Dust to dust

Dust to dust

Allahabad through the sands of time

Gillian Wright
August 14 , 2014
03 Min Read

In the celebrated Hindi novel, Raag Darbari, an urban educated youth attends a village mela at a temple dedicated to the Goddess. Looking keenly at her image, he explains to the pandit that the damaged statue is not in fact a goddess but a male figure, possibly a warrior from the medieval period. The pandit and devotees pick him up and throw him bodily from the temple. Initially I reacted with a similar sense of disbelief to Kama Mclean’s essay in this collection, in which she argues that the first Kumbh Mela at Allahabad probably took place as late as 1870 — in religious terms only yesterday.


For her doctoral thesis, on which the article is based, she painstakingly researched all available written records referring to melas at Prayag. From them she deduces that while the Magh Mela at Prayag and the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar are much older, the Prayag pandas and sadhus used Puranic texts to give authority to what was in effect a new mela grafted on to the old one. According to her, they successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of the Raj authorities and were able during the Kumbh to enjoy a degree of autonomy in an increasingly repressive colonial state. The evidence she martials is impressive, but perhaps not altogether as conclusive as it would seem.


The Kumbh Mela, India’s largest religious festival, is mentioned in several places in this varied volume edited by Arvind Mehrotra, who taught English at Allahabad University for many years and is one of India’s leading English language poets. The confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati has for centuries been the city’s main claim to fame. In the 7th century AD when the Buddhist Hsiuan Tsang visited, he was particularly impressed by ‘heretic’ ascetics who climbed columns standing in the sangam, and holding on to them with one hand and one foot wonderfully stretched out in the air, stared at the sun for the entire day.


By the early 19th century when Bishop Heber visited the city, it was small, dilapidated and known locally as ‘Faqirabad’ or city of beggars. Its religious life, though, was still impressive, and he gives an entertaining account of a Ram Lila attended by the whole population, Muslim and Hindus alike. The poet Ghalib, later in the century, was repelled by Allahabad’s desolation and Mehrotra also includes letters written by a woman taking refuge in the Fort during the Great Uprising of 1857 when the British settlement was burned down.


After the Uprising, Kipling was perhaps the most entertaining of British residents and Mehrotra has put together an engaging selection of his writings on Allahabad and the letters his muse, Edmonia Hill, wrote to friends and relatives about him. Together they present a fine portrait of Raj life at a time when the city was taking its modern shape. On his visit there Mark Twain was struck by the way every Englishman had a private carriage staffed by white-turbaned servants. He compared the scene outside a lecture hall to a snowstorm.


Arvind Mehrotra has collected a good number of eminent Indian writers on the city as well, including Pankaj Mishra, Ved Mehta, the poet Nirala and Nayantara Sahgal. The most unusual take on the Nehru family and the Congress, though, is by a historian tracing the common ground between the Nehrus and the family of Sir Saiyid Ahmad Khan, whose son was the first Indian allowed to practise in the High Court and the original owner of the Nehrus’ Anand Bhavan.


My favourite piece in this excellent anthology is, however, the extract from Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s autobiography In the Afternoon of Time which has been superbly translated by Rupert Snell. Bachchan is known principally for his poetry and for his son, but his prose writing is outstanding. A more complete and evocative picture of Allahabad, and indeed India during the early days of the freedom movement, is difficult to imagine. Since independence Allahabad has been in decline — Mehrotra calls it a “dust to dust” story. But it is still much loved and The Last Bungalow is a long overdue and very readable tribute to the city.        

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