‘The greatest show on earth’ has surprising lessons for us all

Wednesday 19 December 2012

The Kumbh Mela at Allahabad has been described as the ‘greatest show on earth’. In January up to 100 million people will gather on the shores of the Ganges to celebrate this Hindu festival.

For four years a team of British and Indian researchers have been studying the event, seeking to understand how people treat each other, how they experience the crowd and what impact the crowd has on their everyday lives.

They will present their findings at a special event at Allahabad University on 24th January 2013.

The Kumbh Mela attracts worldwide attention as a remarkable spectacle: millions of pilgrims bathing in the Ganges, parades of gurus on thrones, flanked by naked Naga Sadhus smeared in ash.

This research, led by Dr Nick Hopkins at the University of Dundee, Professor Stephen Reicher at the University of St Andrews, and Professor Narayanan Srinivasan at the University of Allahabad shows it to be remarkable in other ways as well.

How is it that a vast city of strangers emerges from nothing every year, and yet it functions harmoniously? People treat each other civilly and supportively. They respect the needs and beliefs of others.

How is it that people thrive in an environment that is densely crowded, intensely noisy and often insanitary? Pilgrims enjoy the crowds and the noise. They even describe the event as ‘blissful’ and ‘serene’.

How is it that people, often frail and elderly, living in the most basic conditions, cope with a harsh and often freezing environment? Pilgrims don’t just endure these conditons, their well-being is enhanced through the experience.

The event in Allahabad will provide the answers to these and other questions about the Mela. It will provide insights that are relevant, not only to the Mela, but go to the heart of processes that make human social life possible, which create (or undermine) social cohesion and which shape our sense of well being.

Dr Hopkins said, “Sometimes we look at the Mela as an exotic event and focus on how different the pilgrims are from us. Our work shows how the pilgrim experience has lessons for all of us about how to create a good community and to ensure that people thrive in the community.”

Professor Reicher added, “By all the tenets of conventional wisdom, the Mela shouldn’t work. It is crowded, noisy and unsanitary. One might expect people to be stressed, quarrelsome and conflictual. Yet the event is harmonious and people are serene. Studying the Mela has forced us to reconsider many basic beliefs about how people function in society.”

Professor Narayanan concluded, “This has been the largest ever social science collaboration between the UK and India and possibly the most successful. The event in Allahabad will be very exciting. It will reveal findings that are sure to surprise people. It will change their understanding of crowds and communities.”

Notes to Editors

1. The press event will be held in the Centre for Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Allahabad on Thursday 24th January 2013. Please confirm attendance with Prof Narayanan Srinivasan: (+91 532 2460738; [email protected])

2.  A press pack will shortly be available summarising the results of the research. To obtain a pack, please contact Dr Nick Hopkins (+44 1382 542081; [email protected])

3. The research was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK. As well as the researchers named above, it included others from the Universities of Exeter and Limerick.


Issued by the University of Dundee.  Contact Roddy Isles, Head of Press, on Telephone: 01382 384910, Mobile: 07800 581902 or Email: [email protected]

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