Some words, some names, even some places draw quirky flash-cards from your memory. So it is with the city of Allahabad. Every time i hear or read that name, a memory of a childhood pencil and paper game pops up. It was a simple enough activity where in a given sentence, we had to look for and circle adjacent words/parts of a word that formed the name of a city. For some strange reason, of the dozen or so sentences that were probably to be solved, the only one i clearly remember is ~
“Allah! A bad man is after me!” (the first three words there being the solution ~ Allahabad!)
An irreverent memory for a name that evokes only reverence and devotion from millions in our country! Allahabad is an ancient city that for millennia has been a spiritual metropolis of the Hindu world. It finds mention in our revered scriptures (the Vedas and the Puranas as well as the two grand epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha), by its earlier name, Prayag. Puranic legend has it that Brahma (the God of creation) landed on earth here after creating this world. He chose this land where three rivers flow into a quiet confluence to perform the supreme Vedic ritual sacrifice known as “Ashwamedha Yajna”. Hence the name Prayag —‘pra’ meaning superlative and ‘yag’ deriving from ‘yajnas’. Brahma is also said to have referred to it as ‘Tirathraj’ (i.e. king of all pilgrimage centres)—a name many in the city still use.
Geographically the city is situated on an inland peninsula surrounded by the waters of the river Ganga and Yamuna on three sides. The confluence in ancient times had a third river, the Saraswati, which has since dried up. This fact finds mention in the Rigveda and was the reason the place is also known as the holy “Triveni Sangam” (a confluence of three). The confluence remains the city’s defining feature, the waters having scripted the story of the various civilisations and settlements that have gone towards forming its present day avatar. For lovers of Indian history it is a must visit place as every area in the city is rich in historical evidences. From archaeological excavations of Pre-Harappan period to monuments that bear testimony to recorded history, the city has them all. A couple of visits may not be enough to understand its varied and vibrant history but we did try and imbibe two facets of the place—one ancient and the other more recent.
Our sojourn around the city began with an exploration of the historic Allahabad Fort, the starting point of what has formed modern day Allahabad. During the medieval period the city had a chequered history being controlled by different dynasties and rulers; thus neglected it had shrunk to a just few human settlements. It fell upon the Mughal Emperor Akbar to build a new city here. His biographer (Abu’l Fazal) records that it was the emperor’s fervent wish to locate this city beside the confluence, a spot sacred to the sadhus and sanyasis. (On a more pragmatic level he probably realised the strategic importance of this land feature as a landmark waterway in North India!). Built in the 1580s, it remains the largest fort built by Akbar and in its prime was unrivalled for its design, construction and craftsmanship. Akbar gave it the name ‘Illahabas’ (which translates to ‘blessed by God’), and this name probably got anglicised to the present Allahabad.
An interesting spinoff of exploring a place with a local guide is the privilege of listening to their “local-history-narratives” (’sthal-kathas’ as they are called in the state of Uttar Pradesh)—territorial fables that are replete with every kind of poetic license and convenience. One can be a skeptic and dismiss them as ‘pseudo-histories’. Yet it is these very tales born out of a fertile folk imagination that add a certain charm to these places. At the fort too our guide had some interesting stories to narrate, all woven around the persona of this great and popular muslim emperor. Indeed local Akbar-lore here seems to go beyond known history to form its own separate popular mythology! Two Akbar-stories we found to be particularly interesting. The first is the legend of a famous ascetic Mukund Brahmachari who lived on the banks of the Yamuna near the ‘Akshay-Vat’ (more on that famous tree later). The story goes that one day he inadvertently swallowed a cow’s hair while drinking milk. For the sanyasi that was tantamount to eating beef and he agonised over his defilement and his irreversible descent into the ranks of the ‘mlechchas’ (a term used in early times for one who was non-Vedic, a barbarian or a person of foreign extraction, specially Persian). To atone he leapt from the ‘akshay-vat’ into the river and in his final moments expressed the desire to be reborn as a ‘Mussalman Badshah of Hindustan’. One of his most loyal disciples also followed suit to express his solidarity with his guru. Our local ’historian-guide’ told us in all earnestness that one was reborn as Akbar and the other as Birbal; and that is why obeying the promptings of their transcendental memories, their souls guided them to the place of their previous lives and they landed up in Allahabad! The second was a local tale about how Akbar first met Birbal here. Like every Indian kid one has grown up reading countless stories of Akbar and his famed witty minister Birbal, but i confess this was a new one! We were told that when Akbar visited the city in 1580, the local ‘rajas’ brought ‘nazranas’ or gifts in his honour. One particular ruler of a small place did not have anything of value to offer the emperor. At the behest of his young and wise minister (Birbal) he arranged a silver tray with some sand from the banks of the Ganga, tulsi leaves, some flowers and presented it along with a small silver sledge-hammer to Akbar. The perplexed emperor wanted to know what these strange gifts meant. The witty Birbal told him that his ruler was obliquely suggesting that he should use his lands for building a fort, the items being the traditional sacred-items used for a foundation laying ceremony! And that’s how we were told the idea of the fort came into being as did Birbal’s joining Akbar’s court! Ingenuous narratives that show you how the great Akbar still rules popular imagination!
To return to the Fort, this imposing structure stands on the northern banks of the Yamuna at what is known as the ’sangam-nose’. With the decline of the Mughals, the fort was annexed by the East India Company and a British Garrison was stationed there from 1801 onwards. After Independence the Indian Army continues to use the premises and so only a limited portion is open to civilian visitors. Thanks to my husband’s army antecedents we were able to go around most places inside. The fort has three galleries flanked by high towers. The outer wall is still intact and rises above the water’s edge.
Among the more engaging sights inside are the Ashoka Pillar that dates back to the 3rd Century BCE. It lies in front of the entrance to the fort at the centre of a roundabout. Made of polished stone it has edicts of Ashoka inscribed on it. Later inscriptions by Samudragupta and the Mughal emperor Jahangir are also attributed to the pillar.
Inside the fort the splendid ‘Zenana palace’ or ‘Rang-mahal’ (as some call it) still survives.
Then there is the ’Saraswati Koop’~ a well where you can ‘see’ the third river. As per our guide the moving water that you see indicates an underground current and it has been proved that the river now runs underground and joins the Sangam some distance away.
There is also the “Patal-puri temple”, said to be one of the oldest temples in the area that even Lord Rama had visited. With Akbar building the fort over it, the temple now lies underground and is crowded with all sorts of idols.
The most magnificent of course is the much revered Akshay-vat, or the immortal tree. Mentioned repeatedly by foreign travellers from Xuanzang (7th Century ) to Al Biruni (11th/12th century) this ancient Banyan tree just outside the Patal-puri temple has many legends and myths associated with it.
It is said to be the only thing that survived the last cosmic dissolution or “Pralay”. Another claim states that Lord Rama rested under this very tree and blessed it with immortality. A third legend is about how sage Markandeya once asked Lord Narayana (Vishnu) to prove his divine power. In response the Lord flooded the entire world for a moment and only this tree stood erect above the water level. During the middle ages another belief gained ground claiming that anyone who jumped from this tree into the river below attained immortality—the reason for this being quite unclear! The practice probably died out once the fort was built around it and access to the location of the tree was restricted due to strategic and policy reasons. There is also the controversy that this is not the original akshay-vat. Historical records actually show its location at the centre of the fort. The Britishers possibly closed the original temple and shifted it to the periphery of the fort for security reasons. As our guide realistically pointed out the Banyan tree (incidentally it is our National tree) is known for its aerial prop roots which become indistinguishable from the primary trunk with age. The akshay-vat of Puranic lore would have spread over a wide area through millennia so who can claim which trunk is the original? With a philosophical shrug he quoted a saying popular among the locals…
“Maano to mai Ganga-maa hoon, na maano to behtaa paani”
(simply translated…”if you believe, i am the holy mother-Ganga; if you don’t, i am just flowing water!”
Faith is indeed paramount in this place, and as a testimony you have the site of humanity’s largest mass pilgrimage…the Kumbh Mela. And so we move on to the sacred confluence~
(next…more about the ‘confluence’)