Prayagraj #2 – History lessons and a spiritual dip at the Sangam

Khusru Bagh, Prayagraj

Prayagraj, earlier known as Allahabad is a town in north India situated at the confluence of there revered rivers of Hinduism – the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati. This is also one of the four sites where Kumbh Mela, the largest religious congregation is organized once in every 12 years which witnesses millions of Hindu devotees and ascetics visit the town and take a dip at the holy confluence called the Sangam. The strategic location of the town between two gigantic rivers prompted Mughal emperor Akbar to build his fort here in the banks of river Yamuna close to the Sangam. In 1575, Akbar also renamed the town as Allahabad or the land of Allah. Being an ancient Hindu pilgrimage site and having served as the Mughal capital for years, there is a quirky blend of both Hindu and Islamic cultures in the town which reflects in the vernacular lingo. The confluence of rivers along with the confluence of cultures is what makes Prayagraj unique.

I spent the last evening interacting with the denizens, sipping tea with them at a fireplace in a foggy cold evening and listening to their anecdotes. I wrote about these in the first part of this post – Prayagraj #1 – My first impression of the town, its people and culture

My next day was set to be an exciting one in which I planned to explore this wonderful city a little more and also visit the tourist destinations. My day started a little too early. I woke up around 6 AM and decided to take a stroll in the nearby streets. As I stepped out of the hotel, there was hardly anyone in the streets baring a few forlorn rickshaw drivers who had braved the biting cold and low visibility to begin their day. I walked ahead on the deserted road vigourously rubbing my palms and breathing rather heavily. I was pleasantly surprised to find a tea shop at one of the corners and few people stood surrounding it. There are few things that can kick start your day better than a cup of hot tea on a winter morning.

Prayagraj

I returned to the hotel to freshen up and have breakfast. The next time I stepped out, it was 9 AM, the fog had reduced but the streets were still largely empty. I decided to start from the Alfred park, now called the Chandrasekhar Azad park. Its the place where legendary freedom fighter Chandrasekhar Azad shot himself to avoid being arrested by the British forces who had encircled the park. A statue commemorating the life and sacrifice of Azad has been erected at the very spot where his body was recovered. The Allahabad Museum is also located within the park premises. It’s one of the earliest museums in the country and has a rich collection of photographs from the freedom movement, terracotta and stone artifacts, an arms and armour gallery, a gallery of modern Indian art, etc. The pistol with which Azad shot himself is also displayed in the museum.

Statue of Chandrasekhar Azad

Chandrasekhar azad park, Prayagraj

Next, I boarded a shared rickshaw and reached the All Saints Cathedral. To my utter dismay, I found that this ancient gothic church locked and on inquiry, I was told that it is opened only on special occasions. The cathedral is huge and has a quaint appearance with some exquisite glasswork part of which was visible from the outside; sadly, I was not allowed inside.

My next destination was Khusru Bagh, the mausoleum of Prince Khusru, his sister Nisar Begum and mother Shah Begum. Khusru was the eldest son of Jahangir and the true heir to the Mughal throne but he rose in rebellion against Jahangir who aided by Khurram, later known as Shah Jahan comprehensively defeated him. The mausoleums are made up of red sandstone. The first mausoleum is built on a raised plinth and has a three-tiered structure. This tomb belongs to Shah Begum. The third mausoleum belongs to prince Khusru. The middle one is the most beautiful among the three and was built by Nisar Begum for herself. However, she is believed to have been buried along with her mother in the first mausoleum leaving this one empty. The interior of this monument is adorned with exquisite marble work. However, the monument is usually locked and is opened only during VIP visits. During my visit, the door was briefly opened for an officer who had visited the site with his family. On request, they allowed me a brief entry just after the family left. The security in charge of the keys said ASI decided to lock the monument to protect the vandalism of the marble works. Its rather unfortunate that the common visitors are deprived of witnessing the excellent craftsmanship but until our people learn to respect historical monuments and understand their significance, such measures are warranted. After Khusru Bagh, I returned to my hotel to pick up towels and changed from shoes to slippers. Next up was the holy Sangam.

The Khusru Bagh

Khusru Bagh, Prayagraj

Khusru Bagh, Prayagraj

The Sangam is the confluence of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati. This place has huge significance in Hindu mythology and is one of the four places that host the Kumbh Mela, the largest religious congregation in the world. Devout Hindus believe that taking a dip at the Sangam absolves them of their sins. Hindus also come to the Sangam to immerse the urn of ashes of their ancestors in the holy waters which is believed to provide salvation to the departed souls. Sangam is situated in the eastern outskirts and buses and shared autos are frequently available from the town. I took an autorickshaw which dropped me about a mile from the Sangam point. One has to walk on mud trails along the banks of river Yamuna (or the Ganga if you are coming from the other route) to reach the confluence. There are boats that ferry visitors to the Sangam point but it’s not required and one can easily walk.

The Sangam

Sangam, Prayagraj

At the confluence point, there is Ganga to the left and Yamuna to the right and somewhere for the sake of belief lies the mythical Saraswati. The two rivers are markedly different and one must notice the differences – the energetic flow of the Ganga vs the calm waters of the Yamuna, the brownish water of the Ganga vs the green tinge of the Yamuna. At the confluence point, there are shallow points artificially created to ensure the safety of the devotees and anyone can easily take a dip here without any assistance. There is a lack of lockers, cloakrooms and changing rooms; the state tourism department should provide these facilities near the confluence point for the convenience of the visitors. Since I was travelling solo, I had to request a flower seller to take care of my belongings who agreed in exchange for me buying some flowers and incense sticks from her. I deposited my belongings, changed to towels and trudged into the river. I visited during the new year time when Prayagraj was registering its lowest temperatures of the year and I had to garner significant courage to make the dip in the icy-cold river. I made the holy dip, offered flowers, rendered a prayer and walked out. After coming out of the river, standing on the banks, there was a sense of achievement, a sense of tranquility, or maybe something in between these two, for which I don’t have a proper word but it was pure bliss. I stood there for some time looking into the vast expanse of the water, the reflection of the setting sun on the calm water of the Yamuna, the migratory birds diving into the waters, boats floating with their colourful masts, priests ringing handbells as they performed the rites, devotees pouring milk into the holy waters and old people braving the cold waters to take a dip; in that moment, everything was mesmerizing.

Prajagraj

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