After my experiences yesterday afternoon and evening I was not expecting much from Allahabad. An event in the day however turned this on it’s head, one of the finest that I have ever had in India.
The centre of Allahlabad is split into two, north and south, by the railway line. To the south is the congested, dirty, polluted mayhem that is Chowk. I think they have misnamed it, it should be “Choked”.
The hotel I have booked is just to the south of the railway station and at the epicentre of the mayhem. Thankfully my room or cell is quiet and I can sleep with defunct earplugs.
To the north of the rail line is the old British administrative area called City Lines. The difference is stark. The roads are laid in a grid and are wide and relatively traffic free. More on this area later.
Near to the hotel is Kusuruh Bagh a small complex of tombs set in a pleasant park replete with some of the tallest palm trees you are likely to see.
This is not a history lesson but this is interesting. The first son of the 17th century Emperor Jehangir, Prince Kushuru, led a coup against his father but was discovered, blinded, clapped in chains and finally died. Jehangir’s second son succeeded his father and became Shah Jahan. It was he that in grief over the death of his favourite wife built among other magnificent monuments the Taj Mahal as testament and in memory to her. India certainly is a better place as a result of this failed coup.
The tombs are a long way from the centre of Mughal influence and are nothing like as grand as those you find in Rajasthan. But I guess if you are the king you have to remember your own even though they tried to murder you.
From here I head north to wander around City Lines which starts just north of the railway.
In the days of the Raj, Allahabad formed an important strategic position for the British so they made themselves at home creating wide streets and avenues and constructing classically designed buildings.
Evidence of just how grand Allahabad would have looked in the 19th century is to be found everywhere. There are fine Mughal style doorways with carved marble architraves, intricate balconies abound with fine filigree stone friezes.
The problem is it is in an absolutely appalling state. Everywhere is covered in years of dust and grime. Parts of buildings have simply fallen down and not been repaired. Others have an ancient tarpaulin covering the tumbled section. Slab concrete and brick monstrosities that the Indians love building are thrown between what were magnificent mansions. And everywhere you look, even in the parts that have partially collapsed are signs of habitation.
In one old building at first floor level are housed families of goats. Presumably the building is simply not safe enough for humans. I walk passed building after building where it is not hard to picture them in their former glory but slowly and surely they are all crumbling to dust.
As thin as an Indian butcher’s dog!
I notice a mosaic tiled step. In the mosaic are the words “Picture Palace”. When you look up there is no cinema but nothing, just a façade, the white shell of the building with nothing inside but scrub and rubbish. It’s quite scandalous. If the buildings were as they were Allahabad would have thousands of tourists rather than just little old me. It does appear that I am the only westerner in town. In fact on numerous occasions I have been approached with mild shock and surprise by the more educated who want to know what has brought me here.
If that was not sad enough, in the main street Mahatma Ghandi Marg there are brand new, shiny shop fronts that at night are so brilliantly lit and polished that they would not look out of place in Oxford street. The sad part is that they are all for boy’s toys. Nokia, Blackberry, Sony, Panasonic.
It’s inevitable that the west are going to spearhead into the Indian market and I guess that when an Indian gets a bit of money the last thing he wants to buy is Indian, he wants the best of the west. I’m not quite sure what to think about this. It’s odd indeed to see a showroom stacked with 40 inch plasma screen TV’s in a city where the average wage cannot be much more than a couple of dollars a day. India is everything everyone says about it the differences in wealth and circumstance really do stare you squarely in the face.
Leprotic beggars – Allahabad
Finally and as I am writing this gagging for a beer, there is one final distinction between the old town (south) and the new (north). The south is predominantly Muslim. There are no bars and absolutely no sign of being able to get a beer. The north is stacked full of bottle shops and everywhere you look a hoarding is tempting you to try this or that beer. Trust me to choose a hotel in the dry side of town. I am walking my legs off just to get an alcohol fix.
Incidentally, a bottle shop is a stall that is licensed to sell alcohol in bottles/cans but not for anyone to drink “on” the premises. Many of these little shacks bend the rules by opening the bottles and asking the punters to hide the bottle under “the counter” or in most, simply on the floor. I guess that if he is caught then the police will give him a kicking.
Back to Allahabad city which boasts a Church of England cathedral. It sits dominating the western end of MG Marg with it’s gothic style complete with flying buttresses and gargoyles. As I am walking around the securely locked building I am approached by a well spoken Indian gentleman who professes to be the Reverend in charge.
Apparently I am looking at the largest church in Asia. Hmmm, not sure, I seem to remember that the Sé in Goa Town might just swallow at least 3 of his churches. That’s Catholic of course so it does not count. I make no comment and let him tell me about his great mentor who has bought a plot of land in Norwich and has built his “dwelling”. Words form in my mind but the connect to the gob thankfully remains closed.
Rev pootles off in his scooter without offering to open the church so I wander off in the general direction of the Catholic cathedral which I completely fail to find. Bloody Catholics, always concealing their treasures! Only joking… promise.
Cycle rickshaws are 3 wheel bikes with a small bench in the back where two Indians can sit comfortably but will only house one and a half westerners provided they are dwarfs as the canopy is so low. They are an ultra cheap way to travel but dying out in many places in India. Allahabad retains them. London has them now but I bet it costs more than 10p for a kilometer!
The sights are a little spaced out in Allahabad so I jump into one and transit a kilometre or so across town to Anand Bhavan. This was the family home of the Nehru family and in particular Jawaharlal Nehru who became the first Prime Minister of an Independent India in 1947. He also fathered the Ghandi dynasty that according to everyone still influences top level decisions today.
I must have seen the Attenborough film about a hundred times but it is fascinating to be at the house where Ghandi, Nehru and others planned the overthrow of the British.
All of the above is not the real reason that Allahabad is world famous. The city is situated on the confluence between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. In addition legend has it that a holy underground river rises at this point.
This makes the confluence or “sangam” one of the top four holiest spots in India and, every twelve years, the city is host to the largest human gathering on the planet, the Kumbh Mela where over 70 million yes, 70 million people from all over the sub continent gather to take a dip in the confluence of the rivers believing it will wash away a lifetime of sins. We have all seen it on TV where naked Saddhus smoke dope for days, rub ash all over their naked bodies then at the most auspicious moment make a mad dash for the water tackle flapping this way and that.
Thankfully there are only a few thousands there today but the approaches to Sangam are absolutely vast. I guess it has to be to accommodate the entire population of the UK plus London again. The confluence of the 2 rivers has created an enormous fine silt beach that shelves down into the water. It’s huge but I find it mind boggling to imagine 70 million people in one spot.
During the event the whole area is covered with compounds of canvas tents and some of them remain and are empty so I have a nose around. There are ditches dug that criss cross the area into which a pipe is laid. Every 50 paces or so risers appear and my guess is that how the teeming hoards are supplied with water. It’s also my guess that the same ditches also carry away what comes out the other end! The sanitation within a single crowd that large just cannot be imagined.
Pilgrims travel to Allahabad in large groups all year round to take a holy dip and today is no exception. A small town has grown up to feed and supply pilgrims with flowers and food to offer to the mother river. I imagine that this town grows to a city during the mela.
Where the road ends are about 30 or 40 pilgrims all in the squat position being given instruction (so I think) on how to prepare and chant over an offering. I linger for a while, I’m not at all religious but this place has some power.
At a section of the beach boatmen row pilgrims out to the actual confluence. The boats are priced per head so I hang about a bit to see if can bunk in on a group. No luck so peering into the guide it suggests that a boat will cost 250 Rupees. The asking price is 500 and can get none of the boatmen to drop lower than 350. The charade of pretending to walk away works again and we agree a price of 300 Rupees.
The boats are all packed in together and rather walk across them to a boat at the back I am invited to one nearest the shore. The boatman is a young guy with a name that sounded like braless but I’m sure it’s not.
Braless pushes and pulls us through the knot of boats until we are in the open water where he sets off at a lick towards a group of boats some 100 metres away. Another, smaller boat pulls up to us and an older guy hurls what look like small packets of Bombay mix into the boat jabbering in Hindi at full pelt. He gets rather surprised and a little upset when I say no. Perhaps it’s an insult to the gods.
The sun is beginning to wane and the colours are reddening. Behind us is a huge Mughal fort made from the same sandstone as the tombs earlier in the day. The fort cannot be visited as it is occupied by the Indian army.
Individual boats are all around making their offerings to the river. Terns, who know a good thing when they see one squabble over the food being hurled into the river. A couple are hovering over my boat so close I could almost touch them. They wheel away in disgust when they realise what a tight wad I am.
We reach the group of boats and they are stationed just at the point where the faster waters of the Ganges meet the more languid Yamuna. The confluence has deposited silt so although we are far out the water is shallow enough to wade.
There must be about 100 to 150 people in around 20 boats and a good number of them are “baptising” themselves in the water while others chant and offer coconuts and Bombay mix. It is a strangely affecting, surreal image that I cannot draw my eyes away from. I resist strongly however offers from various boats to get my kit off, hold my nose and dunk myself.
After about 15 minutes braless pushes off and we row over to where the Ganges water is flowing faster and coast back to the beach. This time however we park at the back and I clamber over the boats in front to get back to the beach.
The best 300 Rupees I have spent so far this trip.
The moment I set foot on the beach an old Saddhu with an orange turban and sash covering a bare, white haired chest latches onto me yabbering in Hindi but clearly asking for money. I want to take a photo of him but that will cost money and not just a couple of coins as he is starting the bidding at “Pipty Rupees” The English “F” and “th” pose many difficulties for Indians.
My own personal spiritual trainer.
I say no politely to my newest best friend and walk on. The Saddhu then becomes like a parrot on my shoulder for the next half kilometre or so. “Pipty Rupees” goes to 40, then 30 and then back up to “Pipty” and so on. He points to his belly as if to say “I’m hungry”. His pod is bigger than mine and as my current diet is all to wack my one pack has grown considerably. I’m fairly certain that if I did give him money it would end up being inhaled via a chillum pipe. He does not seem to accept or understand when I told him that Ghandi ji himself said never give to beggars.
Never mind I think, he will give up shortly. No such luck. I guess that for a Saddhu who may have walked all the way from Tibet with a stick and half a cup of rice a half kilometre with a westerner and the odd chance of a pay off is absolutely nothing.
Eventually and only after I am out of the Sangam compound he jumps off my shoulder and recedes into memory. What’s Hindi for “You tight bastard” I wonder.
This leaves me 4km from town with tired legs and outside of the compound where all the auto rickshaws and tempos are. I linger on the road looking for a tempo (a larger type of three wheel rickshaw that acts as a local bus) but none pass. However, a passing three wheel truck passes (not all vehicles have three wheels in India) and stops so I walk over and make the Internationally recognised sign for “can I hop in the back of your truck?” I think the guy is a farmer and he has his young son in the passenger seat who moves to get out to let me sit in the cab. Too late, I am already in the back.
A westerner in the back of a three wheel pick up truck provides huge amusement for those bikes following behind. I am dropped on the edge of Allahabad and when I offer to pay him he waves me away. I insist and give him 20 Rupees and a handshake.
There is an awful lot not to like about Allahabad but all in, I have had a marvellous day and I go away with a good feeling about the city. One thing is sure: at the next Kumbh Mela, I will definitely not be number 70 million and one!
Even though it’s new year, I’m knackered and I’m off to bed. Well, at least until midnight when the Indians celebrate new year with the loudest fireworks you have ever heard.
Tomorrow I’m off to Varanasi, one of the main reasons I chose to travel in this area.