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The greatest show on earth Allahabad, Northern India, January. Photo by Steve Reicher: download PDF for the first of our pull-out posters. Does your work lend itself to a striking image? Get in touch with the editor on [email protected]
Every year in Northern India, a vast city comes into existence on the flood plains of the Ganges. For a month Hindus come to devote themselves to religious rituals. Up to 100 million people can gather in a full Mela; 20 million on a single day.
And yet the throng is not chaotic, according to psychologist Professor Steve Reicher (St Andrews University). ‘People organise themselves, they respect each other, they create a harmonious society that works. What is more, although the event is loud night and day, although it is densely crowded, and although the physical conditions are harsh with minimal hygiene, people are serene, their well-being is enhanced, it even seems that their physical health thrives.’
How can this be? What can we learn about the psychological bases of social organisation, and the nature of collective experience? An Anglo-Indian team have been discussing these issues. ‘The collaboration arose from a course run in Allahabad by Clare Cassidy, Nick Hopkins, Mark Levine and myself,’ Reicher says. ‘Since then we have been working with an Indian team, led by Janak Pandey and Narayanan Srinivasan, who have been conducting surveys, experiments, interviews and ethnography in the Mela. It’s probably the largest social psychological study ever undertaken in India. The answers, we hope, will be ready before the 2013 Kumbh Mela, the next time the event reaches its full size. We have much to discover from studying the Greatest Show on Earth.’

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