Architecture teacher Rahul Mehrotra has co-edited a new book about the Allahabad Kumbh, the largest temporary settlement in the world.

“The Kumbh is an extreme form of temporary urbanism, and I believe looking at extremes is productive,” said Mehrotra, speaking to at his Mumbai office.

© Adnan Abidi/Reuters

At the Kumbh city, a range of government departments work in unison to ensure that there are no stampedes, accidents, epidemics or other public health disasters as millions of pilgrims pass through. And yet, the Mela is just a temporary space that must eventually be dismantled; most of the city is built out of makeshift, disposable or reusable materials that are often stored for future use.

But the Kumbh is also space where formalities and informalities co-exist, something that Mehrotra believes is characteristic of all Indian cities. “The ephemeral landscape of the Kumbh is interesting because of the wonderful mapping of the formal over the informal,” he said. “For instance, the grids within the fair are organised formally by the state, but the akharas (Hindu religious denominations) within the grids are organised informally.”

The transitory nature of the Kumbh Mela makes it easier for the formal and informal to work simultaneously, but smoothly. And when they work together, says Mehrotra, it in-turn challenges notions of permanence at a more universal level.

“Every city has permanent and impermanent components that co-exist,” said Mehrotra, who had also explored these ideas in his 2008 essay Negotiating Static and Kinetic Cities. He describes the “static city” as one comprising the permanent elements it is built on – the concrete, steel and wood, for instance. The “kinetic city” is more three-dimensional and temporary, one that constantly modifies and reinvents itself. “The processions, weddings, festivals, hawkers, street vendors and slum dwellers all create an ever-transforming streetscape,” the essay says.