Kumbhathon – Where Tradition and Technology meet!

The Kumbha Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river. It is considered to be the largest peaceful gathering in the world. It happens every three years – either in Nashik, Allahabad, Ujjain and Haridwar. This year the Hindus will gather in August in Nashik – more than 30 million people are expected.

Nashik ist 180 km north east of Bombay. It has two million inhabitants and is the 16th fatest growing city in the world! The Indian Sula wine comes right from there;-)

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Right here the Sadus will dip into the river during Kunbha Mela

The Kumbhathon is an iniative of the MIT Media Lab in Boston which started out almost 2 years ago at inktalks in Bombay, when Ramesh Raskar, born in Nashik and currently professor at the MIT, announced it. It’s a year-round initiative to identify and address the challenges of cities in developing countries. Kumbha Mela in Nashik will give innovators, change makers, entrepreneurs and corporations, the opportunity to learn, develop and test solutions to “pop-up city” problems at scale, instantly, so they can be mapped to large gatherings and emerging cities worldwide. So the MIT Media Lab takes the Kumbha Mela as an opportunity to set the frame for Indian students and young entrepreneurs that they can exactly do this: innovate, drive change, learn, develop and test. Here you can read more about it – Ramesh has written an interesting blogpost on it.

For the Kumbhathon 150 Indian students and young were selected – they’ve been meeting so far I think for the fourth ve been meeting so far I think for the fourth time. In the last week of January a week long event was scheduled in Nashik. The Media Lab brought in all selected students and entrepreneurs, as well as the Nashik officials and a stellar line up of India’s tech companies. And a few “externals” were invited (I was lucky to be one of them) to mentor the students and young entrepreneurs on their way forward.

What an intense week it was. The “youngsters” were challenging and demanding – in a very nice way though. I really enjoyed the interaction with them – and no matter where: either at the venue, or during quick outbreaks or in the evenings in the hotel.

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We’ve had 30 projects to deal with – from food to water, from health to payment, from transport to housing and civic issues – a broad range with astonishing solutions. Some of them were pure tech products (apps, online platforms), others were engineering products (clean water), there were on-/offline mix products (housing) and construction products (temporary houses). I am sure not all of them will become “real” products and solve a Kumbha Mela problem at the end – but this doesn’t matter. If only a few succeed – and they definitely will – this entire Kumbhathon is a success. It’s the process which is important. To learn how to solve a very specific problem in a team – almost in an incubator environment – this is what will remain and last with the participants, even if they don’t finish with a product ready to use.

What the KUMBHATHON has proven (again) is that all it needs to solve a problem – is a whatsoever environment with good vibes where failure is not an issue, a bunch of people which are open minded and the possibility to build and prototype. It can happen anywhere … and you can start immediately. As we did in a small village in UP or the KUMBHTHON people did in Nashik.

In Nashik I was amazed and frankly speaking very much surprised about the committment the students and young entrepreneurs had – they were eager to solve LOCAL SOCIAL problems, they were eager to take their problems in their own ends – and not one of them dreamt about leaving the country and conquer Silicon Valley! (maybe there were a few … but definitely a minority!) This is outstanding! What you usually see in the good colleges and universities in India – such as the IIT’s or ISB in Hyderabad – are students coming from wealthy families, students which are very narrow minded, trained and educated with the mindset to achieve a well paid job as an engineer abroad or a secure government position.

Here – this was a different crowd!

Three of the students will actually come and join me next week in Panna where I currently work and build a new learning environment. They will set up computers and tablets for the kids in a village where most of the people cannot read and write. They will come and work with the kids for a couple of days … none of them gets paid … they even pay for their travels … they do it because they believe these kids in this small rural village can make it as well!

I am sure their physical presence in the village will encourage the locals a lot!

I’d like to end with an interview I did with Nilay Kulkarni, a local guy from Nashik who joined the KUMBHATHON a year ago when he was 14 years old … Just listen and enjoy!