LEISURE In Patna, history and legend are constantly brushing shoulders
Patna to me is always Pataliputra, the centre of the powerful Mauryan empire, ruled at the height of its glory by Chandragupta Maurya and later his grandson Ashoka the Great. Megasthenes, Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, went into raptures describing Pataliputra, calling it “the greatest city on earth”. Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism after the Battle of Kalinga around 261 B.C. is one of the world’s most moving transformation stories – from war-monger to peace emissary who spread the message of Buddha to the furthest reaches of his empire and beyond.
This was the man whose violent youth was legendary. We visit Agam Kuan, the ‘unfathomable well’ in Patna, where Ashoka is said to have thrown in the bodies of 99 of his half brothers in his ruthless ascent to the throne. It attracts a steady stream of visitors, who also stop at the adjacent temple of Shitala Devi. We arrive here just when the afternoon puja is about to begin. On our way out, we are attracted by the pretty scarlet prints hanging in clusters at the temple shops, meant as offerings to the Goddess. The colourful scene is repeated at the Patan Devi temple (who inspired the city’s name, they say). Ancient too is the congested, but very long road we travel on, lined by wholesale shops. Our driver exhibits Formula I skills, as he manoeuvres through the narrowest gaps and our hearts do little somersaults.
The city’s Mauryan connection is at its strongest at the Kumhrar archaeological complex, the exact location of Pataliputra. Here, an Ashokan pillar lies protected within a fence. It is the only intact one excavated from what is surmised to have been an 80-pillared hall built as the venue of Ashoka’s Third Buddhist Council. At the small museum, we learn about the great dynasties, including the Guptas, that ruled the Magadha empire (ancient Bihar) with Pataliputra as capital. Especially interesting is to discover how a clinic was run here by Dhanvantri, the famous Ayurvedic physician.
The Mauryan magic continues at the Patna Museum, where a generously proportioned Yakshi bewitches us as soon as we enter. This glossy sandstone sculpture from Didarganj is the perfect icon of feminine beauty with her graceful pose, subtle smile and elaborate coiffure. I tear away to walk around the galleries with their wonderful treasures – the stone sculptures of Tara with her delicate smile, the Boddhisattvas, and the Hindu deities. The floors above have some early bronzes and terracotta figurines, both religious and ones that reflect the life of the common man in the Mauryan and Gupta ages. For the fourth time, I walk around the Yakshi and the doorman is now looking at me strangely! I leave reluctantly and head for the car, but not before gazing at the famous fossilised tree, older than all the exhibits by a mere million years! The Patna Museum is soon to get a modern building but I feel a pang at losing the old majestic building it is now housed in, mellow and just right for it.
Bihar was the meeting point of many religions. Guru Gobind Singh, 10th Sikh Guru, was born in Patna and his birthplace is marked by the Takht Sri Harmandir ji, Patna Sahib. A few miles on is the Khuda Baksh Oriental Library, with one of the country’s best collections of Arabic and Persian manuscripts. The inch-wide Quran in the cupboard is a prized possession and the library has Nadir Shah’s sword.
Driving on, our eyes are drawn to a dramatic shell-like structure on the side of the road. The Golghar was built as a granary by the British after the dreadful Bengal-Bihar famine of 1770, to store grains for the British army. As we enter it, we are struck by its colossal proportions and smooth interiors and left wondering how they released the grain.