The following speech was delivered by Meera Gandhi, SAI Advisory Council member, CEO and Founder of The Giving Back Foundation, who introduced President Drew Faust at the launch of Kumbh Mela: Mapping the Ephemeral Megacity at Harvard University on April 16, 2015.
In 2013, we were privileged to be invited by Prof Tarun Khanna and SAI to attend the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahadbad, India with the Harvard University team. The Khumb Mela, as most of you already know, is believed to be the largest religious gathering on earth and is held every 12 years on the banks of the ‘Sangam’- the confluence of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The Mela alternates between Nasik, Allahabad, Ujjain and Haridwar every three years. The one celebrated at the Holy Sangam in Allahabad is the largest and holiest of them and Vikram and I were so fortunate to experience the Khumb through the eyes of Harvard University.
Representatives of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Harvard School of Public Health, the Faculty of Art and Sciences, the Harvard Divinity School, and Harvard School Of Business all joined forces to study the Khumb in an interdisciplinary manner with students from all these schools in teams on site.
The accommodations were luxurious tents set high up on a hill overlooking the entire valley. The showers had hot water day and night and the tents were very large and comfortably appointed.
The aim of the study was to explore this extreme temporal Khumb landscape. Much was to be learned about planning and design, flow management, peaceful movements of millions in crowds, infrastructural deployment, such as sanitation and waste disposal, clean drinking water, and a system of food where all the pilgrims ate three cooked meals a day effortlessly. The professors explored cultural identity and elasticity in an urban condition and the interdisciplinary analysis for such special phenomena threw light on the great collaboration between the state governments of India, the Akadas and the devotees who contributed by way of food or transport or cash to make the arrangements complete.
The night we arrived Professor Diana Eck was leading a group to a sundown puja. Vikram and I promptly joined and we went down the hill and sat in a temple where a puja was performed to the tinkling of thousands of other bells from simultaneous pujas that were being performed in unison at the Khumb. I remember closing my eyes while the extreme spiritual experience washed over me almost immediately.
The next day after vegetarian breakfast and excellent masala tea we went with Professor Rahul Mehrotra, who was mapping the Mela with the expertise of sophisticated digital kite cameras that flew over the entire Mela showing a grid of how the space was organized. He explained that the more established akhadas had the better and larger spaces and the others according to their date and linage.
Professor Eck was also with us on this morning with her group and Meena Hewett from SAI. Professor Eck had set up a rare private audience with Baba Rampuri, a Californian native who was the only non-Indian to be accepted into and run his own akada in India. As we walked through the streets with several naked, and might I add beautiful, yoga bodies of babas smeared only with ash, we arrived at Baba Rampuris where he spoke about how the system worked.
He also imparted some wisdom in parting saying “We are on this journey through time and space and the only way to get the best out of this life’s run is by staying connected to the universe through mantra and chanting so as to be in regular tune with the vibration of the earth- and also by correct sattvic food- vegetables, fruit and roots. Regular fasting brings back correct thinking and Yoga was the key to inner life and peace.”
With these nuggets of thought we went back to the settlement on the hill where every evening groups gathered in the tent to share their findings with all. This was always the highlight of our days. The chats and the presentations every evening made the Mela clearer and clearer each day.
I must add that my existentialism chats with peaceful Professor Parimal Patil and his group from the School of Divinity about the impact of scripture on social behavior was truly fascinating!
On the third day late in the evening we went with Professor Richard Cash from the School of Public Health and his team of students to examine the sanitation. The portable bathrooms were very clean and there were hundreds of them lined up along the sand banks of the Ganges complete with sinks and basins for washing hands. The excrement was bio-disposed by chemicals that reduced the waste to a mere nothing.
It was heartening to see technology used in this fashion!
The mobile phone grid with millions of cell phones and the central lost-and-found person system I found remarkable too!
Finally, the most popular blog about Kumbh experience, “A Dip in the Ganges with a Harvard professor” took place – yes with us.
Kashap and Vikram and I were on our way to dip in the Ganges on day 5 when we spotted Professor Macomber in the tent working feverishly at 11 am on his laptop. I asked him if he would like to go with us and he seemed doubtful, but then agreed. “Let me get my towel and I will be right back,” he said. We then took a boat and were rowed out the the middle of the river which was a little less crowded. A puja was performed and with that, we all jumped into the Ganges. The dip was fantastic and fresh and quite simply amazing. But I think, it was John Macomber who got the most out of the dip experience, and I was so happy we all could share that exquisite moment together!
We left with much love and respect for the dedication and brilliance of the entire experience and Harvard team. Vikram and I are delighted to sponsor the Kumbh book and the exhibit that will travel, as I believe that everyone must enjoy this great feast of collaborative information.
And now it is my great pleasure to introduce President Drew Faust.
Introducing Drew Faust on a Harvard campus is akin to describing the Taj Mahal to the local residents of Agra, who know everything there is to know about the Taj!
Nonetheless, I am delighted to have this honor.
Drew Gilpin Faust is the 28th president of Harvard University and the Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
As president of Harvard, Faust’s legacy amongst many other things will be the expanded financial aid to improve access to Harvard College for students of all economic backgrounds and increased federal funding for scientific research. Under her leadership, the University’s international reach has accelerated and she has already travelled thousands of miles to be on hand making this happen. She has raised the profile of the arts on campus, embraced sustainability, launched EdX- the online learning partnership with MIT, and promoted collaboration across academic disciplines and administrative units as she guided the University through a period of significant challenges.
Faust was the founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, transforming it from a college into a wide-ranging institute for scholarly and creative enterprise, distinctive for its multidisciplinary focus and the exploration of new knowledge at the crossroads of traditional fields.
Previously, Faust served as the Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was a member of the faculty for 25 years.
Raised in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, She is the author of six book and her honors include awards in 1982 and 1996 for distinguished teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. She was elected to the Society of American Historians in 1993, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994, and the American Philosophical Society in 2004.
John Maxwell has said “ Leaders become great not because of their power but their ability to empower others” Drew Faust truly embodies this – Ladies and gentlemen, President Drew Faust!