The Wonder That was Pataliputra

Pataliputra or Patna is undoubtedly one of the most important cities of Ancient India, but it is relatively young in age than many ancient towns like Takshasila, Pushkalavati (Peshawar) in the North-west; Hastinapura in Haryana, Mathura, Kaushambi, Ayodhya, Sravasti, and Varanasi in U.P.; Vaishali, Champa (Bhagalpur) and Rajagriha in Bihar. But hardly any other town has figured so prominently and for so long in the history of our large and ancient country as did the great Magadhan capital – Pataliputra of the ancient, Patna of the medieval, and Azimabad of the early modern period.

Pataligram To Patna – The Historical Journey Of The ‘City Of Flowers’
The cities, towns or villages that once occupied the site of modern Patna had carried quite a large number of names in different periods of history and most of them were in the name of ‘FLOWERS’. The earliest to exist at the site seems to have been a small sprawling village with the name of Patali, Pataligrama, Padali or Padalipura as mentioned in Buddhist and Jain traditions.

Vayupurana mentions the name of Pataliputra as Kusumapura. In Tattvarthasutra of Umasvati, a celebrated Jain Author who lived here in the first-second centuries A.D., the place is described as Kusumapura. It literally means a ‘city of flowers.’ Gargi-Samhita names Pataliputra as Kusum-Dhvaja or Pushpapura – variant of Kusumapura. The modern name of Phulwarisharif of a small hamlet near Patna is obviously a survival of the ancient name. One tradition says that in the time of Nandas, the name was Padmawati. It is under the Mauryans that the name of Pataliputra came in common use. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador, at the court of Chandragupta Maurya, mentioned Pataliputra with the Greek utterance of ‘Palibothra’. The celebrated Buddhist monk, Hiuen-Tsang who came to India in the seventh Century A.D., also knew it by the name of Pataliputra.

The Foundation Of The City Of Pataliputra
Pataligram was made the ‘frontline outpost’ of Magadh kingdom, to keep vigil on the movement of the rival forces of Licchavis across the River Ganges; who were for sometime a source of great anxiety to king Ajatashatru of Rajagriha (495470 B.C.).

In the Buddhist Maha-Parinibbana-sutta, it is mentioned that, some time before Buddha’s death, he had noticed a fort being constructed, by the side of the village of Patali, under orders of the King Ajatashatru of Rajagriha.

WHY? Because the site of modern Patna was then strategically more important than it is now. The great City of Pataliputra was between two rivers; (i) River Ganges along the north and (ii) The River Sone flowed along the south and met River Ganges at Fatuha, in the east. Now River Punpun flows through the southern edge of the ‘Old bed of Sone’. So Patna could command river traffic coming down the Ganges, Sone and Gandak. ‘Sunidha’ and ‘Vassakara’, two ministers of Ajatashatru, therefore, decided to build a fort at what was then called Pataligrama.

Significantly, Buddha could visualize the commercial importance of the future city of Pataliputra. In the ‘Patali Sutta’ which forms part of the ‘Khuddaka Nikaya’, Buddha quoted as saying that Pataliputra will emerge as great metropolis and also that its three enemies will be flood, fire and invasion. In the ‘Digha Nikaya’, Buddha confides to his favourite disciple, Ananda, that as the Aryans dwell and as far as the merchants travel, Pataliputra will be the foremost city. Hardly a generation later Udayin or Udayasva, successor and grandson of Ajatashatru shifted the capital from Rajagriha to Pataliputra.

Pataliputra – The First Imperial Capital Of India
More importantly, from what Megasthenes and other historical sources indicate, it seems clear that Pataliputra was the largest and most important of the cities known to Indian antiquity. It was the first imperial capital of India under the Mauryas, credited to have a population of about 4 lakhs, i.e. somewhat more than the population of the city in 1960s. A city with such vast dimensions and population and with a complex municipal organization, never heard of before, must have exercised a profound impression on the popular imagination of the time which thus found expression through miraculous legends.

The Urban Environment Of The Ancient City Of Pataliputra
From the account of Megasthenes, it appears, the city of Pataliputra was protected by massive timber palisades, pierced by 64 gates and crowned by 570 towers and further defended by a broad and deep moat, which served also as a city sewer. He mentions the royal palace of Chandragupta Maurya in the Pataliputra city as built of timber with pillars gilded and adorned in silver and gold. The city covered an area of 80 stadia (little more than 9 miles) long and 15 stadia (1.3 miles) wide. The city had already been surrounded by a halo of antiquity in the time of Megasthenes, though it was hardly 200 years old then; as he ascribes its origin to a divine founder, Heracles, (i.e. Balaram, brother of Krishna?).

Miraculous Legends Tagged With Name Of ‘Pataliputra’
The Girnar rock edict of Ashoka mentions Pataliputra as the imperial capital. The name ‘Pataliputra’ was obviously derived from the original village of Patali of the days of Buddha, though the significance of the addition of ‘Putra’ is not clear.

A simpler explanation of the name would appear to be that the city having grown up from, or being a successor to, the ancient and humble village of Patali it came to be called as ‘Patali-putra’, i.e. literally son or successor of Patali. But no great Indian city is found named in such a manner. Numerous legends therefore exist to explain the derivation bringing into their stories, personalities; about whose existence history is silent.

During Mauryan times, when the age of the Pataliputra City was merely 200 years old, some of the legends about its miraculous origin had been current is clear from what Megasthenes said of the great city!

Various legends and myths about the origin of Pataliputra came in the fore during different period as documented in (i) Katha-sarit-sagara, (ii) lost manuscript of ‘Brihat Katha’, (iii) current legend during the time of Hiuen Tsang and (iv) Buchanan’s documentation of the tradition related with ‘Pataliputra’, in the 19th Century.

The Strategic Importance Of Pataliputra There is a famous saying of Kautilya (Chanakya), Teacher-Guide to Chandragupta Maurya and Prime Minister of the vast Mauryan Empire, who advocates the following; “....RIVER FORT and a MOUNTAIN FORT are places for the protection of the country, DESERT FORT and a JUNGLE FORT are places of retreat in times of calamity.” Hence, the old city-capital of Rajagriha (Hill Fort) and the then ‘new capital-city of Pataliputra (River Fort)’ fits with his proposition. Kautilya’s Arthashastra indicates that the ramparts were wide enough to allow the chariots move about freely.

The old fort of Pataligrama was built on the right bank of River Ganges at a strategic junction of four rivers of ‘Ganges-Ghaggar-Gandak-Sone’ in general and at the confluence of Sone and Ganges in particular; where later emerged the great city of Pataliputra. Hence, in all probability; the initial ‘fort structure’ of the ancient Pataligram was built in the eastern side of the today’s Pataliputra-Patna, in the ‘Nagla’ Mahalla, a variant of ‘Nagaram’.

Pataliputra – Connected With Great Ancient Highways The great ancient highway; i.e. Uttarapath, connecting Indian Subcontinent with Central Asia, which moved along the Himalayan Terai region and after crossing River Gandak on its higher reaches; moved in southern direction along the left bank of the river Gandak and terminated at Rajagriha, after crossing Ganges. Later, the city of Pataliputra was laid on the Uttarapath and was the connecting link in-between great towns and cities of the time; like Rajagriha and Gaya towards south-east and Vaishali, Sravasti, Kapilavastu, Takshashila in the north and the northwest. Pataliputra was linked to Kashi, Kaushambi and Mathura in the west with roads moving along the River Ganges and Yamuna.

Later Dakshinapath also emerged out from Pataliputra, which moved diagonally from the Gangetic plain towards western coasts, through the Central India linking the ancient sites of Bodh Gaya, Bahrut, Vidisa and Ujjayani on the way. Ashoka and his son Mahendra also travelled through this route, according to Ceylonese chronicle Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa.

The Road Towards East And Beyond
During the Mauryan period and later in Kushana period (300 B.C. to 200 A.D.), we see the emergence of new alignment from Pataliputra towards South-east Bengal through Sikligarh (North-east Bihar) – North Bengal across River Karatoya - Mahasthangarh (Pundrabhukti) - Wari-Bateshwar (old Channel of Brahmaputra, near Dacca) at Samatata (South-east Bengal). From Samatata, the merchants and traders travelled towards south-east Asia. As a result, Mahasthangarh (North Bengal, now in Bangladesh) emerged as the Mauryan regional headquarter. Since Gupta period, the route from Pataliputra got straightened towards east and passed by the southern Ganges route via Mudagiri (Munger), Sultanganj, Champa (Bhagalpur), Jhanugiri (Kahalgaon), till Kajangala (Rajmahal). From Kajangala, two routes emerged out; i.e. (i) after crossing Ganges at Kajangala (Rajmahal), straight towards Pundravardhanbhukti (north Bengal) and then proceeded upto Kamrupa (Guwahati) in Assam and south-east Bengal. (ii) From Kajangala (Rajmahal) another followed south to the mouth of Ganges (Bhagirathi), possibly ending at Tamralipti (modern Tamluk) during Mauryan and Gupta times. Ashoka sent his daughter Sanghamitra to Sri Lanka via Tamralipti. In Post Gupta times, the road passed via Karna-suvarna (near Murshidabad) to Tamralipti and towards coastal Orissa across Midnapur because by 8th Century AD, Tamralipti port was closed and new ports emerged in Orissa coast.

Pataliputra Emerged As The Greatest Commercial Hub Of The Time
The prosperity of Pataliputra must have rapidly increased with the growth of the Mauryan Empire. Hence, the city flourished as an industrial and commercial centre due to its involvement in long distance trade and commercial activity with distant town and cities of Indian subcontinent and beyond. In the days of Ashoka, the daily octroi duty at the city is said to have amounted to four lakhs of Karshapanas. The famous book ‘Milindapanho’ refers to the merchants of Magadh and Pataliputra coming to the city of Sagala which was famous as a ‘Putabhedana’. Pataliputra is also mentioned as a town of commodity exchange. The excavated material from the city suggests that several crafts and industries like those of pottery, terracotta figurines, bricks, beads of semi precious stones, textile, carpentry, metallurgy, jewellery, glass and other industries flourished here under the Kushanas. Pataliputra continued to be the flourishing city right up to the end of the Gupta dynasty.

Political Developments In-Between Mauryas And Guptas In the interregnum of 400 years between Maurya-Sunga and Gupta periods, the city of Pataliputra lost its political importance but the city seemed to have retained its cultural importance.

After the fall of the Mauryan Empire the Sungas continued to have their capital at Pataliputra. During the time of Patanjali, in the second century B.C., Greeks led by Menander attacked Pataliputra and set it on fire. The deposit of one foot thick ash layer overlying the Sunga habitational level has been unearthed at Kumrahar is cited as proof of this fire. Pataliputra, which was at the peak of its splendour, however; quickly recovered from this shock. On the extinction of the Sunga dynasty in the first century BC, the history of Pataliputra becomes obscure. Sometimes during the second half of the 1st Century A.D. Pataliputra passed under the sway of the Kushanas. A large number of Kushana coins have been found all over Bihar, at Buxar, at Patna and at Vaishali. At Kumrahar, a hoard of 43 Kushana copper coins was unearthed in 1913 followed unearthing of seven more Kushana coins and four terracottas with typical Kushana peaked head dress during 1951-55. Even after the withdrawal of Kushanas, some Scythian chiefs continued to rule at Pataliputra. Jainism at this time, also appealed to some Saka rulers at Pataliputra.

Emergence Of Guptas With the establishment of the Gupta dynasty in 275 A.D., we once more begin to tread on firm ground, as far as the history of Pataliputra is concerned. During Gupta period, Pataliputra still regarded as the official capital, but ceased to be the ordinary residence of the Gupta Kings. At this period, the Pataliputra city used to have splendid rath-yatras or processions of the Buddha images carried in some twenty cars through the city in the month of Vaishaka (May), a week before the full moon day, which was thrice sacred on account of its being the birth-day, the enlightenment day and the parinirvana day of Gautam Buddha.

Ashoka’s palace still stood intact in the 5th century A.D; Fa Hien was deeply impressed by its stone structure and beautiful carvings and visualized that it was the work of spirits in the service of Mauryan emperor. But this palace was not identical with the ‘Mauryan 80-Pillared Audience Hall’ unearthed at Kumrahar.

Pataliputra had a number of rich philanthropists, some of whom used to maintain hospitals. The discovery of monastery-cum-sanotorium (Arogya Vihara) at Kumarahar proves this point. This hospital also might have received assistance from the public, though perhaps it was intended mainly for the monastic order. Fa Hien had noted that there were two monasteries at Patna; one was Mahayana and the other a Hinayana.

Pataliputra – A Great Cultural Capital Of The Orient The early Buddhist tradition says that the Third Great Council of the Buddhists was held at Pataliputra during Ashoka’s reign and that the famous Buddhist text of Kathavattu was composed at this time. It would also suggest that the Buddhists had a great establishment at Pataliputra with the name of Kukkutarama, which was supported and patronized by Ashoka, whose association with Buddhism was well known. The Jain tradition equally claims association with Pataliputra as they claim that the first collection of their scriptures was made here in the 4th Century B.C. and the famous teacher Sthulabhadra was born and brought up in Pataliputra at ‘Kamaldah’, south of Gulzarbagh railway station in the Old Patna City area. The same spot is also associated with the legend of Sudarshan Swami, another Jain ascetic; who hailed from Champa Nagari, which signify the linkage and continuous movement of merchant, traders, monks along the highway and through riverine route from Pataliputra to Champa and beyond. The Jain traditions assert that Chandragupta Maurya had embraced Jainism and migrated with the Jain pontiff Bhadrabahu to Karnataka in the south, when a 12 year famine had overtaken the imperial capital. An inscription datable to 5th century A.D. exists at Sravanabelagola to attest to this. The Brahmanical traditions also associate with Pataliputra the great literary figures like Varsha, Upavarsha, Panini, Pingala, Vyadi, Vararuchi, Patanjali etc. who are believed to have flourished between 4th to 1st centuries B.C.

Pataliputra’s Contribution In The Field Of Art And Literature The Pataliputra played more ‘enduring and seminal influence’ in the fields of ‘art and literature, in comparison to its contribution in early political history of India. The intellectual eminence of Pataliputra is borne out by Patanjali who states that Pataliputra was the most cultured city in the contemporary Indian subcontinent and that people flocked to it in quest of knowledge from as distant places as Malwa and Kashmir. In the field of grammatical research Patanjali stands out as a towering figure. The Mahabhasya, which was composed in the second century B.C., is the earliest existing commentary on the Panini’s ‘Eight Chapters of Grammar’ (Astadhyayi). Patanjali’s work is having great importance as it helped in understanding of a language which had just emerged from Vedic obscurity and was trying to establish its identity as a refined speech (samskrita). Indo-Greek King Menander (Milinda), who had come to Pataliputra as an invader was himself converted to Buddhism after his marathon question-answer session with Nagasena, a Buddhist celebrity of Pataliputra’s monistic establishment. The compilation of the interaction immortalized Menander and Nagasena through the famous text ‘Milinda Panho’ or the ‘Question of Milinda’. A little later, the Pataliputra City produced another towering personality, Umasvati, the celebrated Jain teacher of Pataliputra, who is one of the very few authors respected by both the Digambaras and Svetambaras.

Vatsyayana is the name of an Indian philosopher in the Vedic tradition who is believed to have lived around 2nd century A.D. in India. His name appears as the author of the Kama Sutra. Kama Sutra is not exclusively a sex manual; it presents itself as a guide to a virtuous and gracious living that discusses the nature of love, family life and other aspects pertaining to pleasure oriented faculties of human life. He resided in Pataliputra. Buddhist monasteries in Pataliputra were famous centres of learning and Fa Hien, who had travelled in India from 399 to 415 A.D.; spent three years in studying the texts in their libraries; they supplied him some Vinaya books which he had sought in vain elsewhere in North India. In the Gupta period, Pataliputra was naturally a centre of Brahmanical learning. Saba, a minister of Chandragupta II Vikramaditya (400 A.D.) who was an expert in poetics, politics and international affairs belonged to Pataliputra. The famous astronomer Aryabhata was the founder of a school of mathematics and astronomy in the city and composed his well-known work ‘Aryabhatiya’ there in 399 A.D. He is the first scholar to draw a clear line of distinction between astronomy and mathematics. He was the first to say that the earth was a sphere which rotated on its axis and that the shadow of the earth falling on moon caused eclipses. His calculation of the value of ‘pii’ (3.1416) and the length of the solar year (365 days) remains unquestioned to this day. The two places, Tareghna (south) and Khagaul (west), both outskirts of the present day Patna have been identified as the possible site of the research institute of Aryabhata, the great genius of Ancient World. The intellectual tradition appeared to have been maintained till at least the fifth century A.D. By far the most remarkable is the sculpture of Yakshi from Didarganj now preserved in the Patna Museum which represents the high water mark of sculptural art of Pataliputra. It is one of the finest specimens of ‘feminine beauty’. From Lohanipur, at Patna have been found two nude torsos representing probably earliest specimen of Jain Tirthankaras, both of which showing stiff modelling, common to Jain images in the ‘Kayotsarga Mudra’. All the sculptures are of typical Vindhyan sandstone and bear the typical Mauryan police.

Demise Of The City Of Pataliputra After the accession of Harshavardhan, the city of Kanauj emerged as the seat of imperial power and for a time, the most important city in the Gangetic valley, and the city of Pataliputra receded into the background. The ancient city of Pataliputra also seems to have perished at least about 50 years before the visit of Hiuen Tsang due to catastrophy caused by terrific and unprecedented flood of the River Sone in the month of Bhadrapada (August-September) as described in a Jain work called Titlhogali Painniya. When Hiuen T-sang visited Pataliputra in about 635 AD during the reign of Harshvardhan; he describes Pataliputra in ruins. Though the destruction of Pataliputra was widespread but we are told that another river-side township was built up afterwards, inhabited by traders and transport workers interested in commerce. In the 32nd year of his reign; in the late 9th century AD; Pala King Dharmapal issued a grant from King’s camp (Skandhavar) at Pataliputra, which proves that it remained an important centre of riverine trade. A terracotta seal of his time was also found at Patna.