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, first when the first Gupta emperor, Chandra Gupta, made it his capital early in the fourth century AD, and then again when it was rebuilt in the sixteenth century by Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri.
Patna is a good base for exploring Nalanda, Rajgir and Vaishali; set amid paddy fields 55km north of Patna, this quiet village was the site of the Buddha’s last sermon. Named after King Visala, who is mentioned in the Ramayana, Vaishali is also believed by some historians to have been the first city-state in the world to practise a democratic, republican form of government. A small but well-presented archeological museum provides a glimpse into the ancient Buddhist world.
North of Patna, Sonepur is worth visiting for its mela, usually held in November.
Top image: The Pillar of Ashoka at Vaishali, India © Monontour/Shutterstock