By NR Farooqi
October 28, 2018
Once hailed as the educational and political capital of India, Allahabad is today a shadow of its former self. National politics no longer revolves around Anand Bhawan, the legendary home of the Nehrus. The University of Allahabad has ceased to produce the galaxy of scholars, poets, scientists and civil servants that earned it the sobriquet of the “Oxford of the East”. Although the city has passed into a kind of political and intellectual wilderness, it keeps itself in the limelight, mostly for wrong reasons.
The unilateral decision of the BJP government to rename the city Prayagraj on October 15, the birthday of its founder, Emperor Akbar (who reigned from 1556-1605), is certainly one such reason. Although supporters of the party have hailed the decision, a substantial section of the city’s populace sees it as a political stunt intended to influence the 2019 general election.
The state government’s claim that by restoring Allahabad’s original name Prayag, it is simply setting right a historic wrong committed by the Mughal emperor is not supported by history. There is no doubt that Prayag (Payag or Jhusi-Payag, according to Mughal chroniclers), meaning “the place of offering”, situated at the confluence of the sacred rivers, Ganga and Yamuna, was a major centre of pilgrimage in ancient times; it continued to be so in the medieval age, and down to our own times. The Rig Veda describes it as a sacred tirtha where the faithful prefer to die in order to attain nirvana. The Ramayana and Mahabharata assert that a bath in Prayag’s holy rivers is enough to cleanse one of all sins. The 7th century Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang praises it as a flourishing centre of pilgrimage, where the Hindus flock to give away their lifetime savings in charity and die by jumping from a great tree (identified by archaeologist Alexander Cunningham with the legendary Aksyavat tree) into the river.
It is interesting to note that Alberuni, the 11th century author of Kitabul Hind, did not refer to the town or settlement of Prayag. He instead alluded to the tree of Prayag, situated at the junction of Ganga and Yamuna, from where “the Brahmins and Kshatriyas are in the habit of committing suicide by climbing up the tree and throwing themselves into the Ganga.” There is no evidence that Prayag was a flourishing centre of trade and commerce in ancient times or that its strategic location was appreciated by ancient Indian rulers. Kausambi in the west and Pratisthana (modern Jhusi) in the east enjoyed more political clout than Prayag.
The founding of Turkish rule in northern India in the 13th century brought no change to the political status of Prayag. Kara (65 km northwest of Prayag) became a centre of political activity, when it was designated the headquarter of the newly created iqta (province) of Kara-Manikpur. It quickly emerged as a flourishing political and commercial centre. In 1394, when the Sharqi kingdom of Jaunpur was established, Prayag and Kara-Manikpur were seized by the Sharqis. At the turn of the 16th century, the Afghans held sway in this region and it was from the Afghans that Babur (who reigned from 1526-1530) captured the territory and appointed its first Mughal governor. The early years of Akbar’s reign saw hectic political activity in this region. Between 1561 and 1574, he was obliged to visit Prayag four times to keep the eastern provinces of the empire under control.
During his visit to Prayag in 1574, Akbar seems to have realised its strategic value and decided to make it a military centre. Abdul Qadir Badauni, the author of Muntakhabut Tawarikh (1595), writes that on July 14, 1574, the emperor arrived at Prayag on his way to Patna from Agra and laid the foundation of an imperial city, which he called Ilahabas. Farid Bhakkari, the author of Zakhirat al-Khawanin, writes that in the year 1574, Akbar visited Jhusi-Parag and laid the foundation of Ilahabas Fort. Another celebrated Mughal chronicler, Nizamuddin Ahmad, concurs with the above two versions of the foundation of the city. He adds that Himmat Ali was the architect of the fort. (The locality in modern Allahabad known as Himmat Ganj was probably named after the architect.)
Abul Fazl writes in Akbarnama that, in accordance with his “desire to found a great city in the town of Prayag which is regarded by the people of India with much reverence and to build a choice fort there”, the emperor laid the foundation of the city of Ilahabad in 1583. Yet, he has also stated that in 1579-80, the town was already known as Ilahabad.
Badauni’s observation is that in 1583, when the emperor went on a pleasure trip to Ilahabad, “which is a new creation on the site of Prayag”, several buildings had already been constructed there. Thus, it would seem that the foundation of the fort and city was laid in 1574 and it was at that time that the city was named Ilahabad. Nine years later, the emperor visited the site again, stayed for four months and began constructing other buildings within the fort complex.
Needless to say, each Mughal chronicler acknowledged the profound sanctity of Prayag and has referred to the massive crowd that assembled there on festivals. Perhaps, it was because of the inviolable sanctity, and also its strategic location that Akbar decided to build a new city and an imposing fort here. All Mughal chroniclers have used the term Jhusi-Payag / Jhusi Parag to describe the holy place. It can, therefore, be surmised that the Jhusi situated opposite the confluence of the two rivers was the ancient settlement of Prayag.
The conclusion is obvious that Prayag was not renamed Ilahabad by Akbar; Ilahabadwas a brand new city that took very little time in developing into a bustling administrative and military centre.
Mughal chroniclers have designated the city Ilahabad and also Ilahabas. Jahangir, who reigned from 1605 to 1627, in his autobiography, has also designated it both Ilahabad and Ilahabas. Even the coins issued from the city’s mint on different occasions have Ilahabad and Ilahabas as the place of their origin. Foreign travellers such as Francois Bernier, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, Peter Mundy etc., visiting the city in the 17th century, invariably call it Ilahabad. The contention of some modern scholars that Shahjahan, who reigned from 1628 to 1657, gave the city its name of Allahabad is not based on historical facts. Writer Shaligram Srivastava’s suggestion that “the name was deliberately given by Akbar to be construed as both Hindu (ilaha meaning the gods) and Muslim allah” seems to be closer to truth. During the British rule, Ilahabad was spelled as Allahabad.
The fort and the tomb complex known as Khusrau Bagh are the two main Mughal monuments of Allahabad. Located on the imperial highway and accessible from the Mughal capital Agra both by land and river, the fort served as the symbol of Mughal paramountcy in eastern India. Divided into four segments, the fort, in its original shape, was an irregular triangle enclosed by a high red sandstone wall and overshadowed by three imposing gateways, the main one being protected by a deep moat. The fort was built entirely of red sandstone — glass, iron or bricks were not used in its construction. It lost much of its beauty when the British occupied it in 1798. The towers and upper storeys of the main gateway were dismantled. The battlements on the riverfront were also destroyed and the Yamuna gate was closed.
Of the original buildings that have survived the ravages of the British, the most important is the Zenana Mahal known today as Rani Mahal. It is a three-storey building situated in a spacious courtyard. The ground floor is an extensive hall of 64 pillars while the first floor “bears a large central chamber surrounded by eight ancillary ones and an encompassing veranda.” These days it is in a poor state of maintenance.
The famous pillar of Emperor Asoka is another important monument in the fort complex. After his accession to the throne, Jahangir had his complete genealogy inscribed on the pillar along with the edict of Asoka. Jahangir also built a char bagh (pleasure garden) in Allahabad now known as Khusrau Bagh, which became the final resting place of his wife and Khusrau’s mother Man Bai.
Architecture in Mughal India was not only a medium for display of aesthetic taste and the cultural predilection of its patrons; it also served quite forcefully to demonstrate wealth, power and splendour. Just as centuries ago, Asoka had planted his edicts and pillars in all parts of his huge empire, not only to propagate his teachings but also to create legitimacy for his dynasty, the Mughals also used their buildings as symbols of their presence and authority in India. Some people now look upon these splendid monuments as symbols of slavery. They also know that any harm rendered to these works of art would lead to worldwide condemnation. In this scheme of things, changing the name of the cities where these buildings stand is, perhaps, the next best option to obliterate these signs of a “Muslim past”from public memory. History in this way merges with present politics.
The writer is a historian and former vice-chancellor of Allahabad University.