The continuing efficiency of Hinduism as a force for social and political mobilization in India was on display this past week, in two widely different cases both relating to holy sites. As the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the Sabarimala Temple in the state of Kerala had to open its doors to women between the ages of 10 and 50, the Hindu-oriented Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of the state of Uttar Pradesh, in North India, announced that the Islamic name of the city of Allahabad, which is situated on a site holy to Hindus, would be restored (or renamed, depending on perspective) to Prayagraj, a variant of its original, pre-Mughal Sanskrit name, Prayaga.
The move attracted criticism, some of which definitely made good points. Is it worth the administrative costs of replacing signage and paperwork? Should not the government instead expend its efforts on cleaning up the rivers that flow through the city, and building better roads? While these may all be valid points—and the government should indeed improve the largely abysmal infrastructure of Uttar Pradesh—much of the outcry over the planned change expressed worry about the implications of renaming a Islamic-named city for India’s tradition of pluralism and tolerance. The issue is one of identity and history, things which people also hold as dear to their hearts as development and progress, so the desire to restore the city’s original name can hardly be banished. But that is not to suggest that India still cannot be a tolerant place, and that infrastructure projects cannot proceed, just because a city’s name is to change.
Prayagraj (प्रयागराज) is formed from three Sanskrit roots: pra (प्र forward), yajña (यज्ञ sacrifice), and rāja (राज kingship), and so means the “king of the [places] of great sacrifice.” It existed as a settlement as early as the 6th century B.C.E., and was part of the ancient Iron Age kingdom of Vatsa, although there is some scholarly debate over whether it was a city or just a pilgrimage station.
Its religious significance in Hinduism is two fold. Firstly, it is the site of the first earthly sacrifice performed by Brahma, the creator of the world in Hinduism. Secondly, it is the “tīrtha of tīrthas,” the confluence of confluences, the junction of junctions, where the earthly Ganga (Ganges) and Yamuna rivers meet the heavenly Saraswati, lending sanctity the notion that the city was conceived as a “lord” of places. The Hindu epic the Mahabharata says of the site: “People who bathe there go to heaven. People who die there are liberated from the cycle of birth. Those who live there are guarded by the gods.” It also hosts the world’s largest pilgrimage, the Kumbh Mela, every 12 years.
Much of northern India came under Muslim rule at the end of the 12th century. The city was initially renamed Ilahabas (divine place) by the Mughal Emperor Akbar — whose reign was characterized by good interfaith relations — upon his founding of a fort there in 1583. He may have named the city after his new religion, Din-i-Ilahi, a syncretic faith combining Hinduism, Islam, and other religions. Or he may have been trying to call the city a holy place in homage to its Hindu past, as the Arabic word ilaha (godly) suggests. It was under later Mughal rulers that the city’s name shifted to the more explicitly Islamic Allahabad
Naming is about symbolism, the spirit of the era. If the renaming of one of Hinduism’s holiest cities was representative of its fortunes in the 16th century, similar conclusions about its present conditions as a socio-political movement can be drawn from the move to restore the name of Prayag. Saint Petersburg, a name which reflected the aristocratic ties between Russian and German nobility, became the more Russian Petrograd during World War I, and then the Communist Leningrad during the Soviet Union, before being restored to its original name in 1991—a reflection of a desire to restore ties with the West.
Whether for good or for evil, India’s growth as a confident, modern nation has led to a rediscovery and renaissance of many of its peoples’ attitudes towards its ancient Hindu past, and a desire to restore its glories — real or imagined — after centuries of non-Hindu rule. In his 1990 book, A Million Mutinies Now, the Nobel-laureate V.S. Naipaul described an India at the cusp of a new era of self-discovery, one that would take on a populist and religious-historical character, and would combine modernity and antiquity, and it now seems as though that era has arrived, in line with the global weltgeist of nationalism and civilizational thinking.
It would thus be entirely reasonable to rename the city because it is holy to Hindus, but religiously irrelevant to Muslims. Two other major, historical Indian cities — Hyderabad in Telangana, and Ahmedabad in Gujarat — also have Muslim-derived names; both are named after their founders. However, neither of them are built on historically or religiously important Hindu sites, and as such, it would not be appropriate to change their names, despite movements that seek to change their names to those of minor villages that stood on or near them. It would also be important to demonstrate that the movement to rename cities and other places named after Muslims is limited to only those sites that are significant to Hindus, rather than being part of an attempt to obliterate the history of Islam in India, something that is neither desirable nor possible, for hundreds of millions of Muslims, and their monuments, art, and architecture, are a part of India’s legacy today.
The governor of Uttar Pradesh approved the name change, after it passed muster by the cabinet of Uttar Pradesh, and its chief minister, Yogi Adityanath. The change supposedly took effect on October 16, and signs have begun to be changed. However, the status of the city’s name is still unclear. India’s laws also require the approval of the central government for such changes, and it is not certain that if this occurred by proxy (since the governor of a state represents the central government), or if the change will only come into effect via the more traditional route: the central government must first approve the name directly, and then notify its official gazette. Given the politically and religiously charged nature of the city’s name, opposition from other political parties, and the fact that national elections are due only a few months hence, it would not be surprising if it takes a while for new name to become official.