Allahabad, also known as Prayag, is one of the largest cities of Uttar Pradesh. It is situated on an inland peninsula, surrounded by the rivers Ganga and Yamuna on three sides. It is one of four sites of the Kumbh Mela, an important Hindu pilgrimage. The ancient name of the city is Aggra (Sanskrit for “place of sacrifice”), as it is believed to be the spot where Brahma offered his first sacrifice after creating the world. The name ‘Allahabad’ is derived from Ilāhābād – the name given to the city by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. ‘Ilah’ is the arabic for ‘god’ and ‘abād’ is Persian for ‘to create’. Allahabad is thus the ‘God’s creation’.
Allahabad was the first city that I explored on my own and in my four years stay there, the city never ever failed to surprise me. I was initially overwhelmed by men who seemed to have no qualms in staring blatantly at each passing female, sometimes not even bothering to close their mouths. I felt alienated in this city away from the busy Mumbai life. I missed the obscurity that Mumbai offers to each one of its fourteen million inhabitants. Here, people cared about everything and everyone. However, as I gained confidence and started blending in the colors of the city, I started loving every bit of its quite and peaceful life.
Allahabad’s star attraction is Sangam – the confluence of three rivers. This is one of the most sacred spots for all Hindus. Every year millions of people travel to Allahabad to take a dip in the holy waters. However, don’t be surprised if you can’t find the third river of this confluence. This is the point where the Yamuna, the Ganges and a mythical river of knowledge and intellect called the Saraswati meet. At a very nominal rate, one can hire a wooden boat with a canopy and be rowed up to Sangam. You can also buy bird food and feed hundreds of migratory birds that come to Allahabad in the winter season. The best time to take this trip is around sunset. When the last rays of the sun touch these holy waters, a strange calmness seems to descend on the city.
From the Sangam are visible the towering walls of the Allahabad fort. The Mughal emperor Akbar built this magnificent fort. The Indian army currently occupies it. However, a small portion is open to visitors. In this section are situated the Patliputra temple and the Akshaya Vat. Patliputra, is a multi level, ancient underground temple and it houses the Akshaya Vat or the ‘immortal tree’. This is one of the oldest trees in the country. It has religious significance as it is believed that Lord Rama himself visited this tree. It is also believed that the leaves of this tree bring good luck. I still have one of those tucked away between the pages of my favorite book.
It is hard to be in Allahabad and not visit one of its ghats. There are a number of ghats on the river, each having its own offerings. They have attractions like children’s parks, or boat clubs or clean grass lawns to relax in. The most visited of these ghats is the Saraswati Ghat. The city has numerous temples out of which the ‘Lete Hanuman ka Mandir’ (Temple of the reclined Hanuman) is the most famous. This temple is near the main Sangam and gets flooded every year when the river rises. The temple as the name suggests, has an idol of God Hanuman in an unusual reclined posture. Another temple worth a visit is the ‘Bada Hanuman Mandir’ (Big Temple of Hanuman) in Civil Lines.
The city is not just a religious center. Allahabad boasts of being a renowned center for education and politics. Seven out of India’s first 14 prime ministers have had associations with this city. The Allahabad University campus is a site in itself. Spread over hundreds of acres, the magnificent main building is a mix of Victorian and Mughal architecture. It is one of the most imposing college buildings I have ever seen. The university was once considered the best in Asia, and its alumni include some of India’s greatest leaders and nationalists. Once the breeding ground for the Indian freedom struggle, the campus now witnesses active student politics.
The Chandrashekhar Azad Park or the Alfred Park is where the legendary Azad shot himself on being surrounded by the Britishers. This park has sprawling lawns, a museum, a library and grape gardens, all within the same compound. Here one can find obscure species of trees as well as obscure volumes of Indian Literature.
The Civil Lines area in Central Allahabad, initially constructed under the Colonial rule, retains its air of prosperity. This area has the classy hotels, restaurants, cafés, malls, shops and pubs of the city. In the evening the place is a bustle of activity with youngsters and adults flocking to its various hangouts. The other parts of the city are a mix of old and modern construction. One of the must visit sites boasting of modern construction is the Naini Bridge of Allahabad which is India’s biggest cable-stayed bridge. Beautiful rose farms on one side with cement aqueducts flank this bridge with its numerous columns. During the Kumbh Mela and the Maha Kumbh mela, one can stand on top of this bridge and see miles and miles of riverbed covered with pilgrim tents and temporary pontoon pulls.
The city has a thriving sports culture as well. There are a number of multipurpose sports complexes, the prominent one being the Mayo Hall. Others include the Madan Mohan Malviya Stadium, Amitabh Bachchan Sports Complex, an international standards swimming pool and the National Sports Academy. The city has produced several outstanding cricketers like Mohammad Kaif and Hyder Ali. Others prominent sportsmen from Allahabad are international badminton player and Arjuna awardee, Abhinn Shyam Gupta; gymnast, Vikas Pandey and athlete, Pramod Tewari.
The best time of the year to visit Allahabad is in the winter season. The weather in the months starting from December to February is pleasant with the minimum temperature around 12 degrees Celsius. I used to love the dreamy winter morning walks in Alfred Park amidst the slight fog. Allahabad is well connected by rail and road. One can reach Allahabad from Delhi via an overnight train journey. Within Allahabad, cycle rickshaws are the most convenient public transport. For a mere 5-6 rupees, you could also get a ride in the local tempos between fixed spots in the city. Hotel accommodations range from Rs. 500 per day to Rs. 10,000 per day. Ajay International, Milan Palace and Kanha Shyam are among the most famous hotels in Allahabad. Most of the new restaurants are located in and around Civil Lines. The Chicken Biryani at Spicy Bites is absolutely mouth watering and the Tandoori Chicken at Tandoor is a must try. I would also recommend North Indian food at Connoisseur and El Chico in Civil Lines. However, no meal is complete without the sweet and tender Maghai Paan from Civil Lines crossing! Allahabad is a city that can magically transport you to the pre independent India where life moves at its own leisurely pace; and at the same time provides all modern amenities for comfort and leisure.
Allahabad was the first home that I discovered away from home during my four years of college that I spent here, and I feel it is a part of my personality. Thinking about the city will always bring back a flood of bittersweet memories.
[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mckaysavage/492200064/]