Amitabh Bachchan’s hometown. If one is Indian, it is the first thing that in most probability comes to mind when one hears of Allahabad. This is by virtue of the superstar’s constant vocal affirmation, flaunted with much pride, of its role in his life. It is where he was born and spent his childhood and youth, before becoming the country’s biggest and brightest star, still shining at 75.
To those spiritually inclined, Allahabad is evocative of all that is sacred in Hinduism. The meeting point of Ganga, Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati, the city is built on the site of the ancient Aryan town of Prayag—the place for offerings. And perhaps, thus, by pure logic, it is also the site, since time immemorial, of the largest Hindu gathering held every 12 years on the banks of Sangam, or the confluence, in the form of the Maha Kumbh.
Rarely on most travellers’ circuit, Allahabad often gets side-lined in favour of its more popular neighbours on either side—Lucknow and Varanasi. But, like everything else in India, it too oozes of history, heritage, and stories galore, as I was quick to discover.
It is also one of the safest cities I have been to. Surprised? Let me explain.
My train, delayed by a good few hours, reached Prayag at midnight, only to be stuck once again at a level junction. My co-passengers calmly suggested I get off and take a rickshaw to the city 6 kilometres away. For a moment I was aghast. But riding through poorly-lit, pot-hole infested, empty streets, passing solitary locals going about their daily chores in absolute calm, I can honestly say it was the safest leg of my travels to date.
I wondered if it had something to do with its Bollywood and spiritual mantle, which it wears rather lightly. I also wondered about its current name. Allahabad—Allah’s city. Where did that fit in. The answers came soon enough. Sandwiched between an ancient past and modern present are two chapters from India’s history in which crucial decisions were made, right in this city. Both tied inexorably to its names.
As Ilahabad, the original name given by Akbar during Mughal rule, it houses the tombs of Khusro, the legal first-in-line heir of the Mughal Empire who never got a chance to be king. When renamed Allahabad by the British, it gave birth to India’s first ruling family, the Nehrus and their passionate endeavours to create a free country.
These two spokes complete not just the city’s history, but make Allahabad one of the purest microcosms of what is India. A site of crucial moments which shaped the country’s journey over the millennia.
Here, dear reader, are my 24 hours in Allahabad through its ancient Vedic past, Mughal remnants, British Raj legacy, dreams of Free India, and home of India’s larger-than-life icon. I, for one, will forever see Allahabad differently for having travelled to it and through it. I hope you do too. 🙂
[Top image: Prayer table belonging to Swaroop Rani Nehru (1868 – 1938), mother of Jawaharlal Nehru, Anand Bhawan.]
Morning: Khusro Bagh, the Mughal Empire’s best kept secret
Taj Mahals of a different kind in sandstone for the Mughal emperor Jahangir’s first wife and eldest ill-starred offspring, Khusro Mirza, at Khusro Bagh.
This has to be Allahabad’s most delectable surprise element. Not just architecturally with its monumental tiered edifices filled with wonderful Mughal frescoes of floral patterns, cypress trees, and geometric patterns inside them. But also, for the stories of the inmates that sleep in its deep recesses.
Khusro Bagh was originally a pleasure resort in the charbagh pattern replete with channels and fountains. Built by Emperor Jahangir who once lived here, it was renamed to the current appellation after his eldest son was buried in its grounds by Sultan Nisar Begum, Jahangir’s daughter.
A collection of four tombs covered with the finest quality of ornamentation and painting in the Mughal style, they belong to Prince Khusro, his mother, sister and a Bibi Tamolon. A sandstone gateway in the southern side covered with Persian inscriptions in Nastaliq script completes the ensemble.
The largest and the first of the tombs belongs to Jahangir’s first wife and Khusro’s mother, Manbhawati Bai. A Rajput princess, she was the daughter of Raja Bhagwant Das of Amber and married Jahangir in 1584. Two decades later, in 1603, she committed suicide in Allahabad with an opium overdose, heartbroken over the bitterness between her husband and first-born who never got along. She lies buried inside, accompanied with her other children.
At the extreme end is the tomb of the chief protagonist in the story, that of Khusro (1587 – 1622) himself. Well-educated and amiable in nature, he was the eldest son of Jahangir and the heir of the Mughal empire. But destiny had other plans. In 1605, when his grandfather Akbar lay critically ill, Khusro, assisted by his father-in-law and maternal uncle tried to accede to the throne. But to no avail. Akbar, on his death-bed, nominated his son Salim [Khusro’s father], an opium, alcohol and woman addict, as his heir who thereafter took the title “Jahangir”—Conqueror of the World.
A few months after his father’s accession, Khusro rose once again in rebellion, but was completely defeated, captured, and blinded by his father. He died in confinement in 1622 whilst in the custody of his step-brother Khurram, the future Shah Jahan.
If Khusro had not rebelled, if Khusro had not been murdered by his own step-brother, there would perhaps have been no Shah Jahan or Taj Mahal. More importantly, it struck me how things always come full circle. Shah Jahan had his own step-brother placed in confinement and killed. Thirty-six years later he was put under house arrest till death by his own son, Aurangzeb.
Between the two tombs of mother and son, is that of Sultan Nisar Begum, Khusro’s sister. Not of much value historically, as no one is buried in it, it supersedes the others in architectural magnificence and the quality of its frescoes, still undiminished in vibrancy across the years.
Khusro’s sister, Sultan Nisar Begum’s mausoleum is the jewel in Khusro Bagh. Covered with stunning 400-year-old frescoes, there is no sarcophagus inside it; Nisar is not buried here.
Mother and son: Manbhawati Bai aka Shah Begum, and Khusro, the eldest son of Jahangir, both dead before their time.
Afternoon 1: All Saints’ Cathedral, Echoes of the British Raj
Built in European 13th Century Gothic style in marble and red sandstone, All Saints’ Cathedral was designed by Sir William Emerson of Victoria Memorial [in Calcutta] and Crawford Market [in Mumbai] fame.
Detail, Gold and marble altar, All Saints’ Cathedral.
At the crossing of Allahabad’s two main roads, M G Marg and S N Marg, in an open green, is the monumental Anglican All Saints’ Cathedral. Popularly known as Patthar Girja [Church of Stones], it is now open only on Sundays; for the rest of the week its wooden pews, seating 400, and stone floors are covered with plastic sheets to protect it from pigeon droppings.
As I wandered around it, dejected at the prospect of not being able to see it from the inside, I saw a gardener unlock the church to get his tools. I snuck in along with him. Pure opportunism, and one I have learnt to master in my travels. 😀 Yes, I had to duck and dive the pigeons which wafted around, but despite the ravages of time the structure took my breath away by its sheer size and grandeur—103 feet high, 240 feet long, 56 feet wide with a 40 feet wide nave.
Lt Governor William Muir granted the land for All Saints’; his wife laid the foundation stone on 10 April, 1871. Taking 40 years to complete, the cathedral still stands incomplete. It ran out of funds for its finishing touch—the two western towers which were in the original plan.
The presence of such a monumental place of Christian worship in the heart of the city is no real coincidence. Although the British East India Company had set up a garrison in Akbar’s Fort at Sangam in 1765 following the battle of Buxar, they decided to turn it into a full-fledged administrative centre after the 1857 Indian Mutiny. Allahabad had been a key player in the revolt with a deadly massacre taking place in its streets.
A high court, police headquarters, public service commission and importantly All Saints’ Cathedral—to cater to the “spiritual needs” of the colonisers—was set up. It was also in Allahabad, in 1858, Earl Canning read out the proclamation transferring control of India from the British East India Company to the British Crown, and the British Raj, officially began.
Afternoon 2: Anand Bhawan, Remembering India’s Freedom Movement
Personal photos of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Left to right: With his parents Motilal and Swaroop Rani Nehru; With his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit; Graduating from the Inner Temple in London where he studied law.
The Congress Working Committee meeting room on the first floor.
Below: There is a lot of history in Anand Bhawan, true. But it was first and foremost a “home” with classical mahogany furniture, long verandas, elegant art deco floors, and a quiet intimate simplicity. A very lovely home.
In such a context, it comes as no surprise that by the turn of the 20th Century Allahabad was a revolutionary centre committed to India’s freedom movement.
Nityanand Chatterji hurled a bomb at a European club in Allahabad. Chandrashekhar Azad died in Alfred Park in 1931 when surrounded by the British police. Anand Bhawan and Swaraj Bhawan, the Nehru family homes, were foci of Indian National Congress activities.
Like most of Allahabad, there is an interesting story behind Swaraj Bhawan as well. Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, a 19th Century Muslim educationist had originally owned the large palatial house in Civil Lines. It was expected to be used as the seat of British colonial rule. Instead Motilal Nehru, an eminent lawyer and nationalist leader bought it in 1900, making it the centre for planning India’s freedom struggle to end the British Raj.
Adjacent to it is the picturesque two-storeyed Anand Bhawan built in 1927 by Nehru, and into which the family moved in after donating Swaraj Bhawan to the Indian National Congress in 1930. The ancestral home of five political leaders which have come from the family, it was donated to the Indian government in 1970.
The rooms are filled with personal belongings, photographs, and books reminiscent of an era when freedom was an ideal and not just a word. Strategies were strung in its rooms. National dreams were given shape. Congress working committee meetings were held by stalwarts here. I am quite apolitical. But the graceful, airy, and simple rooms made me fully agree with the plaque hammered into a rock in its lawns:
“This house is more than a structure of brick and mortar. It is intimately connected with our national struggle for freedom and within its walls great decisions were taken and great events happened.”
Late Afternoon and into the Night: Sangam, Allahabad’s raison d’etre
Patalpuri temple inside Akbar’s Fort is filled with colourfully painted clay effigies of multiple gods and goddesses. Shiva holds pride of place within, on the roots of the Immortal Banyan Tree. Although the fort is occupied by the Indian army, the temple is open to the public.
As the afternoon closed in and the sun’s rays became gentler in their hold, I found my way to Sangam [meaning confluence], the most important pilgrimage site in Hinduism. I was met with chants and devotees engrossed in their rituals on the wide flood plains, hoping for salvation. During the Maha Kumbh [every 12 years] and Kumbh [every 6 years] the numbers rise to millions. The last Maha Kumbh was in 2013. The next is to be in 2025.
There used to be an ancient Aryan city by the name Prayag, Prayagraj or Teertharaj at the site. Mentioned repeatedly in Vedic scriptures, three rivers meet here: the brown waters of the Ganga, green waters of the Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati which is believed to stem in the vicinity from an underground spring. At the confluence priests help pilgrims in the shallow waters with their ablutions, chanting mantras and pouring milk and ghee over their wet bodies. A dip in the waters is said to wash away all sins.
My boatman recounted the story of Prayag as we floated over the grey waters, with Akbar’s Fort looming over us and the grey mist sluggishly surrounding us:
“A long time ago, before time, Vishnu was carrying a kumbh [pot] of nectar. A fight broke out between the gods and demons, and four drops fell—in Prayag, Haridwar, Nasik, and Ujjain, turning them into teerthas where a devotee can reach salvation. Sangam is the Teertharaj, the king of teerthas. You are lucky you are here.” I believed him.
Kumbh, an event commemorating this legend, is held in all four towns every three years. The Maha Kumbh, a month long religious gathering, is celebrated only in Prayag, once in 12 years. It is especially renowned for the thousands of religious ascetics who come out of their hiding in forests, caves, and mountains to dip into the holy waters. The honour of being the first to jump into the waters belongs to the naked, ash-smeared, dread-lock haired Naga Sadhus or Naga Babas.
Prayag is other-worldly. At one end there are those washing away their sins. At another, the living letting go the ashes of the dead. And yet at another, the living praying to the gods to listen to their life-bound wishes. All with equal faith—holding on and letting go. ❤
For a pilgrimage route of Prayag, may I suggest you start with a boat ride to Sangam where you can choose to bathe or just sprinkle a few drops on yourself. Follow it with a visit to the underground Patalpuri Temple with its roots of the Akshaya Vat or immortal Banyan tree believed to have been visited by Lord Rama, the Bade Hanuman Temple unique for being the only one in north India with Hanuman in a reclining posture, and Shankar Viman Mandapam, a 4-storey high South Indian style temple. Wrap it all up with the Ganga aarti at Ram Ghat, an atmospheric ceremony with more locals than tourists. Oh, and don’t forget to take your parsad from the priest at the end of the aarti!
Boat ride to Sangam. If you look carefully at the above picture you should be able to distinguish between the brown waters of the Ganga and green waters of the Yamuna.
So, are you going to take the off-the-beaten-path to Allahabad? I hope you do. 🙂
– – –
- Getting to Allahabad: The city is well-connected with flights and trains from all major Indian metros. I took a train from Delhi, with a stopover at Lucknow.
- Staying there: I stayed at Kunjpur Guest House, through makemytrip.com. It’s a delightful place with huge rooms, awesome parathas for breakfast, and super cheerful staff.
- Getting around: E-rickshaws are plentiful and cheap.
- How many days: I stayed for 1 day and 2 nights.
- The mausoleums at Khusro Bagh are under lock and key but if you hang around at any of the doorways long enough the caretaker will come over and open them for you. Tip: Rs. 100 for all 4 tombs.
- Anand Bhawan timings: 9:30 am – 5:30 pm; closed on Mondays. Photography is not allowed on the first floor.
- Ganga aarti is held every evening at 7 pm at Ram Ghat, Sangam.