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.Read More
Patna is a good base for exploring Nalanda, Rajgir and Vaishali, but there are also places of interest closer at hand, notably the fabulous hilltop dargah at Muner, 27km west. The imposing but sadly neglected red sandstone shrine of Sufi saint Yahia Muneri, 1km west of Muner, was built in 1605. Every year, around February, a three-day urs, or festival, in the saint’s honour attracts pilgrims from far and wide, with qawwals by Sufi musicians from Delhi and Ajmer. Muner is also known for its sweets, particularly lentil ladoos.
If you’re in Bihar between early November and early December, don’t miss the Sonepur Mela, staged 25km north of Patna across the huge Gandhi Bridge – Asia’s longest river bridge – at the confluence of the Gandak and the Ganges. Cattle, elephants, camels, parakeets and other animals are brought for sale, pilgrims combine business with a dip in the Ganges, sadhus congregate, and festivities abound. The event is memorably described by Mark Shand in his quixotic Travels on My Elephant. The Bihar State Tourism Development Corporation in Patna organizes tours and maintains a tourist village at Sonepur during the mela (Rs300–1200).