Rivers, Religion, History, Culture, Literature and Finesse Mingle in Allahabad

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Brahma performed his first sacrifice at Prayag (Allahabad) after creating the world. It also finds mention during the Vedic period as Prayagraj, the king of all pilgrimages. It has a unique status in ancient Hindu scriptures due to the Triveni Sangam or confluence of the three rivers the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati here. History reveals in the Puranas that Yayati left Prayag to establish his rule in Sapta Sindhu. Lord Rama also stayed in the ashram of Rishi Bhardwaj here. Allahabad became a provincial capital of the Mughal rulers after they took it over from the Slave rulers, who had annexed it during Mohammad Ghori’s time. The magnificent and impressive Allahabad Fort was built by the Mughal King Akbar, banks of the Yamuna. The army had taken it over during British rule. Lily tells us about the Kumbh Mela that she witnessed closely, in 2013, her life and times in the Cantonment, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

Allahabad, the second oldest city in India was etched in our destiny next. Prayag, as it was called in ancient times, meaning a place of sacrifice, as Brahma performed his first sacrifice here after creating the world. It also finds mention during the Vedic period as Prayagraj, the king of all pilgrimages. It has a unique status in ancient Hindu scriptures due to the Triveni Sangam or confluence of the three rivers the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati here. Illahabas was the name the Mughal monarch Akbar called it by. It later changed to the present name Allahabad by the British – the place where God lives. Also known as Kaushambhi (an adjacent district west of Allahabad now) in ancient times. There was an air of palpable joy in my heart, as I looked forward to exploring this city seeped in history and legend.

Huen Tsang and Fahein had mentioned about it in their writings. History reveals in the Puranas that Yayati left Prayag to establish his rule in Sapta Sindhu. Lord Rama also stayed in the ashram of Rishi Bhardwaj here. Allahabad became a provincial capital of the Mughal rulers after they took it over from the Slave rulers, who had annexed it during Mohammad Ghori’s time. The magnificent and impressive Allahabad Fort that the Mughal King Akbar built on the banks of the Yamuna was the place where we spent many a magical evening. The army had taken it over during British rule. Romantic evenings on top of the Royal bastion are embedded in my mind. Ghazal mehfils and Kathak performances added a mysterious aura to the ramparts of the Fort. Our saris swished delicately as the moon reflected its silvery haze in the river. It was perhaps the same view that Jehangir might have gazed at mesmerised, wearing his jade terrapin that is now in some British museum. The fort also has the zenana and the Saraswati Koop, the place where the mythical Saraswati is supposed to have originated. The immortal tree Akshayvat was mysterious to behold. Many tourists lined up to watch it .The Ashoka pillar in the fort also draws eyeballs. Jodhabai Bai’s palace and Patalpuri temple intrigued me. Akbar may have built this Fort, in 1583, but the Yamuna shimmered along its banks with same regal sway.

We were posted in Allahabad at a time when the Ardh Kumbh Mela was taking place. We had grown up hearing folklore and legend based on the Kumbh Mela (fair) that takes place every 12 years. Though the exact time period when this tradition of mass pilgrimage began is uncertain there is a reference to it in the mythology of Hindus in medieval times. Garurda, Lord Vishnu’s vehicle escaped with the pot of elixir (Amrita) and rested at 12 places, four on earth and eight in the heavens. He flew for twelve days (each god day is equal to a human year and that’s why Kumbh is celebrated in 12 years). At all these places, drops of Amrita fell, wherever the Kumbh (pot) was kept. And wherever these drops fell are the places where the Kumbh Mela is held.

This fair is like nothing that the whole wide world has ever seen. Known as the “world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims,” 120 million people reportedly gathered peacefully to pray and bathe, in 2013. Never can one behold such a sight other than here! I was awestruck by the utter devotion of the pilgrims, who came from remote villages with their meagre possessions wrapped in a sheet and carried over their heads. Babies and children are lost in the teeming millions and some evil people are believed to leave their ageing parents at the mercy of the crowds. This surge of religious fervour made me gasp. The spectacle of ritual bathing of the sadhus is unique in its visual splendour. Bathing during Mauni Amavasya is considered truly sacred and the mass bathing becomes a fascinating scene. The fair is a hot bed of sadhu politics amongst the sadhus of different sects and akhaaras. In the olden days horse traders from Bukhara and Kabul arrived along with mendicants, priests and soldiers of all races and religions. Cholera epidemics broke out during Kumbh and stampedes devastated life in earlier years. Since my husband was commanding a regiment that was part of the army that was deployed to manage and provide secure bathing to pilgrims, I saw the glorious Mela closely. Tourists from all over the world came to record and photograph this unbelievable gathering. The sight of nude sadhus with only ash smeared on their bodies to cover their nudity in the chill of the wintry weather was definitely not something I am going to wipe out from my memory bank. Amidst loud shouts of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ the Naga Babas take a dip, as pilgrims watch in gaping reverence.

We lived in the peaceful Cantonment in a colonial bungalow with verandas and columns. I grew a wide variety of winter flowers in my garden. It gave me great joy to sit under the sprawling mango tree in the front garden and watch the finest array of hybrid dahlias, chrysanthemums and nasturtium smile at me. The ice flower, baby’s breath, gladioli, dianthus, cineraria, salvia and larkspur cheered me up in the wintry sunshine as I lazed with a book. My son had made me tie a rubber tyre to the mango tree with a sturdy rope as he swung around like a thinner and tinier version of Tarzan rolled into Mowgli of the Jungle Book. Our house had doors that were huge and the roof was almost a mile away. My son played with his GI-joes and dinky cars slipping them down strings from the high bolts of the ancient doors. I also indulged in growing cabbages, cauliflower, radishes, carrots, fenugreek leaves and spinach in the kitchen garden, at the back. The ceilings of the barracks where the regiment was housed were over 90 feet high. They were built, in 1857, and were still strong. The beams used in the ceiling were made of seasoned and aged Burma teak brought all the way from Burma. One day, I was taken on a tour of the offices and the quarter guard area. One room was perpetually locked. When I inquired about it I was told that it was used as gallows to hang the prisoners caught during the mutiny of 1857. This brought shivers down my spine. How many tales the walls of these buildings could tell if they had a voice!

Another amusing incident that still makes me grin impishly was the custom of breaking in a fresh young officer, who came newly commissioned to the regiment. As one swashbuckling youngster came in singing songs about old jeans and a guitar, he was immediately sent packing to the soldiers barracks to live with them. He was made to wear a turban, carry a lantern and a rammer (a stick used to ram in the shell into the barrel of the gun) one could hear him walking in the night as if he was a soldier on duty! It was a great tradition as the new officers in the regiment got acquainted with the men, who would be going to war with them one day. This young officer fell in love with the next commanding officer’s daughter and married her too. We loved him like a kid brother and I know he would read this. Vinod, you did well, old chap.

A place called Rewa, in Madhya Pradesh, was where firing and training camps were held.  One fine morning, the ladies and kids were invited to watch how the menfolk lived. It was a semi hilly area amidst the famed teak forests of Madhya Pradesh. The accommodation was in tents in the wilderness and the toilets were holes in the ground, which were filled with mud after you did whatever you had to do. This area was a tiger habitat once. Falls that went underground into the depths of the earth were beautiful. Bahuti Falls on Odda River and Keoti Falls on the Mahana River were pretty splashes of water.

Dussehra and Diwali time in Allahabad were glamorous as the old city area of Chowk was all ablaze and a glitter with luminous strings of bulbs lighting up both sides of the road. A drive through the old area was a treat after dusk. It was customary to go and see the “Roshni”. I was also introduced to the Mughlai culinary tradition of Nihari-kulcha combination for breakfast. Organ meats were stewed on a slow fire to make for a sumptuous repast. It was served with kulcha bread, soft and fragrant, cooked in the mud oven. The other interesting dish was a sweet called Lal Mithai, a reddish sweet of thickened milk. One had to drive to Phaphamau in order to savour it. This city of Allahabad with its bedazzling cultural vibe was a place where literature blended with music and religion to offer a rare repast of a triple sundae! The list of famous personalities that Allahabad gave us is remarkable. The heads of state like Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Chandra Shekhar, and V P Singh, all hailed from here. Poets like Surykant Tripathi, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Upendranath Ashk, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Mahadevi Verma are from here. Shubha Mudgal, the famous singer, as well as the millennium man Amitabh Bachchan are Illahabaadis too. The city made me richer with its multicultural ethos and bigheartedness.

Some of my favourite people belong to Allahabad as much as the pepper chicken that I had from a food lorry that ambled along the posh Civil Lines. I met the last of the prototype Anglo Indians here and was taken aback by their distinct culture. The stunning architecture of the All Saints Cathedral enthralled me as much as the history oozing out of Anand Bhawan, the home of the Nehru-Gandhis.

The Mahua tree is peculiar to this area and they grow abundantly here. The fruit is used to make a kind of string country liquor. The huge tamarind tree in my backyard provided a home to numerous nesting birds when its leaves were a young tender green. When the long pods of the sour tamarind filled up with fleshy pulp, I had them gathered and sent to friends’ homes by the kilos. They dished up delicious chutneys and sent me for tasting. These was also days when I picked up writing for local newspapers, as a hobby. The summers were harsh and the winters chilly. Lazy afternoons had the kids going to the swimming pool, while I haunted the well-stocked Cantonment library. I also recollect going to a friend’s home in the Civil Lines area for an elaborate ‘chat party’. In this case, the chat did not mean merely chatting and gossiping. It meant listening to thumris and ghazals in her garden, after a session of bhajans in her exotically decorated Krishna Mandir.

Allahabad High Court is an eye-catching building dating back to a bygone era and many path breaking landmark judgments came from inside its hallowed chambers.

All cities have character. This one has an attitude as well!


©Lily Swarn

Pix from the Net.

Lily Swarn won the Reuel International Prize for Poetry 2016, Global Poet of Peace and Universal Love, Global Icon of Peace from Nigeria, Virtuoso Award and Woman of Substance. A postgraduate in English from Panjab University, she taught at Sacred Heart College, Dalhousie. A gold medallist for Best All-round Student from GCG Chandigarh, she has University Colours for Dramatics. Widely published and interviewed, she authored, A Trellis of Ecstasy and Lilies of the Valley.