Kumbh Mela 2019 Special: From Prayagraj to Allahabad, it's not just a name-change
If a hundred Banksy in a good mood were to take a long puff from a chillum and get down to work, the result would be the streets of today’s Prayagraj, formerly Allahabad.
A three-storey-high portrait of actor Amitabh Bachchan (he was born in Allahabad, an Illahabadi before he became a superstar in Bombay, now Mumbai); a whole building on whose wall a woman in salwar-kameez riding a battery-rickshaw is painted, behind her rainbow colours shooting out to every direction like the girl in the washing-powder-Nirma ad; a farmer and a cow walking in peace, Mahatma Gandhi, birds, and much more.
Prayagraj has turned into a massive canvas for artists to experiment as the city in southern Uttar Pradesh does everything it can to be presentable to millions of people who are coming to see the Kumbh Mela. During the eight-week festival, authorities expect up to 150 million people, including a million foreign visitors, to bathe at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and a mythical third river, the Saraswati. Hindus believe that bathing in the waters of the Ganges absolves people of sins and bathing at the time of the Kumbh Mela, or the “festival of the pot”, brings salvation from the cycle of life and death.
The roads have been widened and swept clean, but at several areas in the dusty town, half-demolished shops and houses are yet to be tied up properly, their former skeletal selves jutting out to the sky. Brand new statues at some traffic intersections still have plastic covers wrapped around them. The city has gone ahead in breakneck speed to finish all the work before the Kumbh Mela started on January 15. But the guests have arrived even before water for the tea could be boiled. Work at the airport is incomplete, several roads have been turned into one-ways. The signs of hurried development is everywhere.
Prayagraj will, however, definitely benefit from the nearly two-month-long Kumbh Mela, as Delhi had from the Commonwealth Games in 2010. The locals are excited at the moneymaking opportunity this religious gathering has opened for them. Hotels are booked full. The city administration is even going door-to-door looking for colonial-style old homes that could be converted into a bed-and-breakfast place. They don’t want tourists, especially those who are coming from abroad, to be disappointed in finding all the hotels are full. Permit for converting an unused home to a BnB is swift - doesn’t happen under normal circumstances - if a houseowner agreed.
It’s a great time to visit Prayagraj. Don’t let the religiosity of the Kumbh Mela overpower your senses. The city feels like a mini-Kolkata in some ways. The Indian Coffee House, the big church at Civil Lines, old homes, army cantonments, Allahabad High Court. If you took a stroll across town starting from the railway station, you will run into many friendly people. The thing to remember is this is not western Uttar Pradesh.
End note: Entering the Kumbh Mela area (above). This is the first of a four-part series on the Kumbh Mela, being held in Prayagraj, formerly Allahabad, from January 15 to March 4, 2019. Second part is here, third here, fourth here. If you want specific information like how to enter the Kumbh Mela grounds, less-crowded places at the site, or general stuff on Prayagraj, I’ll try my best to answer them. Mail to journeybasket [at] gmail