'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Allahabad - Impressions

"Behold the clear, wave-swept waters of the Ganga merge with the surging dark current of the Yamuna in an exuberant confluence that looks over here like a necklace of pearls studded with the odd sapphire, and there like a bouquet of water lilies and deep blue lotuses,... like a skein of swans with the odd raven, .... a moon-dappled meadow, slivers of azure sky glimpsed among shifting milky autumnal clouds and dark serpents slithering over swathes of white ash on Lord Siva's broad chest!"(*)

-Kalidasa in 'Raghuvamsham'

For quite a while, my world line was showing an increasingly worrisome tendency to crumple up and coil into the narrowness of Kerala with one northern outpost after another falling or withering away. Allahabad, mercifully, stayed stubbornly kind and welcoming; so I made a long overdue revisit there - hoping to rekindle old memories and draft fresh notes.

Note: This post cannot do justice to my first encounters with Drambuie, Kahlua, Cointreau, Jagermeister and Amaretto ('Amaratwa') - or for that matter with Limpy, Sleepy, Kuro and Rusty - so let this be their only - and honorable - mention.


Half a day's worth of landscape-gazing as the Duronto express cut thru Madhya Pradesh (Itarsi - Jabalpur - Katni - Satna...)was a reassuring return to the bracing openness of central India. The flanks of the Satpuras were green and tending to lushness with the monsoon having set it in but beyond the Narmada, arid barrenness seemed to persist indefinitely and life appeared harsh among the scattered hamlets. Somewhere, I saw a dozen or so vultures wheeling over an invisible carcass...

Towards Maihar, a tableland slid into view - and stayed; rising to a remarkably consistent height of about 500 feet above the plains we were traversing, its sheer edge kept at our side for a full half hour (let me leave an oxymoron here!). Like battlements of an immense fortress, occasional promontories projected towards us from the main wall-like landform...


On arrival at the huge Allahabad railway station, a strange mural welcoming pilgrims to the Kumbh Mela catches the eye:

Guess: the round-eyed, Jagannath-like figure represents Brihaspati (Jupiter) as he enters the constellation of Simha (Leo, note the lion there). Such a celestial transit, occurring once in 12 years is when the Kumbh is held. Jupiter being made to look like Jagannath (a form of Krishna) is not that big a surprise since traditional astrology often links Vishnu-Krishna to the planet Jupiter - of course, the why of it is not known to me.


Allahabad is a big city in a very advanced stage of urban rot. Terrible roads, non-existent bus service, uncollected garbage, uncontrolled crowds ... But it also appears to have started replacing the noisy, smoky 'fatfati' with electric rickshaws - a slowish but non-polluting public transport workhorse, something a congested metropolis like Cochin or even say, Bangalore or Pune, could very usefully adopt. And Allahabad has retained thousands of cycle rickshaws, some of which look a lifetime old. I would want these to make a comeback in other cities, especially those with level terrain and in old and close-built neighborhoods. IMHO, cycle rickshaws are an instance of 'appropriate technology' (a phrase I have heard being used by Professor-activist RVG Menon) and bringing them back makes far more sense than emptily preaching to citizens about the virtues of cycling.


To reach the Harish Chandra Institute, one has to branch off the Banaras-bound Grand Trunk road and endure 3 kilometers of absolutely godawful driving along Chhatnag road. The day after I landed at the place, a bit of rain fell and vast puddles formed over the worst of potholes. Three days later, there had been hardly any further rain but the puddles remained. I noted with horror, Chhatnag road (like many other roads in the core city) had no proper drains or even open gutters running alongside it.

Let me make a humble suggestion here hoping it would be read by someone wielding decision-making powers.

"HRI could consider adopting the Chhatnag road. Surfacing it would be a good outreach initiative from the elite institution and could set an example to the city as a whole. Perhaps a deal could be struck to the effect that the road be renamed after Harish Chandra.... And in case the above proposal involves too steep costs, the institute could fund digging gutters along this road and name them after the great man; that would send a stronger message than ceremonially renaming a road."

Note: Jhusi falls under the Phoolpur parliamentary constituency that returned Jawaharlal Nehru more than once.


The riverbank of Jhusi, where HRI sprawls over a big, green and well-laid out campus, is believed to have been the site of Pratishthana, capital of the Chandravamsa kings of deep antiquity. As Kalidasa relates in his play Vikramorvaseeyam, this is where King Pururavas pined for Urvasi sitting in a Ganga-facing pavilion of his stately palace. An elevated point on the institute's waterfront has indeed been named after Kalidasa. Viewed from here in summer, one sees a largely dried up riverbed with scattered remnants of funeral pyres. The institute has built a long iron-roofed pandal at 'Kalidasa point' - it looks somewhat like the sheds seen in cremation grounds.


As I walked around the Mughal tombs at Khusro Bagh, a tight group of kids ("urchins" as old-timers would call them) who had been generally fooling around, suddenly got together and barred my way. "Paise do!" - they demanded.

"I don't have much money on me" I protested.

The littlest of the lot said: "No problem. We need only ten rupees".

"Hello, that's a lot!" I said. "And so are we. Can't you see there are six of us?!" he says.

I knew the game was up. "Okay, I'll pay you ten bucks. But I want a pic!".


On M G Road, the artery of Civil Lines, the most developed sector of the city, a nearly ten year old girl put on a show of acrobatics - somersaults, handstands, tight-rope walking etc... - in a bid to entertain a sparse sunday crowd. Nearby, an itinerant barber, whose infrastructure amounted to little more than a chair and a filthy white table-cloth, plied his trade on the open sidewalk.


Google with "scalloped arch" and hundreds of pictures jump at you but I bet you wouldn't find anything quite like the scallops on the "false window frames" below. These are pictures from Khusro Bagh:

Pillar capitals from South Indian temples appear to have received some serious scholarly attention but Mughal pillars appear relatively untouched. Here are a pair.


A very worrisome 'development' in these parts is the proliferation of coaching institutes. Every major intersection in Allahabad has big bill-boards with pictures of some 'Tripathi Sir' or 'Sanjeev Sir' or 'Toufeeq Sir' or dozens of similar miracle-workers who can get your children into the IIT, IIM or AIIMS or thru the bank test or whatever. Among the more in-your-face specimens was a certain 'Master of Conceptual and Magical Chemistry' - no, not an alchemist but a purveyor of 'short cuts' to crack competitive exams. To observe that Harish Chandra was only the brightest star among a galaxy of eminent intellectuals nurtured and enriched by this once-upon-a-time educational hub, one feels immensely sad about a proud tradition getting crushed under the crassest kind of commercialization.


The brighter side: despite all its ills, Allahabad gives the impression of being essentially at peace with itself. There is no noticeable Hindu-Muslim tension in this very mixed city. Even its backwardness does not seem an unmixed curse - the bulk of Allahabad's citizenry seem strangely attuned to (not tiredly resigned to) life among unsurfaced roads, unplastered dwellings and uncollected garbage. They continue to revere (and continue to defile) the two rivers meeting at the sacred Sangam and refer to them with unaffected love as 'Gangaji' and 'Jamunaji'.


All over the city, on empty walls, pillars of flyovers, ... are written, fervent appeals to participate in the 'Clean Ganga' program. Most appeals were signed by a certain 'Dr. Deen'. It looked a great example of 'Muslim-Hindu Bhaichara' - 'Deen' (=faith) is indeed a very Muslim word. Later, one figured out this Deen is short for Dr. Deenanath Shukla, a very Hindu name.


Allahabad has a very good museum:

Have you ever seen a more contended looking pair of lions?

Just compare the pair above with this specimen crouching on the portals of the Napier gallery, Trivandrum:

Here is a Buddha(?) image from Kosambi, near Allahabad. Don't remember seeing the Master in a single 'Mundu' - admittedly tied in a rather non-standard fashion. Note: Roshan Alkazi's concise guide to 'Ancient Indian Costume' doesn't show anything like this garment; As Rekesh has just remarked, "This Buddha mundu doesn't look like a one-piece affair; it doesn't look feasible to wrap a single piece of cloth that way, and have two ends meet in an inverted V.... this is more like how Western teens wrap a jacked around the waist and tie it".

An intricate decorative piece from Bharhut:

And another:

Note: Dwarfs with fantastic flowers and creepers growing out of their mouths are visible among Sanchi carvings too (Sanchi and Bharhut are near-contemporaries - they were made around the time of Jesus with Bharhut marginally older). Although this motif appears to have soon fallen out of fashion in Desi art, it might have inspired the Padmanabha form of Vishnu - just as the snake-parasolled Nagaraja images led to Vishnu's 'Seshasayi' form.

In a piece written very long ago on the stirrup, I had wondered if sites like 'Sanchi, Bharhut ...etc...' might offer evidence for the full foot stirrup having been an Indian invention. Later, at Sanchi, I did see (on the profusely carved gateways to the Stupa) a couple of horsemen with foot stirrups. Allahabad musuem has at least one relief carving from Bharhut showing a horseman... It does not show any trace of stirrups but the rider's foot does not hang like a pure stirrup-less rider's either. A bit odd! (Sadly, despite multiple visits there, I could never see the reassembled Bharhut stupa in the Calcutta Musuem).

A very foreign-looking trumpeter from Bharhut:


And a strange bit of decoration - a hut, some outsized flowers...

Moving past Bharhut, here is a fantastic trio, presumably Bhoota attendants of Shiva from the ancient ruins at Bhumra in Madhya Pradesh (5th century AD):

Mahatma Gandhi in what appears to be half-trousers, pic taken while on a visit to Europe:


A pervert has been striking fear among residents of nearby villages. His 'style': to attack unsuspecting people with a needle and to escape on a motor bike. He has been given a quaint name 'suinochwa'. On closer scrutiny, this Korean-sounding word('sui-no-chwa') literally translates to 'the one who scratches with a needle'; it is a uniquely pithy, Avadhi compound derived from sui (=needle) and 'noch'(=to scratch). A similar example (very different in spirit of course!): medieval poet Tulsidas had the nickname 'Rambolwa' in his childhood - this word, a combination of 'Ram' and 'bol' (=say) means "the one who keeps chanting the name of Ram".


A splendid specimen from a private collection. He can keep Sukumar Babu's Hunkomukho very good company:


Towards the end of my stay, a spell of severe rain hit Allahabad. Here is how the Sangam looked as I set out to catch my train:


I boarded the Prayagraj Express for Delhi and stood for long at the doorway of my coach hoping to catch a glimpse, albeit at midnight, of Kanpur, a city I had never ever seen. As the train rammed thru cascades of persistent rain, for mile after mile, well over the din of the iron wheels - and not to speak of the patter of raindrops - rose, like a tidal wave that never broke, the full-throated calls of trillions of frogs which seemed to have descended from nowhere onto the Uttar Pradesh countryside.


(*)"..... and drifting a bit towards Varanasi, you see the ancient outline of HRI to your left, with its pantry making bad uttapams and near the 'torana', Jang Bahadur's shop, thankfully selling soda. It is related, four rabbits live in one of the houses nearby, and are fond of biscuits .."


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