On the Ganga ghats at Prayagraj/Image Courtesy Harsha Bhat
Snapshot
  • You could say that Allahabad took a dip in the Sangam and came out as Prayagraj. But that would be a simplistic description. Read on for an insight into all that went into the rebirthing of an ancient city.

वासांसि जीर्णानि यथा विहाय नवानि गृह्णाति नरोऽपराणि।
तथा शरीराणि विहाय जीर्णान्यन्यानि संयाति नवानि देही॥

Shri Krishna says in the Bhagvad Gita that just as we discard old garments and put on new ones, the soul does the same with our mortal bodies. This belief in rebirth or reincarnation is perhaps one of the reasons why this millennia-old civilisation refuses to die. Depending on the nature of the threat, it has constantly re-cast and reshaped itself, taking different avatars, shedding old moulds and donning new ones.

What’s in a name?

Prayagraj – the raja among all tirthas (the king among all places of worship) – epitomises this civilisational journey of Bharat. It was renamed as Allahabad at a time when this nation witnessed its darkest days. Scores of kumbhas and ardha-kumbhas passed. Sadhus and bhakts kept the tradition alive by the sheer force of their faith. But the soul of Prayag, long suppressed, finally found utterance when it got its old name back, just before the 2019 mela.

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It’s not just a renaming that this city of sangam (confluence) has gone through. The past one year has been a story of rebirth, a tale of reincarnation.

Prayagraj is fast casting away the filth and degeneration that represented Allahabad. The credit for this goes to none other than Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, whose Uttar Pradesh model of vikas is slowly emerging as one where the development of cities is centred around the celebration of their rich heritage and culture, be it Ayodhya, Mathura, Prayagraj or even Varanasi, for which Ma Ganga would pat the back of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The effect of hosting the Kumbh Mela

In Prayagraj, thanks to the Kumbh Mela, the state government removed 3,000 encroachments from about 65 roads in different parts of the city. About 150 kilometres of roads were constructed or widened, 265 streets got a makeover, 10 flyovers and five over-bridges were built at different places, a new civil airport started air services, one hundred and fifty kilometres of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) sewage pipes were laid, over 800 km of sewage channels were constructed, and around 170 km of sewage lines in the city were completed.

All roads did lead to Prayagraj this Kumbh Mela (Photo: Chinmay Hegde) All roads did lead to Prayagraj this Kumbh Mela (Photo: Chinmay Hegde)

The Nagar Nigam got over 200 vehicles for collecting waste, two sewage infrastructure projects worth Rs 199.65 crore under the Namami Gange programme were inaugurated, and foundations for two more projects worth Rs 1,671.59 crore were laid. These are just a sampling of such projects that were initiated under the banner of re-modeling the city for the Kumbh.

The transformation of Prayagraj

This transformation of Prayagraj is a lesson in how cultural capital can, if effectively used, be turned into a resource that redefines the very character of a place. Prayagraj after Kumbh is the best realisation or testimony of the potential of soft power.

The entire Kumbh site from atop the Shankar Viman Mandapam The entire Kumbh site from atop the Shankar Viman Mandapam

The sight of the entire Kumbh site from atop the Shankar Viman Mandapam, a temple to the north of the Triveni Sangam, makes one wonder if one is in indeed in India, indeed in Uttar Pradesh, indeed looking at a place that recently hosted over 15 crore people, with over one crore people not just visiting it in passing but dwelling there for over a month, in tents.

Kumbh mela visitors watch as sadhus head for the dip (Photo: Chinmay Hegde) Kumbh mela visitors watch as sadhus head for the dip (Photo: Chinmay Hegde)

Those who lived there for the entire duration of the Kumbh have returned to their respective places, but the place has changed forever.

A recce of the site, from the Ganga aarti in the evening, an e-rickshaw ride through the town, the drive-through the civil lines and strolling through the now ‘colour curated’ streets, to those walks through the serpentine lanes of Daryanganj, everything speaks of the ‘transformation’.

The entire shopping arena in civil lines is coloured  red and black The entire shopping arena in civil lines is coloured red and black

Drivers seem to be the happiest lot. They can drive more and are stranded less in the traffic now. Deep Chandra Dwivedi, a cabbie, tells us of not just what all has changed, but also how and why it was necessary and long overdue.

"Aath mahine main jo jaadu hua, ye sab uska nateeja hai (The magic that happened in eight months, all this is a result of that),” he says, as he describes how mere lanes have turned into well-made mammoth roads, traffic signals have been installed, scanning cameras have been put in place and the public are being informed about them.

Broad roads now in Prayagraj Broad roads now in Prayagraj

The roads are all broad, clean, and the two-lane traffic is free-flowing; streetlights are installed all along the roads and road junctions (chaurahas, tirahas) are beautified with large installations guarded by stainless steel railings – and those tiny boards of ‘Prayagraj Development Authority’ tell you these are all part of the new personality of the city.

Beautification of road junctions in Prayagraj Beautification of road junctions in Prayagraj

As he is showing us how the ‘change’ has taken place, the car comes to a halt at Daraganj, where most of the mutts have their guesthouses, and the sights change. The lanes are narrower; pigs are roaming around, garbage is still dumped in some corners, drains are still open. But why?! Why hasn’t the development reached here? Didn’t Yogi Adityanath make visits to this part of the city?

Daraganj in Prayagraj Daraganj in Prayagraj

The caretaker of a guesthouse in the areas informs us, ‘Of course he has and that’s the reason you even see a road here. Earlier, this area looked nothing better than a drain. If there is any semblance of sanity to the infrastructure here, it is because the CM has visited the city over 20 times. Else there was no road here. All illegal structures have been pulled down.” So one can imagine the chaos it was before!

Head to the Sangam area for a dip at sunrise and you can only imagine what a massive show it must have been, for, as far as the eye can see there is only the huge stretch of the now empty space. Tents have been taken off, more than a hundred thousand toilets have been dismantled, but one can still see signboards at every few feet that directed tourists to various key spots and facilities.

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The tradition of Kalpavaas

Alankar Tandon, an eleventh-generation ‘Illahabadi’ is glad to be handing over a whole different city to his next generation. Executive director of Shree Bhavani Paper Mills and director at various other companies, Tandon takes pride in the transformation that his city has gone through in the last year.

“None of the kumbhs in the past have had this kind of awareness. This kumbh has seen the maximum number of people, and the best part is the participation of the younger generation. Most people who turned up earlier were the ones who had lived their lives, almost in their fifties and the like, but this kumbh saw a huge turnout of the new age people. They were not just visiting they were also attending kathas,“ says Tandon, feeling reassured. He camped at the mela for the entire duration in accordance with the tradition of kalpavaas maintained in his family.

Kalpavaas is staying at the banks of the river for the entire period of the mela and in this period one only indulges in activities that are aimed at one’s spiritual awakening, like taking a dip in the river before dawn, fasting, or eating only a particular kind of food, doing charity, feeding the needy, offering prayers and so on.

An eleventh generation ‘Ilahabadi’ businessman Alankar Tandon is proud of the intangible heritage of Prayagraj finding tangible expression and celebration of an unmatched scale this Kumbh Mela. An eleventh generation ‘Ilahabadi’ businessman Alankar Tandon is proud of the intangible heritage of Prayagraj finding tangible expression and celebration of an unmatched scale this Kumbh Mela.

“My father took his mother for kalpavaas in 1989 which was when I was initiated into visiting the kumbh and the dip. This year my sons and my daughter also followed at the same age as I had. They went to school from the mela and came back to the mela. We have passed on what we have inherited from the last 11 generations to them, so to watch them take the baton from us is reassuring,” says Tandon. And the conduct of a festival of this kind at this scale means a lot for Dharma, he believes.

“Your dharma has to have the originality intact; the pivots have to be kept. Like you have to wake up at 4am and take a dip. But we need to change with time. And so the regality, the scale, the majesty of the Kumbh that was in the times of say King Harshavardhan is being matched but in a modern avatar. That ‘amrit’ can never die. It is eternal. But to feel it, one needs faith, and events like these reinstate faith,” remarks this resident of Prayagraj, who also interestingly, hosted the Kumbh Art Festival conducted as part of the ‘Paint My City’ campaign at his residence in Civil Lines.

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Paint My City campaign

The ‘Paint My City’ campaign changed the visual landscape of the city forever. Right from the time one steps out of the airport, one wonders if the festivities are really over, for starting with the walls of the airport compound all the way to the ghats, long serpentine stretches are painted with amazing artwork, each frame reflective of the cultural traditions, of the legacy of the city, of the heritage of the country and of all that one can take pride in.

Scenes from our Itihasas and Puranas form the wall art in Prayagraj Scenes from our Itihasas and Puranas form the wall art in Prayagraj

And this was accomplished by over 200 artists from over 27 cities who came together to paint the town red, quite literally.

The Yuva Foundation which had previously done similar work in Ayodhya and and some other cities was entrusted with the responsibility of revamping the visual fabric of this city. The foundation and the Prayag Kumbh Pradhikaran got together to execute the Kumbh Art Festival, which worked on the theme of Vedic sciences and painted major junctions, bridges, flyovers, large walls and buildings.

Indira Bhawan, Prayagraj before the Paint My City Campaign Indira Bhawan, Prayagraj before the Paint My City Campaign

The ‘before-after’ images of the areas that underwent this makeover sure tell a tale of their own. The most iconic has been the makeover of the ten-storeyed Indira Bhavan that sits in the heart of the city. Nerolac pitched in to render the façade of the building anew.

Birth of the Kumbh Art Festival

“The idea started for us in Ayodhya,” says author, political analyst and Yuva Foundation founder Shantanu Gupta, who has also authored the biography of Yogi Adityanath.

During his trips to Gorakhpur, his stopovers at Ayodhya made him realise that aesthetically it was a dead town and the Ram Janmabhoomi issue had taken away its positive branding and given it a very negative, controversial feel. This was when he decided to create something beyond all the controversy and came up with the idea of ethnic and cultural wall arts.

A glimpse of painted walls of Prayagraj A glimpse of painted walls of Prayagraj

“Wall arts are common in India but not themed around the aesthetic, cultural heritage of India. But that is the core of India. Unlike Europe which is all black, white, grey, India is a country of colour. India is a place of stories, of folklore. So how do we put the stories back on the wall and thereby weave it back into public memory? This was what triggered the idea, and so we worked with the municipal corporation of Ayodhya and worked on the Ayodhya Art Festival,” explains Gupta.

It was this work that caught the attention of the Kumbh authority, which then invited them to join hands and make it happen in Prayagraj as well. Together they formulated the Kumbh Art Festival.

The hues of the setting sun match that of the Allahabad station (it is still called that!) whose exterior walls are painted with shades of orange while the compound wall is painted to resemble the river. Larger-than-life images of various characters from the epics, the mythology associated with the city, quotes about the holy rivers, and motifs of Indic heritage from sages and seers to the different vidyas adorn the walls of this city.

Cultural themes adorn the walls of Prayagraj Cultural themes adorn the walls of Prayagraj

“All other artificial and temporary installations around the mela will be removed. But this wall art which runs to almost 16 lakh feet is permanent and will stay,” explains Gupta.

It was also an effort to reclaim all that “we have missed in the last 70 years. We have lost our cultural touch. Bashing Indian traditions, calling it unscientific is a trend. But efforts like changing the name of the city are an attempt to reclaim our history,” opines Gupta, as he points out to the large font with which the name Prayagraj has been painted on the Indira Bhavan from the top.

Indira Bhavan wall art at Prayagraj Indira Bhavan wall art at Prayagraj

All that the city stands for or takes pride in, is now on its walls. And it is not restricted to the saints and sadhus but also the stars who have brought glory to this city. Like ‘El Chico’, the city’s famous café and restaurant, which has its exterior wall painted with the ‘Angry Young Man’ from Deewar. “He is as Ilahabadi as Ilahabad gets,” says El Chico’s owner, Naresh Roy.

‘Angry young man’ of Illahabad on El Chico’s wall in Prayagraj ‘Angry young man’ of Illahabad on El Chico’s wall in Prayagraj

Roy’s family has been here for generations, and his home and businesses have all been based in Civil Lines, and his memory of the Kumbh goes back to his childhood. Initially, Roy didn’t see the purpose behind changing the name to Prayagraj but now he is glad that it has happened.

“Kumbh Mela can only happen in Prayag. It cannot happen in an ‘Allahabad’,” says El Chico’s Naresh Roy. “Kumbh Mela can only happen in Prayag. It cannot happen in an ‘Allahabad’,” says El Chico’s Naresh Roy.

It was only after he read about the history of the melas and what the name ‘Prayag’ meant that he changed his views. “Prayag is a confluence of rivers. And a Kumbh Mela can only happen in Prayag. It cannot happen in an ‘Allahabad’ for that is a city that Akbar built, while Prayag goes way back in history.”

Proud of how it was all managed, Roy accords the sea of change in the city to hosting of the Kumbh Mela. “What happened here in few months was what had not happened for decades,” says Roy. “There is no monument, no nothing, just the confluence of two rivers yet it has become the largest congregation of faith, the biggest celebration of faith,” he adds.

Some Dissenting Voices

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Of course, not everything is hunky dory for everyone. While most of the city's residents seem happy with the transformation, it hasn't gone down well with some sections of the society – predictably those whose homes and shops have been demolished to build this new Prayag.

Ashok Kumar Chaurasia, who runs a small shop on Triveni road, complains that the state government works only for the rich. "They remove encroachment done by only poor people. My shop has been closed down but look at this Akhada which hasn’t been touched. All jhuggiwalas are in distress,” he tells us.

Imran Khan runs a puncture and spare-parts shop on the Jhusi Road which looks like a war-ravaged place from some conflict-ridden Middle Eastern country. Khan's shop appears as if it has been cut into half.

Structures that made way for development Structures that made way for development

“They have indiscriminately demolished all structures up to 45 feet on both sides of the road. Around 5,000 people have borne the brunt in this colony alone. The whole economy of the area has gone for a toss. Earlier, we didn't even get time to answer nature's calls, now there are no customers as there is a huge divider between the two roads. Vehicles have to take a long detour to cross.” Khan says.

A lot of structures had to make way for development to take place in Prayagraj A lot of structures had to make way for development to take place in Prayagraj

“The government is building small patches of gardens on both sides along with service roads. Who needs a garden here? It's okay if the government needed to demolish for widening the road but for gardens?!” Khan asks with a sense of pain and helplessness. “Most of the residents have not received compensation despite the directions given by the High Court,” he adds.

Tale of Encroachments - Demolitions Done Without Fearing or Favouring any Sect

Sunil Kumar Yadav, who rears cows and earns his living selling milk, is a resident of Khullabad area on the old Grand Trunk road, which is still narrow enough to put many lanes in Chandni Chowk to shame. He tells us the tale of encroachment.

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"From here, Gandhiji and Nehruji used to address people,” Yadav points to a small chauraha, where a statue of Gandhi stands, and which now enables a three-way flow of traffic. “The shop owners encroached so much (towards the statue) that this one side of the road totally disappeared and it was a chauraha in name only. No one dared object for decades. Only Yogiji showed himmat (courage). All this demolition is justified, be it here, in Kharbala police chowki, Himmatganj, Sabzi Mandi Phatak, Jhusi or anywhere else in the city,” Yadav says with conviction.

Both Muslims and Hindus testify that be it houses, shops or religious places, demolition has happened without fear of or favour to any sect. If a mosque has been demolished in Khullabad, a temple has come down in Behrana Chowk. Even the Alopi Devi temple, known as Aalop Shankari Shakti Peeth, has had to have its space restructured for the widening of the road.

Buildings that underwent partial demolition for the road widening project  Buildings that underwent partial demolition for the road widening project 

''My shop was demolished but I am not worried as I have been given a better place to live and set shop. And letting go of this shop was so that my city becomes a smart city, hence I have no qualms. In the process of transforming from Allahabad to Prayagraj, we got roads, drinking water, electricity and street lights and so many other facilities that has truly made it a 'bhavya (magnificent) and divya (divine)’ city," says Satish Sahu, a resident of Alopibagh, who drove hundreds of tourists from the ghats to the airport in his rickshaw, and in his own words has “shown everyone what Modiji and Yogiji have done for our city”.

The ghats are clean too even as the arrangements are being packed up. The ghats are clean too even as the arrangements are being packed up.

It is not one happy tale, no doubt. The boatman ferrying us to the Sangam and back asks why the local boatman community isn’t a part of the effort to keep the river clean. “These machines that were functioning through the day during the mela now only run once or twice a day. Had we been made a part of this effort would it not have been better as every boatman would have ensured no garbage gets into the river in the first place?” asked the boatman.