India // Bihar and Jharkhand //

Patna and around

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Patna, Bihar’s capital, dates back to the sixth century BC, but shows few signs today of its former glory as the centre of the Magadhan and Mauryan empires. A sprawling metropolis hugging the south bank of the Ganges, Patna stretches for around 15km in a shape that has changed little since Ajatasatru (491–459 BC) shifted the Magadhan capital here from Rajgir.

The first Mauryan emperor, Chandragupta, established himself in what was then Pataliputra in 321 BC, and pushed the limits of his empire as far as the Indus; his grandson Ashoka (274–237 BC), one of India’s greatest rulers, held sway over even greater domains. To facilitate Indo-Hellenic trade, the Mauryans built a Royal Highway from Pataliputra to Taxila, Pakistan, which later became the Grand Trunk Road. The city experienced two revivals, when the first Gupta emperor, Chandra Gupta, made it his capital early in the fourth century AD, and when it was rebuilt in the sixteenth century by Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri.

Every March the city celebrates its illustrious history with several days of music, dancing and public events during the Pataliputra Mahotsava festival.

Patna’s most notable monument is the Golghar, also called “the round house”, a huge colonial-era grain store built in 1786 to avoid a repetition of 1770’s terrible famine; mercifully, it never needed to be used. Overlooking the river and Gandhi Maidan, its two sets of stairs spiralling up to the summit were designed so coolies could carry grain up one side, deliver their load through a hole at the top, and descend down the other. Sightseers now clamber up for views of the mighty river and the city. Within walking distance, the Gandhi Museum  is worth a quick visit for its pictures of the Mahatma’s life.

The Patna Museum on Buddha Marg, although faded and run-down, has an excellent collection of sculptures. Among its most famous exhibits is a polished sandstone female attendant, or yakshi, holding a fly-whisk, dating back to the third century BC. There are also Jain images from the Kushana period, a group of Buddhist bodhisattvas from Gandhara (in northwest Pakistan), some freakishly deformed stuffed animals and a gigantic fossilized tree thought to be 200 million years old. Don’t bother paying the Rs500 [Rs100] extra to see the Buddha relic.

Founded in 1900, the Khuda Bhaksh Oriental Library, east of Gandhi Maidan, has a remarkable selection of books from across the Islamic world, including manuscripts rescued from the Moorish University in Cordoba, Spain, and a tiny Koran measuring just 25mm in width.

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