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Another holy city. Another extraordinary experience!

Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Allahabad (Prayag) - 24th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

It was a cool, clear, crisp morning as we left by car for the six-hour journey to our next destination, from the State of Madhya Pradesh northwards into Uttar Pradesh, from tranquil Bandhavgarh to the hot, hectic, holy megalopolis of Allahabad. After a too-brief pause to search for tigers, we were continuing our spiritual journey along the sacred River Ganges.

But this next holy city was quite unlike those we'd previously experienced.

I'd go so far as to say it was distinctly more frenetic, more crowded, more disorganized, more - how can I put this politely - more smelly.

Maybe it was different because of its particularly huge resident population - currently around 2.3 Million - in a tiny 70.5 sq kms (20.5 sq miles). More likely, there was something happening here at exactly this time, something that I hadn't planned for: the annual Magh Mela (Semi Kumbh Mela), a massive religious event, was swelling its population by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

Perhaps though it was because the whole city appeared to be in more of a time-warp than others. There was an unusual predominance of ancient cycle-rickshaws throughout the city. Their skinny drivers, young and old, pedalled tirelessly to convey goods and people amid a fog of vehicle fumes and a mass of honking, near-stationary traffic on roads ill-equipped for such volumes. Meanwhile, streams of motorbikes and scooters weaved in and out around them.

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The school bus - with pedals!

It's the second oldest city in the whole of India - and it didn't seem too ashamed to show its great age.

Despite becoming a major industrial and educational centre, this sprawling city had lacked serious investment in its basic infrastructure for too many years, resulting in crumbling buildings and congested, potholed roads. Things like pipelines dating from the British era too had become seriously inadequate for what had been one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

Belatedly, roads were now being dug up to improve the sewerage system in advance of an expected influx of many more millions of pilgrims for the Ardh (Half) Kumbh Mela in 2019 and of many, many, many more millions for the next Purna (Full) Kumbh Mela - the largest congregation of religious pilgrims anywhere on the planet - in 2025. Twelve of those latter, incidentally, make a Maha Kumbh Mela - the next of which will be here in the year 2157. I won't bother making a diary note!

Alas, this massive task was apparently being done with no co-ordination or sense of urgency, one lot of excavations being left unfinished before diggers moved on to make yet another hole in yet another road.

In fading light after a full-day drive from Bandhavgarh ('Tyger, Tyger, burning bright...'), our fatigued driver was being repeatedly frustrated by impassable roads. It was only thanks to the GPS maps on my phone that we eventually discovered a route to our accommodation.

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What a relief to find that oasis of calm! There, beneath a giant mango tree, behind a tall gate and solid walls, was our welcoming homestay (B&B). Here we could escape from reality in quiet comfort, hosted in style by the charming Purnima and Ivan Lamech in this huge ancestral home.

Our hosts treated us more like family than paying guests, inviting us to join them for pre-dinner drinks in their cosy lounge and we joined them for meals, discreetly served by two young male servants at one of the big tables in their high-ceilinged dining room.

We were even treated to a song from Ivan and his guitar on one memorable occasion. They also guided our choice of sightseeing, bringing a sparkle of light to what might otherwise have been a somewhat gloomy city.

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Khusro Bagh

Late on our first afternoon, Purnima pointed us towards Khusro Bagh, a ten-minute walk away. Here, amid spacious walled grounds, was a group of three 17th-century Mughal mausoleums with a fascinating history.

Those buried here were all related to the fourth Mughal king, Mirza Nur-ud-din Beig Mohammad Khan Salim (which must have been a bit of a mouthful even then, because he was known as Jahangir - 'Conqueror of the World').

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The earliest tomb, in a three-tiered sandstone mausoleum with a sort of canopied roof, seen in the background of the first photo above, was that of Jahangir's wife Man Bai (known as Shah Begum, the 'Royal Lady'). She had become so fed up with Jahangir arguing with their son Khusro that she committed suicide by swallowing opium. The most imposing building, but the least interesting historically because there's no tomb inside, is the one in the centre of the photo below - that of Shah Begum's daughter Nithar. At the back is the smaller dome of Khusro's tomb - he was Jahangir's eldest son, who rebelled against his father, was captured, imprisoned in these gardens, blinded on his father's instructions and later killed on the orders of his younger brother Khurram (subsequently Emperor Shah Jahan). What a loving, happy family!

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The gardens here were now a popular venue for picnics and for young people to meet their friends. Two grey-haired old Westerners - the only foreigners in the place, became the focus of a group of smiling boys eager to practice their language skills.

'What is your good name, sir?' they asked, individually and in unison.

'Which country, sir?' - the inevitable question.

We'd grown accustomed to such familiarity - if we'd been younger, they'd have enquired about our jobs, our salaries, our girlfriends...

We lost count of the selfies they took with us and photographs we were asked to take of them, with and without us. We felt obliged to participate in this good-humoured exchange until the rapidly sinking sun gave us an excuse to break free, take photos of the monuments and beat a hasty retreat.

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Anand Bhawan
There were few sights around the city worthy of a lengthy visit, but those we went to briefly included memorials related mainly to political events. Seven of the 15 Prime Ministers of India since Independence in 1947 were either born in Allahabad, attended the city's university or were elected from one of its constituencies.

A plaque attached to a large brown rock in the gardens of the gleaming white Anand Bhawan said: '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'.

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The house had been built in 1927 by Motilal Nehru, an eminent lawyer and distinguished nationalist leader. It became not only the family home of the Nehru/Gandhi clan but an important centre of activity during India's struggle to gain freedom from British rule. Well-kept displays in some of its many rooms contain mementoes of those days.

That sign on the rock could only hint at the debates which must have raged here. Party to those debates included famous names you'll possibly recognise: Motilal's son Jawaharlal ('Pandit') Nehru - Cambridge-educated and eventually independent India's first Prime Minister; his daughter, Indira Gandhi, India's first (and only) female PM, who was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards; and her son Rajiv Gandhi, the country's youngest ever PM, who was killed by a Tamil Tigers' suicide bomber. Family tragedies feature yet again in India's turbulent history!

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Chandrashekhar Azad Park
More evidence of that struggle for independence from Britain was to be found in the city's largest public park, variously known as Albert Park or Chandrashekhar Azad Park.

It was originally built to commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria's fourth child, Prince Albert, in 1870. It was renamed after Chandrashekhar Tiwari (aka 'Azad', meaning 'The Free'), a young revolutionary who was fighting for independence and had committed various crimes to raise money for the cause. He fought a battle with police here in 1931 and killed himself with his last bullet.

Considered a martyr, his giant statue, one hand twirling his military-style moustache, now stands respectfully garlanded with yellow and orange marigolds on the spot where he died.

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All Saints' Cathedral
It's not unusual to find Christian churches in India's cities - leftovers from the days when the British worshipped here, of course.

Today, it was an enormous Gothic-style edifice, the All Saint's Cathedral, to which we'd been directed by our hosts, themselves of the minority Christian faith (Allahabad's population is 85 percent Hindu and 13 percent Muslim). Located in a large open space at a major crossroads, this now pollution-stained building with weeds growing from its upper parts was designed to accommodate up to 400 in Victorian times.

The friendly guardian apologised for not allowing us inside; it has a small congregation these days and is now only open on Sundays - reminiscent of our own churches in Britain!

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The Triveni Sangam
It was, however, this vast city's Hindu holiness which had really brought us here on our spiritual journey.

The Moghul emperor Akbar had called this city by the Persian name Ilahabad, meaning 'place of god'. It was the British who renamed it Allahabad. Historically, it was also known as Prayaga, meaning 'a place of sacrifice', this emanating from Hindu scriptures as the location where Brahma, creator of the universe, attended a ritual sacrifice. Some call it Prayag (an entirely different word, without an 'a' at the end), which, as readers of a previous blog (The energy giver and healer) already know, refers to a river confluence - in this case the Ganges, the Yamuna, and once again the invisible, mythical, underground Saraswati.

Whether you wish to call it by its historic or present-day name, it is the river confluence, a traditionally revered place of worship, which makes this city one of the most holy places for Hindus in the whole of India. Here the prayag is known as the Sangam (the same meaning but from the Sanskrit word sangama) or, more correctly, the Triveni Sangam ('Three River Confluence'). It's considered even more efficient in flushing away sins and freeing the soul from the cycle of rebirth than a simple dip in the Ganges could ever be.

Consequently, as I have only now discovered, pilgrims arrive here in their millions at this time every year - particularly during the 45 days following Makar Sankranti (the festival which drew us to that other holy city, Haridwar - see Tea with a sadhu) just ten days or so ago. Here, many - nay many hundreds of thousands, if not millions - spend a whole month near the Sangam in makeshift houses or purpose-built tents, praying and bathing in this holy place every day. Our car passed through several extensive tented townships on our way to where we hoped we could observe for ourselves the volume of humanity participating in the rituals.

So many thousands were arriving from outlying towns and villages on foot, by car, three- or four-up on motorbikes, or crammed together like sardines in trailers drawn by tractors that it was difficult to see the correct road or to locate a parking place.

At one massive car park a long way from the water, our driver, Amit, had to confront an officious police officer, pleading with him to permit us to take the car farther. There were no other foreigners anywhere to be seen and that seemed to be in our favour for we were eventually allowed through a barrier.

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Quite where we were headed was never properly explained, but it soon became clear that our destination was a mooring place for hundreds of small boats taking pilgrims out to a shallow sandbank on the horizon, where the Ganges met the Yamuna - the Sangam itself.

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This was just an Magh Mela. What, I wonder, would it be like during the full Kumbh Mela in 2025? That gathering will be dozens of times this size. I've heard that even the additional tented villages, special bus services, medical posts, security stations and camps for the lost and found planned to be provided by the state government for that event will struggle to cope.

As for the sewers - well, I hope they finish digging up the roads and installing them in time!

However, I digress...

Near the river, Amit parked his car beside stalls selling religious offerings, found a tout and negotiated a good price for a boat, as he'd been instructed to do by Ivan before we'd left the homestay. The unwary could easily be charged many times more than the ride was worth. As it was, I'm sure these boatmen (and their touts) must be among the wealthiest on the entire Ganges - they were in great demand from the multitudes waiting to reach the Sangam and even our much-reduced price was outrageous by Indian standards.

Our boatman wanted to use his noisy engine, I guess to save time and allow him to accept even more business. We wanted to savour the vibrant atmosphere. We compromised on him rowing us out to the distant Sangam and using his motor on the way back.

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This was certain to be no ordinary boat ride. Indeed, even as we boarded the colourful wooden boat, people were immersing themselves in the Ganges on either side of it and between all the other boats along the sandy shoreline. Using his sturdy oars of heavy bamboo with spade-shaped pedals at the ends, the boatman pulled away, keeping pace with numerous other similar vessels. Unlike others though, we were the only two passengers in this boat - many of those from which we quickly moved ahead had a dozen or more heavy souls on board.

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It was a colourful scene of painted boats, multi-coloured awnings, women in bright saris and hundreds of white gulls whirling around, behind, alongside and over the boats before settling on the water to eat the prasad - small food offerings - being thrown to them by the pilgrims. The shore, with its lines of boats, crowds of bathers, a paddle-steamer contraption (a government cleaning boat on an endless mission to remove litter from this busy stretch of water) and tall posts carrying power to the tented communities, faded into the distance behind us.

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Beyond other boats being rowed merrily ahead of us lay a strip of colour on the horizon. As we drew ever closer we could make out boats moored in a long line. Then we joined them, manoeuvring for position with clashes of oars and bumping of gunnels amid the noise of hundreds conversing, saying mantras and splashing in the holy waters.

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This was the Sangam. This was where the Ganges met the Yamuna (and the invisible Saraswati), a vast sandbank with wooden piles driven into it for mooring of boats and wooden platforms for pilgrims to walk on, to bathe from and for priests to provide them with offerings and prayers.

I hesitated and remained in the boat as we hovered beside one of the platforms. David disembarked, immediately being seized upon by one of the priests. Only after he'd been involved in part of a prayer with milk being ritually poured into the Sangam were we able to find enough small change to extricate him from their clutches!

Ahead of us was an amazing scene of people in sarongs, saris or underpants wading up to their thighs in water, here shallow and brown with disturbed sediment and possibly more. Hundreds of other pilgrims were entering from the river bank beyond.

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This was the holy place where millions come to wash away their sins and obtain moksha, freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth.

We were privileged to have witnessed it.

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Accommodation:

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Kanchan Villa, 64 Lukerganj, Allahabad (Prayagraj). http://www.kanchanvilla.com/index.html Tel: +91 9838631111/7800161000.

This large, white 1930s pile is the ancestral home of our amiable host Purnima and her husband Ivan Lamech, a charming couple whose English is impeccable and whose hospitality is second to none.

Our first-floor room at the rear of this imposing property, named 'Gulmohar' after the flowering trees of that name close by, was clean, comfortable and well-equipped. Its patio with an abundance of potted plants overlooked the Lukerganj Club grounds where local boys practised their batting, bowling and fielding after school each evening. It was quiet and well away from an occasionally noisy wedding venue that was a thorn in the side of residents of this otherwise peaceful neighbourhood.

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It was a great pleasure to share Purnima and Ivan's home, which we found convenient for all we'd come to see - and reasonably priced too: Rs.3600 (£40/US$55) for the room per night including breakfast and with excellent, freshly-prepared vegetarian meals just an extra Rs.350 (£4/US$5.50) each.

When I return to Allahabad, I'd stay here again without hesitation.

A footnote: Since writing this, the government has renamed the city (in October 2018) Prayagraj - returning it to one of its ancient names, prayag meaning 'place of sacrifice or offering').

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:50 Archived in India Tagged india ganges allahabad Comments (0)

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