More than any other Indian city Allahabad, through its long and varied history, has meant different things to different people. As the ancient Prayag at the confluence of the sacred rivers, it was central to Hinduism; while its strategic location gave it special importance from the viewpoint of conquest and governance. Buddhism was dominant periodically during the pre-Christian era and coins found at the site indicate Greek and Hun invasions. In the Mughal period, it acquired a strong Islamic character when Akbar changed its name to Ilahabas and built the great Fort overlooking the Sangam.
These and other avatars of the city — as an administrative hub during the Raj, a focal point of the Freedom Struggle, and a centre of literary creativity in Hindi, Persian and Urdu — are covered in a series of well-informed essays that transcend mere scholarship, for they include embedded narratives, crypto-histories, legends as the Editor puts it, “flotsam stories cast upon its riverine banks by the advancing and receding waters of time”. The approach is imaginative, often irreverent, a welcome change from the general run of books on Indian cities which tend to be pompous, even hagiographic.
To the common mind Allahabad has always been identified with the Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of worshippers to be found anywhere, a stupendous spectacle attracting visitors from all over the world. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, visited it in the 4th century BCE and, millennia later, Mark Twain marvelled at the faith that could impel the old, the frail, the disabled, to journey such distances seeking salvation.
The Mahatma had his own unique perspective. Arriving at the Mela “was a great moment for me. I have never tried to seek holiness or divinity as a pilgrim, but 17 lakhs of people cannot be hypocrites”. Nowadays it is seen as “the first experimental nexus between dot-com technology and centuries-old collective ritual”. Though the Sadhus carry cell phones and laptops, the piety and fervour remain undiminished.
Akbar realised Allahabad's strategic value in keeping the eastern provinces of his empire under control and stayed on frequently. Later Prince Salim set up a rival court here in defiance of his father and ordered the execution of the latter's closest confidant Abul Fazl. The wars of succession among the sons of Shah Jahan were fought in the environs of the city, and they conceded victory to Aurangzeb when he captured the Fort.
Since architecture is essentially a power statement it evolved in consonance with political changes. Akbar laid the foundation of the magnificent Fort-palace and personally supervised the construction of many of its buildings. 20,000 workers were employed, and the project is said to have taken 45 years to complete. Today only the Rani Mahal remains. Four structures commissioned by Prince Salim stand outside the Fort in Khusrau Bagh, named after the most ill-starred of Mughal princes. Blinded and imprisoned by his father Jahangir and murdered by Shah Jahan's flunkies, he lies entombed here in peace.
With the coming of the British the city grew in importance, becoming the capital of the United Provinces in 1858. As it turned into a garrison town and an administrative centre its Islamic palaces and mosques were put to more practical uses, and churches, bungalows, clubs and marble monuments, the potent emblems of Imperialism, dotted the city.
Fanny Parkes, arriving here earlier, found the Civil Station pretty and well-ordered and the roads the best in India. The numerous servants were a welcome luxury (some memsahibs employed more than 30) and in the bracing winter she went sketching, galloped round the racecourse and came home to tea before a comforting fire. Summer, however, was a dreaded time of suffocating heat, illness, particularly cholera, and death.
The 1857 Mutiny
This seemingly stable lifestyle was swept away in 1857 when Allahabad became one of the great centres of the nascent move towards Independence. The fine chapter titled Vande Bharatam captures the surge and excitement of this and later events leading up to 1947. There was the curious case of the maulvi who set up his sultanate here during the Mutiny and claimed to be the representative of the Mughal Emperor, and from 1905 onwards huge rallies were addressed by Tilak, Lajpat Rai, Gokhale and others.
And how did the common man react to such upheavals? With Gandhian idealism and the secularism exemplified by Allahabad's first family, the Nehrus. These values were also nurtured at the University, a distinguished training ground for India's future bureaucrats and professionals.
Many are the stories told with eloquence and humour about its eccentrics, its legendary figures and vibrant intellectual life. There was the pseud who carried a copy of Dostoevsky's The Idiot into the Coffee House on three consecutive days and was caustically advised not to display his autobiography so conspicuously. Another student, uncertain about the usage of ‘the', stopped a professor to ask, ‘Please Sir, what is time?' and was treated to a two-hour lecture on Time, Space and other profundities.
The book is unique in achieving a fine balance. Though it does full justice to the historic past and to the greatness of the Nehrus or Tej Bahadhur Sapru it is about ordinary people too, and the approach is never cloyingly sentimental or worshipful. The Editor's prose, lyrically evocative, is a pleasure to read, and other contributors share her stylistic felicity and passion for the subject. Allahabad is a fitting tribute to a great city where civilisational streams have converged like the waters of its holy rivers. I must visit it some day!
Allahabad: Where the Rivers Meet;Edited by Neelam Saran Gour, photographs by Rajesh Vora, Marg Publications, Rs. 2500.