The Yogi Adityanath government on October 16 paid a great tribute to Mughal emperor Akbar.
In changing the name of Allahabad to Prayagraj, the Yogi government restored what Akbar had originally intended to do — give a name that marked out the city as a place sacred to Hindus.
There is a difference between ‘Allahabad’ and ‘Illahabad’. Allah is the Islamic God, ‘Illaha’ a generic term for ‘gods’. Akbar named the city ‘Illahabas’.
Since then, much water has flown in the sangam of rivers near which the city stands, and which gave it its original name, ‘Prayag’, denoting a sacred place (another story goes that Lord Brahma had held a yagna here, and Prayag comes from “yagya” and “pratham”, which means first).
Today, as the BJP government re-renames the city, history has come full circle, though most of us are running about in circles over it.
Depending on how many WhatsApp groups you are a member of, you have by now read multiple versions of why Allahabad was named so, whether Akbar was Secular Sultan or Communal Criminal, and if Yogi Adityanath is Hindu Pride Restorer or Hindustani History Eraser.
There is one straightforward position, the one the ruling BJP has taken — why should a place sacred to Hindus be named after Allah, especially when the name was chosen by a Mughal monarch?
The counter to this is that the BJP’s move is a rewriting of history, an attempt to erase “Islamic” cultural markers.
The less emotional among the populace say what’s in a name, a dirty city by any other name will stink to high heavens, and that the name change debate is to distract us from “real” issues.
The more scholarly of our WhatsApp brethren are putting forth multiple versions of history, a very impressive mishmash of fact and fiction.
One of the stories in circulation is that the city was called ‘Ila-vas’, the abode of Ila, daughter of Manu, much before Akbar entered the scene. It was possibly the first city named after a woman, and by changing this name, the BJP government has actually done a disservice to Hindu women.
Another version is that the locals during Akbar’s time anyway called the city ‘Alha-bas’ based on Alha of the Alha-Udal duo — two warrior brothers celebrated in folk literature — and both Akbar and now the Yogi government are sidelining folk heroes.
There is also some dispute over whether it was actually Shahjahan or Jahangir or the British who called the city Allahabad.
All these stories, somehow, are attempting to dilute the contribution of Akbar towards naming the city. Yogi Adityanath’s government alone is giving credit where its due, although unintentionally — blaming Akbar squarely for the name change.
They are all wrong, to different degrees.
Let’s for a moment step away from WhatsApp flights of fancy, and focus on those wonderful things called facts.
It is true — the criterion for ‘true’ being easily historically verifiable — that Akbar named the city Illahabad, or Illahabas, as shown from coins from this period.
The choice of name is proof that Akbar was rather inclusive, as monarchs go. He built a fort in the city because it was strategically important, not because he was trying to make it a holy place in Islam. He acknowledged that the city was sacred to Hindus, and called it what it was always called — abode of the Gods (Illahi-bas) —in his language, Persian.
Neither Shahjahan nor Jahangir ‘Islamacised’ the name to Allah-abad. It was the British.
This can be proved from the fact that in all records written in Hindi, Urdu, or Persian, the place is called Illahabas. It is only in English that ‘Allahabad’ makes an appearance.
Thus, unless for reasons of their own, the British wanted to dedicate a city to the Islamic God, it is actually the Hindu Right that seems to have linked Allahabad to Allah, and twisted the name away from what it was always supposed to mean — a place sacred to Hindus.
Yogi Adityanath would be horrified if he were to be accused of honouring Akbar. Yet, today, in trying to correct a historical wrong, he has ended up being on the right side of history.