From Works That Work:
Constructing the World’s Biggest (Disassemblable) City
The 2013 Kumbh Mela in Allahabad was the largest peaceful gathering in human history. An entire city was built for the occasion, but unlike the facilities built for the Olympic Games or other international events, this city was designed to be erected, inhabited and dismantled all in the space of a mere five months.
Every four years millions of Hindus celebrate the Kumbh Mela, the Festival of the Urn. The location rotates among Nashik, Ujjain, Haridwar and Allahabad (Pragaya), four riverside cities where, according to an ancient legend recorded in the Bhagavata Purana, drops of amrit, the sacred nectar of immortality, fell to earth during a supernatural 12-year battle between the Devas and Asuras. When the sun, moon and Jupiter recreate the celestial configuration that witnessed this event, pilgrims gather to bathe in the rivers and gain their spiritual benefits. The four locations are not equally significant. The Kumbh Mela is most sacred and most visited when it is held in Allahabad, as it was in 2013 when more than 100 million people from all walks of life came to bathe in the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers during the 55 days (January 14th to March 10th) of the festival.
This would be a marvel of civic planning and logistics even if the festival were held in Allahabad itself, but it is not. Instead, in just eight weeks, a nagri (temporary city) springs up on the riverbanks, on an otherwise uninhabited floodplain that was under water only a month before the start of construction. On the most important days of the 2013 festival, attendance reached an estimated 30 million people (or roughly the combined populations of Belgium and the Netherlands), so this temporary city had to provide not only lodging and provisions, but an entire infrastructure complete with roads, bridges, sanitation, power grid, hospitals, seven train stations and a police force of over 12,000. In the three weeks after the festival ended, the entire city was disassembled and the plain returned to the rivers, which would flood it again a month later. How does an entire megacity rise, flourish, fade and disappear in just five months?
The site of the Kumbh Mela is a temporary city whose population fluctuates between 3 million inhabitants on regular days and 30 million inhabitants on the festival’s most holy days. Shanghai, the world’s largest permanent city, has a population of about 24 million.
The climatic, logistical and time constraints of the project make meticulous planning a matter of success or failure. Planning for the 2013 festival started in February 2012 and was a cooperative effort between the permanent city of Allahabad, the temporary city of Kumbh Mela, and the state of Uttar Pradesh. By early March of 2012, the construction equipment was being inspected and repaired, much of it having circulated around the subcontinent, serving other projects and festivals. Supplies and materials were being gathered, contractors and subcontractors hired; everything had to be ready to go once the monsoon season ended and the riverbanks emerged from the water in late October.
When the floodwaters receded the Public Works Department of Uttar Pradesh state began construction of the pontoon bridges that spanned the rivers, and which were the most intensively used component of the city’s infrastructure. The 2013 Kumbh Mela required 18 bridges over the Ganges, gigantic constructions resting on a total of 4,202 pipas, floating steel structures 9.75m (32ft) long and 2.5m (8ft) wide, each weighing nearly five and a half tonnes. Bamboo tripods sunk into the riverbed anchored the bridges, and the pipas, lowered into the water by a specially modified flatbed truck, were spaced about 5m (16.4ft) apart from each other. They were connected by steel cables above the waterline and coir rope under water, and after they passed inspection an arrangement of beams and sleepers similar to railway tracks was bolted to them. At the height of the festival each bridge had a crew of 30–35 carrying out regular inspections and repairs to ensure the safety of the multitudes crossing the rivers to get to and from the residential areas.
Estimates of the number of people bathing on February 10, 2013 vary, but the most common estimate
is about 30 million, making this event the largest peaceful human gathering on record. In total, an
estimated 100 million visitors participated in the Kumbh Mela over its 55 days. (Photo: Jiva Gupta)
The bridges had to be in place by November when the ground was dry enough to be levelled and stabilised, so that the roads that served the nagri could be built, including roads connecting it to Allahabad on the west and Varanasi on the east, as well as roads that defined the grid of the festival city itself. The ‘permanent’ main streets of the city were laid out according to tradition, their names and alignments the same as in every iteration of the festival. They were built of bitumen in stabilised ground outside the flooding areas, approximately 0.6m (2ft) higher than ground level at the centre and gently graded on both sides to ensure drainage. (Although historically these roads had been rolled using manual labour, for the 2013 Kumbh Mela, they were built using tractors for the first time; still, the estimated 156km (97mi) of steel plates laid down them to support the wheels of cars and other vehicles were carried and positioned by hand.) As the main roads took shape, the smaller ‘temporary’ paths that connected them were made of poured sand, a natural material providing good drainage and that would return to the riverbed during the flooding of the monsoon season. This network of roads established the division of the city into sectors (the 2013 festival had 14, three more than the previous one), and the division of the sectors into a regular grid of smaller residential quarters which were assigned to various religious groups and tourist agencies. It also organised infrastructural elements such as water, electricity and sewerage....MORE