Allahabad is Prayagraj

Allahabad is not Banaras, redolent with the odour of sanctity, nor even Lucknow, embalmed forever in the memory of its brief, nawabi efflorescence. Agra has its grand Mughal monuments, the Taj Mahal and Sikandra, the ghostly, haunted and haunting magnificence of Fathepur Sikri. Allahabad has Akbar’s imposing fort all right, but one that has been bastardised by the army and subjected to mundane purposes.

After all, Allahabad was the capital from where the British Raj, in the post-Mutiny age, ruled the vast expanse of north India. Indeed, Allahabad was the place from where the colonial power started the fight back against the rebellious natives in 1857, and inaugurated the great colonial project of 'civilisation' by festooning the trees with the bodies of hanged Indians.

In 2018, the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Uttar Pradesh under the leadership of Yogi Adityanath decreed that Allahabad would no longer be known as Allahabad. It would 'revert' to its allegedly 'original' name, Prayagraj.

The renaming of places is a larger national pattern in Indian politics. After all, many cities have been renamed. Bombay has become Mumbai, Calcutta Kolkata, Madras is a long list. The phenomenon illustrates, at an immediate level, the angst that inevitably informs the postcolonial relationship with history. The past, identified with humiliation and defeat, with cultural dispossession, is sought to be erased, even as it is embodied, quite literally, in the people who seek that erasure. After all, the stain and torsion of time works at much deeper levels than the surfaces that can be covered over with fresh paint.

However, the particular motivations that are at play in particular instances vary from situation to situation and need to be understood in their local specificity. Thus, Prayagraj is claimed to be the original name of the city, and since the 'history' in which the original name got replaced by the name Allahabad is experienced as a history of shame, of defeat, the renaming is a symbolic way of transcending that history.

It is true that the name Prayag–'confluence'–antedates the city of Allahabad. But Prayag is merely a place; it is the river bank where the Ganga and the Yamuna meet. This confluence has been sacred to Hindus from ancient times. They come here for some of their most significant ritual purposes; most crucially, for the final act of the funerary ritual, the immersion of the ashes of the dead in the sacred river. People–Hindus–go to great lengths to try and meet this demand. For this reason, the river bank has probably been home to a kind of morbid service industry, populated by grieving pilgrims and the pandas, the officiants who minister to them and prey on them, for longer than anyone can remember.

But the river bank is not a city, and it is certainly not the city. The city is the settlement that came up on the floodplain between the Ganga and the Yamuna, upstream from the confluence. And it was named Ilahabas–a place where holiness dwells–in recognition of the traditional sacred status of the confluence, the prayag–and not as the insult of a conqueror, as is alleged by the necessary narrative of humiliation that underpins all such attempts at cultural 'reclamation'. The floodplain itself became available for settlement after the construction of a massive embankment. This embankment–the bandh–is identified, even today, even in Prayag, with the emperor Akbar, who constructed the massive fort.

[Contributed by Alok Rai of ‘India Forum’]

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Vol 56, No. 40, Mar 31 - Apr 6, 2024