In late 2018, the Hindu nationalist government of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) renamed Allahabad, the state’s judicial capital, Prayagraj. For over two decades the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) had promoted the moniker change as a return to the original, ancient name of the city. The alteration was not just an attempt to reclaim a lost heritage, however. It was part of a longer-term right-wing policy to expunge Muslims from the national landscape. This contributed to ongoing discussions around the country’s changing identity and the place of minorities in it, most notably Muslims. The act was seen as another step toward making India’s Muslim history and Indian Muslim identity a relic of the past. It was welcomed by many, and denounced by those who hold a vision of India at odds with the current nationalist dream.
Hindu texts suggest that at their sangam, their confluence, the Ganges and Yamuna rivers are joined by a third mythical river Saraswati. The sangam is included among several sacred confluences cited in scriptures, along one of which an ancient city of Prayag is said to have been located. No archaeological evidence exists, however, of a permanent settlement here before the late 1500s when the Mughal emperor Akbar established a new urban centre as the district capital of Ilahabad. Meaning ‘the place where God lives’, the name was an acknowledgement of the sangam’s religious significance for local people.
For half a century, Allahabad emblematised what would be known as the ganga-jamuni tehzeeb of the gangetic plains: a syncretic culture springing from the convergence of Muslim and Hindu traditions, flowing together like the city’s two rivers. The city’s intellectual and cultural foment produced some of South Asia’s most famous figures such as the literary giant Akbar Ilahabadi, the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and the 1970s’ Bollywood heartthrob Amitabh Bachchan. Allahabad is also where my paternal grandparents settled after my grandfather’s forty years of service for the UP central jail system.