in death. Allahabad’s riverbanks of pilgrims for the approaching festival rise from approximately a million inhabitants to nearly 30-40 million in a matter of days, which begs the question: just how clean and pure is this cleansing of the soul? Of course, different individuals will have different portrayals and differing opinions on the matter, which I plan to address through a Western vs Indian perspective through the use of images as well as solid facts from both sides as well with a final argument from my own personal viewpoint putting it all together.

As I researched, I expected a biased argument in the favor of Hinduism from writers/reporters, however I’ve found that in fact a lot of individuals from my sources pertain to the same concerns that I thought mainly Westerners would have. Omar Rashid of The Hindu writes about his concerns of the pollution levels. At the top of the page lies this photo (to the left) taken by Brijesh Jaiswal to open the article. Omar states in his writing that around 8,000 manual cleaning personnel were employed to keep the Kumbh area clean. Once the Mela was over though, all of these workers left to return to their native villages, and now we can see what happens. Within this mess of garbage, people scavenge around for any good they can find.  Yet still no one comes to clean the mess up further besides these scavengers, “Residents can only wait for the monsoons to wash the garbage away…” writes Omar. Supposedly, no fogging for mosquitos was done until today as well, imagine the potential of a malaria outbreak in an area with close to 40 -50 million consistent inhabitants for 55 days. These next two photos (above and below) are part of The Wall Street Journal, India and depict the true aftermath of such an event. On the right are mountains of garbage that have been left to the monsoons caring. Individuals will risk their own health to scour the dirty polluted heaps of trash in hopes of finding an item that will pay their wages for a few days. To the left is a photo that shocked me personally; you have young kids digging around trying to find objects of value in this mountain of pollution and most likely disease. All of these photos were taken through an Indian perspectives lens. This surprises me more than I thought for a few reasons: I expected to find articles of praise of the Maha Kumbh Mela and instead found from Indian’s perspectives, portrayals of the unsanitariness of the worlds largest gathering. In fact, an Indian writer of The Times of India, Sharmila Ravinder, says “The Mahakumbh Mela is a place that I would not find myself in, not until I am convinced that the water that cleanses me is clean in the biological sense; leave aside the water’s spiritual significance and healing prowess… For some like myself, the wait would be perpetual and we would need to employ other means for attaining salvation.” For some such as Sharmila, she refuses to go bath in the holy river even though she has always wanted to out of fear of getting sick and being surrounded by trash as well as sickness and disease.

A first hand Western account and study of the Kumbh Mela was provided by one of the most respected universities in the West, “Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights is dispatching a team of doctors, researchers, and medical students to India to document the public health dynamics of the largest human gathering on earth,” (Harvard, FXB).  What the Western perspective offered was not just health on the rivers, but expanded to water as a whole at the world’s largest gathering.  According to the article’s title Clean, Grey, and River, it is implied that three main water sources exist within the festival. The cleanest is shown above and to the right; it’s an aqua-guard kiosk that purifies the water to a certain degree from nearby spigots. There is a photo on the website that due to formatting errors cannot be processed into my writing, is shown at the end, but it’s a photo of a woman trying to collect grey water for drinking. This water is only supposed to be used to wash down the ground in order to keep the dust down. According to Harvard’s blog, it says “The water is treated with pesticides and lime, pumped into trucks, and used to spray down the grounds to mitigate the considerable amounts of dust and smoke created by the milling crowds.” Drinking pesticides are not healthy by any world standard. This water comes from separate ponds shown at the end of my writing that are not treated at all. Furthermore, individuals are prone to drink whatever is classified as “water,” such as the woman in the photo shown slightly above and to the right. The caption reads that the woman is drinking from an unclean and unclear source, proposing the river as an alternative, which given statistical data is extremely unclean. Clean water is absolutely scarce at a gathering of this scale and most will drink any type of water. Yet there is a writer from The Guardian by the name of Stephen Reicher who argues that indeed the event is overcrowded, noisy and insanitary, but according to Stephen a study was completed that the Kumbh Mela as a whole improves devotees’ mental and physical wellbeing. Stephen has been doing a study for six years on the Melas and brings up an interesting statement regarding Westerner’s perceptions, “All this might seem designed to create stress and irritation, to create tensions between people and to disrupt social functioning. This is certainly what most of the existing (western) literature would seem to suggest. And yet the Mela works. The annually reborn city not only functions, but functions smoothly. People interact harmoniously, they respect others, give space to others, show civility to others and provide overt help to others – even strangers.” I find Stephen’s work particularly interesting because it presents a Western perspective from literature or other writings on the situation and when I think about it and compare it to the photos, it becomes a general stereotype in my opinion, meaning that what we generally “see” of Indians, we tend to classify as lower or “beneath” us because of their living conditions that get depicted in photos. Take for instance some of the photos shown above, a majority of Westerners would most likely look at these and frown and compare their standard of living to theirs in this situation (not saying we’re above them, an inference opinion). Stephen makes the final argument of how this could be, which is through a simple shared identity among all (below).

So, what do I think about all of this? I believe a few things based on facts; I do believe that the water and pollution are tremendous setbacks, the photos tell the story and I do not believe it’s pure holy water based off of pollution tests done by their own government let alone I don’t think a deity would take kindly to polluting their holy water. From the articles I found, I don’t think I could find any writer, or citizen that would argue or dispute against the Kumbh Mela being a source of sickness and other health concerns. I believe this because all of the articles I found on the topic of pollution or unsanitariness from an Indian’s perspective all point with fingers saying pollution and hazardous. From a Westerner’s standpoint, it seems that we make our decisions based on facts, but a large portion of it has to do with Stephen’s study and that Westerner’s formulate their opinions through literature, whatever form that might be, and thus we tend to make stereotypes because of how the information is presented, general through visuals since pictures “can speak a thousand words.”

In the end, the Kumbh Mela is truly a magnificent event, but it raises some serious health concerns considering the city of 40 million living on a small riverbank. What surprised me in the end was the fact that both Westerners and Indians shared the same ideals, no one argued against the other trying to glorify their points. I expected a biased argument in favor of the Kumbh Mela from an Indian’s perspective but was pleasantly surprised. I learned a great deal more about just how drastic and big of an issue this truly is, no one should have to swim through mountains of garbage to look for ‘treasure’ in order to simply make their living. Furthermore, I strongly believe that it’s up to the government to crack down and clean this mess up. Simply flooding the river to carrying away the garbage is not an option or relying on Mother Nature’s coming monsoons to clean up our human mess. Mother Nature and deities don’t pick up our messes, every parcel of land on this earth is meant to be sacred, and therefore we all need to be the change we wish to see in this world, a better change to a promising future.

Video Supplement URL (ABOVE):

Bibliography Of All Work

Reicher, “Kumbh Mela festival is proof that crowds can be good for you,” The Guardian, Janurary 15th, 2013


  • Source talks about benefits of the Kumbh Mela abd how it can impact your own personal well-being.

Michael Vortmann, “The Sangam of Three Waters: Clean, Grey, and River,” FXB Public Health at the Kumbh Mela – Word Press, February 21st, 2013


  • Source talks about studies/tests done by Harvard University as well as an analysis of photos and how these photos portray what is going on and prove their point.

Sharmila Ravinder, “The Mahakumbh Mela, fascinating and frustrating,” The Times of India, January 17th, 2013


  • Source show through and Indian writers perspective what the Maha Kumbh Mela is all about and that she (the writer) wishes she could go but won’t until it becomes cleaner.

Sanjay Kanojia/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images, “Kumbh Mela Aftermath,” India Real Time – WSJ, April 26th, 2013



  • Sources show the aftermath of the Kumbh Mela through photos.

Omar Rashid, “Post-Kumbh Mela, the Sangam presents an unholy sight,” The Hindu, April 28th, 2013


  • Source shows and describes the aftermath of the Kumbh Mela.

The Associated Press, “Kumbh Mela Festival In Photos,” Huffington Post, March 1st, 2013


  • Source depicts the Kumbh Mela from day through the night and describes each photo as well.

Ankush Arora, “Photo gallery: Allahabad Maha Kumbh Mela 2013,” India Insight – Reuters, February 19th, 2013


  • Source is a photo gallery of the Kumbh Mela.

Digital Globe, “Kumbh Mela: From Space,” BBC News – Asia, February 13th, 2013


  • Source is a satellite from space that has taken photos of the Kumbh Mela from above.
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