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The Case for Prayagraj

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The city of Prayag (previously Allahabad) is connected with various symbolism. Chief among them is the Indic belief of it being the ‘Sangam’ or confluence of three rivers: Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. The recent reverting of Allahabad’s name to Prayagraj has stirred controversy. While administratively the name had been Allahabad, as recently as my Grandparents’ generation, the name used to refer to the city in conversation was still Prayag.  The controversy around this renaming becomes especially conspicuous owing to the lack of controversy in previous instances of renaming, be they Bombay to Mumbai, Madras to Chennai or Calcutta to Kolkata. Why then the furor over this particular instance? I will attempt to bring to light some facts and evidences to analyze the reasons behind the conflict.

Some have argued that the ancient name was Prayag, not Prayagraj. While this is true, it should be noted that Brahma Purana says:

प्रकृष्टत्वात् प्रयागो असौ प्राधान्याद् राजशब्दवान्

Loose translation: “Because of its greatness (प्रकृष्टत्वात्) it is called Prayaga. Because of its supremacy (प्राधान्य), the word “Raj” is used as a suffix to its name”

The name Prayagraj is hence not new and has been used to refer to Prayag since antiquity.

Certain scholars claim that the fort ‘Ilahabas’ was named as such by Akbar to honor the Hindu ‘Ila’. The grounds for this are rather thin, as the god Ila is generally not associated with war or with forts. No precedence exists of Prayag being referred to by the name of Ila, nor is there a precedence of forts being named after Ila.

Ilahabas is very likely a reference to Din-I-Ilahi, the religion which Akbar founded, not to the ‘Ila’ of Indian Tradition. Shahjahan’s renaming of Prayaga to Allahabad is a further pointer of the Islamic connotations of the name. Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb renamed Mathura to Islamabad, Varanasi to Mohammadabad and Somnath to Musabad. There is a clear pattern of renaming sites which are revered by Indians, and claiming that these are all for administrative purposes is rather naïve.

Moreover, Shah Jahan himself ordered the destruction of 76 temples in Benares alone, as mentioned in the book ‘Shah Jahan’ by H. M. Elliot (extract in pic below). When this context is highlighted, the renaming appears less as administrative change and more as an attempt to erase places which are revered in Indian culture. In this context, a line from Shaira Mohan’s article ‘Allahabad to Prayagraj’ becomes relevant “What needs to be realized is that by changing names history cannot be re-written.” Although she is claiming this in the context of reverting of names which have occurred recently, doesn’t this statement also hold true for the time when Mumbai was originally renamed Bombay, or when Shyamala was renamed Shimla or when Prayagraj was renamed Illahabas/Allahbad?There are claims that the fort of Illahabas was built out of ‘Akbar’s respect for Hindu tradition’ as claimed in Rana Safvi’s article ‘Allahabad becomes Prayagraj.’ There is a lack of grounds for this claim. There are however, evidence which suggest Akbar built the fort for strategic importance of the point of confluence of these two rivers, as mentioned in ‘Pilgrimage and Power’ by Kama McLean (see pic below). Hence, calling this an example of Akbar’s magnanimity towards Hindus is somewhat erroneous.Safvi’s article claims coexistence, based on the existence of Prayag Ghat. It wasn’t highlighted however that Prayag Ghat was built by Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao (son of Baji Rao I), after the Marathas had recaptured Benares (and most of North India) back from the Mughals. It was in fact built because the original Prayag had been desecrated and renamed by successive generations of Mughal rulers. So this a wrong example to pick for showcasing Hindu-Muslim unity, since it’s historical origin is actually one of Hindu-Muslim conflict.  

Ex-IPS Shantanu Mukherjee in his article ‘Allahabad vs Prayagraj’ also claims “it’s the spirit of Allahabad that binds people of all hues together in this city — people who want to keep the spirit of Allahabad and the famous Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb alive.”

He is completely correct, provided one completely overlooks the history of how Allahabad’s name actually came about, and how accommodation of the Muslim culture is actually a positive trait of Hindu culture, which is as much represented (if not better represented) by the name Prayagraj than the name given by a dynasty with an ideological agenda.

Along similar lines to Shantanu Mukherjee’s argument, Rana Safvi asserts: “Most critics of Akbar won’t call him communal?” They don’t have to, since Akbar does a great job of proclaiming himself as a Mujahid (warrior of Jihad) in his Fatehnama (declaration of victory) after the capture of Mewar:

“(Karim) has ensured the victory of the believers…who enjoyed the task of destroying the wicked infidels on the dutiful Mujahids.” He further quotes Quran 9.14 “Fight them. Allah will chastise them at your hands and He will lay them low and give you victory.” (see pic below)

Incidentally, Osama-Bin-Laden quoted the same verse to justify 9/11. It is apparent that Akbar was a self-professed Mujahid, and Islamization of India was a stated objective. In this context, it becomes highly likely that Din-I-Ilahi was simply another means for him to spread Islam in India covertly, not so much a religion with the motive of uniting people

Safvi further claims “Most supporters of Yogi won’t call him secular.” Again, they don’t have to. Secularism originated as an attempt to separate Church and state – a move to separate religion from governance to ensure fair treatment to all religions. Traditional Indian governance already incorporated this separation of state and institution of faith.

Moreover, सर्वधर्म समभाव (respect for all religions) is at the core of Hindu philosophy. Hindus have hosted foreign religions who were persecuted from their homeland from time immemorial – be they Syrian Christians, Israeli Jews or Persian Zoroastrians.  I am unaware of any similar examples for Mughal’s or even other Islamic rulers, in India and Middle East. So Safvi’s assertion of disqualifying Yogi’s secularism is based on a false premise. Hinduism is inherently and traditionally secular.

There seems to be a common thread in deliberations of left-liberals of representing only a subset of facts, all of which try to portray a fanatic race of foreign rulers as a portrait of secularism and tolerance.  Facts which suggest otherwise are conveniently missing or not discussed.

Yes, the Mughals are a part of Indian history, but that does not mean that their crimes should be white-washed or that changes they made out of intolerance should not be rectified. The real reason why there is discomfort in name Prayagraj but not in Mumbai, Kolkata or Chennai is that this name was a source of pride for Mughal supremacists, and those fringe elements in Islam who still cling to the dream of Ghazwa-e-Hind.

It is very difficult for these elements to palate the revival of traditional Indian culture. Even more so when it is happening at a time when a saffron clad leader is the leader of the state which was the erstwhile bastion of foreign rule.

PS: Acknowledgements to TrueIndology who originally shared the book sources I have quoted. The translation of Brahma Purana is also shared by him.

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