Skip to content

‘The greatest show on earth’

This month, up to 100 million people will gather on the shores of the Ganges to celebrate the Hindu festival described as the ‘greatest show on earth’.

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.

The researchers will announce the findings of their study of The Kumbh Mela at a special event at Allahabad University next week (24 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. It will take place between 11.00 am and 1.00 pm. Please confirm attendance with Prof Narayanan Srinivasan: Work office number: ++91-5322460738, mobile number is +91-9935827117  (

2. A press pack is available summarising the results of the research: Mela press pack (PDF, 4,523 KB).

3. The researchers are available for interview before they leave on 19 January –
Nick Hopkins – or +4477 293 33732 or +44771 820 6013
Steve Reicher – or +44 775 360 8476
Narayanan Srinivasan –

4. 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, Queen’s Belfast and St Andrews.

Press office contacts:

Roddy Isles (Dundee) – 01382 384910, 07800 581902 or
Gayle Cook (St Andrews) – 01334 467227, 07900 050 103 or


Related topics

Share this story