The administrative and industrial city of ALLAHABAD, 135km west of Varanasi and 227km southeast of Lucknow, is also known as Prayag (“confluence”): the point where the Yamuna and Ganges rivers meet the mythical Saraswati River. Sacred to Hindus, the Sangam (which also means “confluence”), east of the city, is one of the great pilgrimage destinations of India. Allahabad comes alive during its melas (fairs) – the annual Magh Mela (Jan/Feb), and the colossal Maha Kumbh Mela, held every twelve years (2013 and 2025 are the next ones).
Allahabad is a pleasant city to visit, with vast open riverside scenery and good amenities, but is without major temples or monuments. At the junction of the fertile Doab, the “two-river” valley between the Yamuna and the Ganges, it did however possess a crucial strategic significance; its massive fort, built by the emperor Akbar in 1583, is still used by the military. Another Mughal, Jahangir’s son Khusrau, was murdered here by his brother Shah Jahan, who went on to become emperor. Allahabad was briefly the centre of power after the 1857 uprising, when the British moved the headquarters of their Northwestern Provinces here from Agra; the formal transfer of power from the East India Company to the Crown took place here the following year.Central Allahabad is split in two by the railway line, with the chaotic and congested Old City or Chowk south of Allahabad Junction station, and the grid of the Civil Lines (the residential quarter of the Raj military town) to the north.
A kilometre north of Allahabad Junction railway station, the yellow-and-red sandstone bulk of the Gothic All Saints’ Cathedral dominates the surrounding avenues. Designed by Sir William Emerson, architect of Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial, the cathedral retains much of its stained glass, and an impressive altar of inlaid marble. Plaques provide interesting glimpses of Allahabad in the days of the Raj, while flying buttresses and snarling gargoyles on the exterior add to the effect of an English county town – though the impression is subverted by the palm trees in the garden. Sunday services continue to attract large congregations, as do Masses at the flamboyant St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, a short distance northeast.Read More
The Kumbh Mela
The Kumbh Mela
Hindus traditionally regard river confluences (sangams) as auspicious places, and none more so than the one at Allahabad, where the Yamuna and Ganges rivers meet the River of Enlightenment, the mythical subterranean Saraswati. According to legend, Vishnu was carrying a kumbha (pot) of amrita (nectar), when a scuffle broke out between the gods, and four drops were spilled. They fell to earth at the four tirthas of Prayag, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. The event is commemorated every three years by the Kumbh Mela, held at each tirtha in turn; the Allahabad Sangam is known as Tirtharaja, the “King of tirthas”, and its mela, the Maha Kumbh Mela or “Great” Kumbh Mela, is the greatest and holiest of all.
The largest religious fair in India, Maha Kumbh Mela was attended by an astonishing seventeen million pilgrims in 2001, with even more predicted by the end of the event in 2013. The vast flood plains and riverbanks adjacent to the confluence are overrun by tents, organized in almost military fashion by the government, the local authorities and the police. The mela is especially renowned for the presence of an extraordinary array of religious ascetics – sadhus and mahants – enticed from remote hideaways in forests, mountains and caves. Once astrologers have determined the propitious bathing time or kumbhayog, the first to hit the water are legions of Naga Sadhus or Naga Babas, who cover their naked bodies with ash and wear their hair in dreadlocks. The sadhus, who see themselves as guardians of the faith, approach the confluence at the appointed time with all the pomp and bravado of a charging army.
Although the Kumbh Mela is only triennial, and not always in Allahabad, there is a smaller annual bathing festival, the Magh Mela, held here every year in the month of Magha (Jan–Feb).
The harshness of the terrain in the Bundelkhand region, south of Lucknow along the Madhya Pradesh border, and the all but unbearable heat in the summer, make it the most difficult, if intriguing, part of the state to control, and even today, its labyrinthine hills and valleys are home to infamous bands of outlaw dacoits. Many of these have become folk-heroes among local villagers, who shelter them from the almost equally brutal police force. The most celebrated in recent years was Phoolan Devi, the “Bandit Queen”, from a village near Behmai who was kidnapped by a dacoit gang, became the leader’s lover, and took over from him after he was killed. She eventually surrendered to the police, was released in 1994, and even became an MP for the socialist Samajwadi Party before being assassinated in 2001.