Patna - An Ancient City Straight out of the History Books
The age old city of Pataliputra, now known as Patna is the capital of Bihar. This historically significant city has been ruled by various ruling dynasties like Magadha, Maurya, Gupta, Pala and the Mughal Empire. With a history dating back three thousand years, from its founding as the capital of the great Mauryan and Gupta empires to its recent status under British rule, Bihar has had an imperative position in the administration and expansion of the various empires that ruled over India, be it Mauryan, Mughal or British. Bihar was also the area where Buddhism evolved and finds mention in the Vedas, Puranas and Epics. The first detailed chronicle of Pataliputra including its municipal administration appears at about 300 B.C. from Megasthenese, the famous Greek ambassador staying at the court of Chandragupta Maurya, who mentions it as “Palibothra” in his book named Indica. Kautilya in his book Arthasastra has written a detailed description of the city and its architecture. The ruins of the city have been discovered during a series of excavations at Lohanipur, Bahadurpur, Sandalpur, Bulandibagh, Kumrahar and some other locations in Patna.
Modern day Patna is a chaotic and disorganized city. The traffic is boisterous and disorderly, the offices corrupt and lawless. With none of the historic heritage or cultural charm, Patna is only a shadow of its former glory. Political violence is common and a sense of havoc and commotion prevails. The city has long been stripped of its glorious cultural and educational centres and remains a battlefield for the shenanigans of its politician. Today, Patna is a rambling city located on the southern bank of Ganges River flowing past with the combined waters of the rivers Ghagra, Son and Gandak and stretches about fifteen kms. The city is full of government offices, badly maintained parks, crumbling residential areas, clamorous markets and decrepit schools and universities.
India is a land of infinite festivals, and Patna is no different. The Sonepur Mela of Bihar is organized annually in the month of November. The fair is held on the embankment of River Ganges at Sonepur, and is celebrated on the day of Kartik Purnima, this fair commemorates Harihar Nath. Popularly known as Harihar Kshetra Mela, the Sonepur Cattle Fair is the biggest cattle fair of Asia and stretches on from fifteen days to one month. Legend has it that two brothers, devotees of Lord Vishnu, one wily and the other honest, cast a spell upon each other making one an elephant and the other a crocodile. On a Kartik Purnima day, the honest elephant went to the confluence of the holy river Ganga and Gandak to bathe and was attacked by the wily crocodile. Lord Vishnu himself intervened and delivered good from evil.
The central draw of the fair is cattle trade. All species of birds, poultry and beasts especially elephants, have a market here. The mela that lasts up to a fortnight is a joyous celebration and one can lounge by the banks of the Ganges watching the parade of talking parrots, artistically painted elephants being bathed, horses being brushed and massaged and colossal buffaloes being milked. Beautifully decorated boats at the river banks, ash smeared, saffron clothed holy men, freshly washed animals, shops and pavements overflowing with exotic goods, folk dancers and crowds in joyful moods, still dominate this traditional fair.
Festivals are celebrated in accordance with the seasons mainly sowings and harvesting of crop in the villages. One such festival is the Chhath Festival which is dedicated to the worship of the Sun God and also known as ‘SuryaShashti’. Chhath is the day the people thank the Sun for bequeathing the gift of life on earth. During the celebrations of Chhath Puja, people gather on the banks of the River Ganges to bathe in its sacred water, pray and make ritual offerings to the Sun God. The word chhath denotes the number six and thus the name itself serves as a reminder of this auspicious day on the festival almanac. The venue for this unique festivity is the river bank since the water of the Ganges is like a lifeline for harvests. Chhath Puja is a highly elaborate festival noted for its impressive display of colorful costumes, music, singing and extravagant rituals. The festival of Chhath Puja takes place during the months of October and November, immediately after the festival of Diwali.
Places to visit in Patna are plenty, most showcasing the grandeur of yesteryears. The Patna Museum is incredibly interesting and some of the main attractions are a two hundred million year old, 16-meter long fossilized tree; a World War I cannon and archaeological excavations from the remnants of the ancient city of Nalanda, the famous Mauryan Didarganji Yakshi dating back to the 3rd century BC, Ashes of Buddha and Jain sculpture from Bodh Gaya, and Kukrihar. It also houses a spectacular collection of coins, paintings, terracotta, bronze and stone sculptures of the Maurya and Gupta periods and metal and stone sculptures, terracotta figurines, and archaeological finds from sites in Bihar. It has separate Tibetan and Chinese sections. The mezzanine floor contains the best collection of Tibetan 'Thankas' or Buddhist religious paintings outside Tibet.
The shrine of Takht Har Mandir Sahib is the birthplace of Guru Gobind Singh the tenth religious preacher of the Sikhs. Originally built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the famous ruler of Punjab, Harmandirji is one of the holiest Sikh shrines. The devout also call it Patna Sahib. Located in the Chowk area of Old Patna, this dome shaped structure is made of white marble and contains Sikh scriptures and the personal belongings of the guru.
Located near the Takht Har Mandir Sahib is the Pathar ki Masjid, a mosque built by Parwez Shah, the son of Emperor Jahangir, during his tenure as governor of Bihar. Situated on the bank of river Ganga, this mosque is also known as Saif Khan's mosque, Chimni Ghat mosque or Sangi Masjid.
The Golghar is an impressive building shaped as a beehive in the centre of the city. It was constructed in July 1786 by Captain John Garstin after an atrocious famine affected the region in 1770, to serve as a state granary. A flight of steps winds round the building leading to the top of the building which overlooks the city nestled against the shimmering Ganges.
The ruins of one of the world’s oldest known universities lie in Nalanda, an hour’s drive from Patna. Established in the 5th century B.
The archaeological remains of ancient Pataliputra namely the eighty pillared hall and Arogya Vihar are located at Kumrahar about six kms east of Patna railway station. Excavations here have revealed relics of four continuous periods of rule from 600 BC to 600 AD. These are the ruins of the three ancient cities of the kings Ajatshatru, Chandragupta and Ashoka. The fifth period begins from 1600 AD. Other interesting objects from the excavation of this area include copper coins, ornaments, antimony rods, beads of terracotta and stone, dices of terracotta and ivory, terracotta seals and sealing, toy carts, skin rubbers, terracotta figurines of human, bird and animals and some earthen utensils.
Khuda Baksh Oriental Library has sacred Persian and Arabic manuscripts as well as Rajput and Mughal paintings. Built at the turn of the century, the library has a fascinating collection of rare objects like an inch-wide Quran. This library also contains books that survived the Moorish plunder of the University of Cordoba in Spain. The Khuda Baksh Oriental Library has been declared to be one of the national libraries of India.
The Sher Shah Suri Masjid is the oldest mosque in Patna. The Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri built this mosque in 1545 to commemorate his reign. Built in Afghan architectural style, it is one of the many beautiful mosques in Bihar and a landmark in Patna.
Traveling in Patna can be enriching but not without taking sufficient precautions. Even though Patna is a safe enough destinations for cautious travelers Bihar’s dilapidated infrastructure coupled with many petty crooks on the lookout to make a quick buck certainly requires all the safety measures you can take. Travelers to the state are advised to be cautious and should deal only with accredited or licensed travel agents, guides and tour operators only. Be extremely alert after sunset and try your best to be in a familiar area when it gets dark. The people are the best protection one can get so try mingling in the crowd during the day. The masses disappear into their homes at night, so avoid being outside after the sun sets. Political disturbances and riots are common but relatively harmless, it is best to steer clear of any public gatherings. Thefts, mugging, beatings and pick pocketing often happen and tourists are unsuspectingly targeted by mobsters though serious crimes against travelers are rare. Women traveling alone should be careful to dress modestly and be over cautious, as the state is terribly chauvinistic in its outlook towards lone women who are often considered easy targets. The government of New Zealand has issued a warning against traveling in Bihar which reads as... “There is a high risk to your security in Bihar and Jharkhand due to violent crime in rural areas and we advise against tourist and non-essential travel to these areas.”
The food of Bihar reflects how the cuisine of the state has evolved over centuries under the influence of various cultures and dynasties which ruled over it from time to time. This state with a glorious past also boasts of a rich cuisine that has fascinated dynasties across ages. This cuisine has seen the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Turks, the Afghans, the Mughals, the Persians, the Bengal Nawabs, the British, and has evolved taking the best that each one had to offer, at the same time maintaining its authenticity and delectability. Lord Buddha attained enlightenment in Bihar and hence the impact of Buddhism is significant of the state. Bhat, dal, tarkari and achar or rice, lentil, vegetable and pickle have always been the main stay of Bihari cuisine. The people of northern Bihar eat plenty of sattu or powdered gram in various forms and a number of preparations like litti, paranthas are stuffed with sattu and seasoned with spices, people often prepare drinks with sattu, salt, chopped onions and chilly. Traditionally, mustard oil has been the popular cooking medium forpeople of Patna. Bihari cuisine has innumerable rice-based dishes "Khichdi", the broth of rice and lentils, served with accompanying items like curd, chutney, pickles, papads, ghee and chokha is a hot favourite with most people. Patna is also known for the sweet delicacies of central Bihar including Khaja, Motichoor ka Ladoo, Kala Jamun, Kesaria Peda, Parwal ki Mithai, Khubi ka Lai and Chena Murki. Sweets of Bihar are mostly dry. Some of them are Laktho, Khurma, Balushahi, Anarasa, Tilkut, Thekua and Chena Murki. Some of them owe their origin to towns in the vicinity of Patna: Khaja from Silao Nalanda, Ladoo from Maner, Kala Jamun from Vikram, Khubi ka Lai from Barh, Tilkut and Kesaria Peda from Gaya ,balushahi from Harnaut and Chena Murki from Koelwar.
Bihar has two airports at Patna connected to Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, Calcutta, and Katmandu. Patna is connected with Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Lucknow and Ranchi by daily flights. Tourist taxis and buses are readily available to provide transport to the city from the airport, a distance of 7 km.
Bihar has well developed railway network with almost all the major and minor places connected by good trains. Trains like Rajdhani, Magadh, Brahmaputra, and Northeast Express connect Patna to Delhi, Lucknow, Calcutta, Varanasi, Amritsar, Mumbai, Siliguri and Guwahati. The Indian railway network is ubiquitous.
The network of roads connecting all the major parts of the state with Patna, the state capital is sadly not up to the mark. Patna is connected to Katmandu, Gaya, Bodhgaya, Rajgir and Nalanda. One can get to Patna by road from Lucknow, Delhi or New Jalpaiguri but it makes little sense to come here by road given its connectivity by railways and air. The state is infamous for the attempts of plunder and definitely not the safest of places for the road – traveler since mugging and thefts are rampant.