We were zipping out of Varanasi to Allahabad, but my mind kept playing out our tryst with it and my Amma woke me out of my reverie as she remarked "we never saw the temple in entirety from outside. We have no clue how the corridor was, how we entered it. Nothing. We just found ourselves in God’s presence” Oh! I had not realized it. Trust my Amma to have noticed it. We never saw the Vishwanatha Temple in the midst of a sprawling compound. We had been hustled in both the times once in darkness and once through steel barricades. There had been no lingering and admiring the corridors. Nothing. And when we looked up to see the golden spires we were inside the temple. If I have understood correctly the Kashi Vishwanath corridor project will correct this and we will see the temple in a courtyard. We will be able to see its exterior. Am I seeing it Vishwanatha?
I had been told the traffic was very bad on this road and it was better to leave early but we had been delayed. We couldn't have left without the boat ride, could we? It was hot and overflowing with traffic as we entered Allahabad. Allahabad is the usual Indian city choking with construction and traffic. I had begun to worry about my Amma's food intake, and we drove to a restaurant for lunch. My brother had suggested hot rice with plain Dal Tadka and I asked for it. But my mom had no appetite for Dal. She was happy with a large glass of lassi. I finished the Dal.
"For a long time Akbar's desire was to found a great city in the town of Piyag [Prayag], where the rivers Ganges and Jamna join, and which is regarded by the people of India with much reverence, and which is a place of pilgrimage for the ascetics of that country, and to build a choice Fort there" says Abu'l Fazl in Akbarnama and so Akbar built a fort on the banks of the Yamuna near its confluence with Ganga, in 1583. It was garrisoned by the East India company first in 1765. And after Independence the Indian Army moved in. Today we were pacing outside it with the phone at my ear. I was talking to Mahato, the gentleman who was supposed to take us inside. I am a stickler for time and here we were late, and we seemed to have gone to the wrong place too. The Hindi spoken in these parts is a different dialect and I am accustomed to it spoken with a mix of Urdu and I was struggling to understand, and it showed. Finally, I understood we had to be at the "Qilawala" gate. But nobody around seemed to have heard it. Poor Mahato, finally came and picked us up. Luckily, we were near the riverbank very near the gate.
Rang Mahal Delicate design at the base of the columns
Seeing Mahato with us, all the guards waved us through as we drove through a series of gates. I had to just imagine our army men were Akbar's sentries to go back in time. As we crossed a tunnel I looked curiously around trying to soak in the history and trying to imagine who and what had transpired here since it was built. Gave me goose bumps. Our first stop was the Rang Mahal a beautiful three storeyed red building getting redder with the evening sun. It was my first encounter with Mughal architecture, and I gazed at it delightedly. Rang Mahal as the name suggests was used for recreation. It is a very well-maintained building though the grass around it is itching to encroach. Beautiful columns with delicate designs at the base hold up the structure on all four sides. The design seemed to end in a Lotus at the top. A narrow dark staircase took us to the next floor. My mom stayed back, and we checked out the third floor. Allahabad fort is out of bounds for commoners and I had read a PIL had been admitted in court asking for their entry. If it was allowed, I could imagine film songs being shot here. I mentioned this to Mahato, and he nodded. Maybe ASI will not permit it. I will stay with this thought. The building is pretty and very well maintained with not a scratch and deserves to stay that way. I walked around looking for a perfect shot of the Rang Mahal in one frame and happy to say I got it.
Akshyavat tree (indestructible banyan tree) is a sacred tree inside the fort and is the place where Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshmana rested on their journey. It derives its power and sacredness from this connection. Another legend says sage Markandeya asked Lord Narayana to show him a sample of the divine power. And Narayana flooded the entire world for a moment, during which only the Akshyavat could be seen above the water level. Controversy surrounds the current tree which is near the Patalpuri temple. People say the original tree is somewhere in the centre of the fort and this is just a stump. A British map too concurs with this. So says the sage Wikipedia.
We were in front of it now. A family stood before the priest who was telling its story to an officer in uniform while madam and two daughters stood a little away. We waited for our turn. Hierarchy and discipline are set in stone in the Army. The priest gave madam a steel pot of water for libation and she handed it to her daughter. We south Indians never perform libations to God personally, the priests mediate for us. I wouldn't know what to do when my turn came. I watched the girl pour water over the image of Lord Rama with reverence. She poured water over the imprints of His feet. Then she wiped the water off the feet and touched her hand to her eyes with devotion. Prayers done the family moved away and the priest turned to us. Ah, I now knew what to do with the pot of water. I mimicked the girl. Prayers done we circumambulated the tree. It was huge.
We entered the subterranean Patalpuri temple and walked through its corridors. It looked less temple more museum. The idols I felt were a little different too. I had never seen an idol of a Rishi and here we saw them with beards seated on counters. Was the Maharishi Kashyapa? I lingered in front of him. A friend had mentioned the idols had been found in a river and had been consecrated here. A temple, an Akshyavat tree inside a fort built by a Muslim ruler sends out a message of tolerance and harmony to the world. Was this a precursor to Akbar's new religion Din-i Ilahi ? Din-i_Ilahi is a syncretic religion that primarily draws from Islam and Hinduism and was Akbar's experiment in merging the religious differences of his subjects. Impressive idea. I gave the priest some money to offer food in Goddess Annapoorneshwari's name as we stepped out. We had seen her inside. He was surprised and perhaps touched. I still remember our small interaction and his happiness. This temple was built by Jodha Bai, Akbar's Queen says an article in the Hindustan Times.
The mythical Saraswathi river runs through India since time immemorial and is mentioned in the Rig Veda. The Saraswathi river meets the Ganga and the Yamuna at the holy Triveni Sangam a little away from the fort. She flows underground to avoid her amorous suitors says a legend while another one says she was cursed by Lord Ganesha since he was unable to hear Sage Vyasa reciting the Mahabharata. Lord Ganesha is trying to write it down and Saraswathi is roaring as she gushes from a cave in Mana near Badrinath. So, he curses her, and she goes underground but she can be seen at the bottom of a well here in Saraswathi Koop. Koop is a well. My mom saw her through a live feed on TV while I peered down into the well. Deep down I saw water. Felt blessed. I would meet her in Mana later, but this was something. I had read of this before I left and now here, we were. Exhilarating! Sad my Amma couldn't see her because of the high wall of the well. Michael Danino traces her journey in "The Lost River: On the trail of Sarasvati". It would make more sense now if I re read it. I was wary of taking too many pictures inside the fort. We were in a restricted area and I didn’t want to splash its innards on my blog. So, travel with me through my words people.
Allahabad Pillar , zoom to see the inscriptions
The Sun was calling it a day and the its light overwhelmed the picture of the Ashoka Pillar giving me a silhouette. Not happy with it I walked around the well-kept lawn in which it stands and got a better long shot. The pillar is also called the Allahabad Pillar. Did it have a single Lion or four Lions on its top? Was the pillar moved from nearby Kaushambi? Did Emperor Jehangir erect it? Too many controversies surround it. Zoom the picture to see Ashokan edicts at the halfway mark. Edicts of Samudragupta and Jehangir are also found and they reveal fascinating details. I ran to my Amma and Mahato.
Triveni Sangam Legend View from President's viewpoint
"Come Amma, you can do it " I cajoled my Amma. I wanted her to see everything. And we climbed the steps to the top of President's view. This was built to commemorate Dr. Rajendra Prasad's stay in the fort said Mahato. At the top is a viewpoint with a legend of the Triveni Sangam and the three rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswathi. A little away we could see the Yamuna with very little water, the walls of the fort and its tower. A new glass paned building sat on the Tower. The fort ran parallel to the bridge. Streetlights were twinkling faraway. It was getting dark and with a quick dekho we climbed down.
This is how you recycle a plastic can
Swaraj Bhavan was closed but Mahato took us to Chandashekhar Azad's park. Mahato seemed very proud of this park. This is the hallowed place where Azad had sacrificed his life in 1931 for our Independence. Surrounded by the British Azad shot himself here. We could barely see a statue of him twirling his moustache, it was dark. This park was initially called Alfred park and was supposed to mark Prince Alfred's visit to Allahabad. This is a very big park, but night had fallen to check it out. As we walked out small plants inside plastic cans caught my eye. One side had been neatly cut, mud filled, and small plants planted inside. What a nice way to recycle! I had to take pictures of it to share.
I had so badly wanted to see the Khusrau Bagh and Mahato did take us to it. We knew it would be shut as darkness had fallen but perhaps, we could cajole the guard for one quick look was the thought as we crossed it. But no, it was not to be. He said some repairs were underway and we couldn't go. It is on a busy road and we had a tough time crossing it.
What hadn't we seen in the fort! We had gone to Ashokan times and Akbar's times. We had walked the earth were East India company had garrisoned and the Saraswathi flows. And we had been in an area where civilians are rarely allowed now. Did my feet walk where Sita had walked? Did I take Jodha's path to the Patalpuri Temple? Whose steps did a trace in the Rang Mahal. Then we had topped it by walking in Azad's territory. This was some trip, and more was yet to come.
"Please enter your details" the receptionist said as he handed over a form. I began to fill it. A few seconds later I felt my neighbour was reading the details. I looked at him and sure enough a well-dressed man in his thirties/forties was looking at my form. He walked away but a few mins later my sixth sense kicked in and he was hovering behind me. I panicked. I hurriedly handed over the form and we checked into our room. We had been bumped up into a family room with two double beds instead of a double room. The All Saints Cathedral and Kushrau Bagh had been painted on the wall of our room. We had missed one and would miss the other one the next day.
The dining hall was gaudy, and a scooter was miraculously hanging from the roof along a wall. My mom hardly tasted the Dal Kichdi. All she wanted was Lassi. And that guy from the lounge was strutting inside the hall and I was jittery. Suddenly a girl snapped her fingers at the servers and called out for food loudly. This girl would slap a guy in the middle of a road if he messed with her, I thought. What guts! I was stunned. I had never seen this from a girl in all my life. Dinner done we retired and now my mind went berserk with panic. All the paranoia my siblings had verbalized or left unsaid hit me hard. What if that man knocked on our door at night? What if he had seen my cell number and called? I tossed and turned and wanted to flee the hotel.
Lights on the bridge faraway
Early next morning we were at the Qilawala gate of Allahabad Fort. It was dark and a mufflered sentry waved us in. Mantosh silently drove the car in. Sleepy sentries waved us from gate to gate and we reached Mahato who seemed to be sleepy too. Silently he opened the door and slid next to Mantosh and gestured "drive on". A couple of turns later the car stopped and we followed Mahato to the riverfront. Golden lights flickered on the bridge faraway. We could see a puddle of water with bamboo shafts sticking out. All else was dark and silent and we were on the banks of the Yamuna. A flat square trough with a locked-up room at one end stood unmoving on the river. And another square trough with beams of steel forming a roof stood nearby. Between these two was wedged a metal trough. I was so astonished by these strange contraptions I stood rooted. “That is an army boat” Mahato explained. Never seen anything like it. Mahato paced up and down with an eye on his watch. A couple of men emerged ghost like from the left and walked past us. One of them looked like a priest and going by the discussion they were negotiating the cost of a boat and his services.
Outline of the fort
Boats and lights behind them
Triveni Sangam - zoom to see it
Exactly at 5:25 AM a disembodied voice wafted over the Yamuna to which Mahato replied and a boat noiselessly slid into the clearing in front of us. We climbed in and the boatman paddled the boat into the river. The ramparts of the fort were dark, and we could just trace its tops. Try imagining enemy boats surrounding the fort and waiting to attack. No such fear with us. We were two umarmed men and two women gliding along the fort on the Yamuna to the Triveni Sangam. "There is a customer waiting" the boatman hollered into the darkness and a voice replied "goingggg". We floated onward in the dark. Ten minutes later we could faintly make out the shape of boats anchored at the river edge. Streetlights glowed behind them and men were moving around. Soft pink light lightened the sky heralding a new dawn. And slowly boats with coloured flags on them came to view. The colours indicate the organization to which they belong the boatman explained. The placid Yamuna meets the ebullient Ganga at a perpendicular. The meeting with Saraswathi is hush hush as she is flowing underground. The boats do not wade into this sacred meeting. They stop at the edge and people dive down for a bath like the lone man who was doing now. We stopped too and stood still. We had no plans of bathing here. We had finished ours. We could make out the edge where the two rivers met but didn't see the colour mismatch between the two. Time stopped as we sat silently at the edge of the Sangam. A confluence of rivers is called "Prayag" in Hindi and this was the king of them all "Prayagraj" because of the star power of the three rivers meeting here. Allahabad had been renamed as Prayagraj, but I was yet to get used to it. Perhaps the boatman and Mahato wondered how we couldn’t not want to have a bath here. But then that was us.
Boats waiting for customers
Where is my breakfast?
After some time, we turned back. In the early morning light, we could see boats anchored at the edge their flags fluttering in the breeze. People were getting into some for a bath at the Sangam. As I tried taking pictures the bamboo arches above kept getting in the way. Wonder what purpose these arches serve? They looked like half-done roofs waiting to be thatched. We crossed a flotilla of boats and as I looked back, I could see more people had joined the lone man having his bath. A few birds appeared bobbing on the Yamuna. Then there was a flurry and birds dived down and rose up all around us. These birds are used to being fed and they were here for their breakfast. I had seen a similar frenzy on the way to Bet Dwarka and I kept going click click. It is so easy to get stunning pictures of these because of their frenzy. The red orb of the Sun slowly wafted behind the haze in the distance and made the pictures look like a painting. "People feed the birds here" Mahato explained as we crossed a boat with the boatman calling out for alms in the name of birds. "Does he really feed them or pocket the money I asked? Mahato seemed shocked. A little ahead a boatman was selling "sev" for the birds and we bought a packet and lured the birds with them. They gobbled them up and kept following us for more. My hands skimmed the surface, I had finally touched Yamuna. I wiped the water off on my Amma's arm. Felt blessed again.
The Sun rises
At the boat stop
A house on the fort
A group of people were waiting on some steps leading to a temple at the river's edge for their daily pickup, a boat! That was so like a bus stand I thought. Another man sat by himself looking intently at the water and held fine threads in his hands. He was fishing. Mahato pointed out white things with threads around them bobbing on the river. A few men in a boat were setting them up for fishing. It was just another day for them. But for us as we bobbed up and down on the Yamuna, all this was novel. And we tried to take it all in, including them. The fort loomed large to our right and the Sun was getting redder as it climbed the horizon and slowly climbed the fort walls. “This was Jodha Akbar's gate" Mahato pointed at a gate in the fort wall. But his affection was reserved for his ex-boss’s home which was perched high above on a tower. We could see the glass windows looking out on the Yamuna and rather foolishly I craned my neck to see inside. That house was at the confluence of history and religion. The house didn’t know this, it just sat there unmoved.
The Yamuna has turned golden
The orange Sun sitting safely on the fort walls played Holi with the Yamuna, first she blushed red and then turned golden. The ghost like boats we had seen on our way to the Sangam turned real now and the bridge over the Yamuna came in to view. We could faintly make out its guy ropes. The boat stopped at the steps and we got off. The boatman was delighted with the amount I paid and happily waved as he rowed away. We climbed up the steps and I see flower like canopies at the top of the steps in the picture now. The steps could have taken an enemy into the fort, but we were just two grateful souls who had an experience of a lifetime. Thank you Mahato. Mantosh was curled up in the car. Not wanting to meet a Johnny Depp in Allahabad I had requested Mahato for a visit to the Sangam and he had made it unforgettable. I thanked him now and we drove out.
Not wanting to make the same mistake of starting late and running in to the traffic like the previous day we asked for an early breakfast, but the hotel was not equipped to handle it. And I was still paranoid and eager to leave asap, and we fled. But the hotel was gracious enough to reimburse the additional amount it had collected forgetting the advance I had paid while booking. And they did this when I wrote to them after my return. Thank you.
All Saints Cathedral church
We just stopped for a quick picture of the All Saints Cathedral built in the 19th century in the Gothic style. I had wanted to see it so badly, but it was not to be. Mantosh stepped on the gas as we raced to Ayodhya.
This blog is for all my friends and Mahato who made this Allahabad trip amazing. We are never going to forget this visit. Thank you.
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