Pataliputra: Destroyed But Not Doomed



Patna is the capital of the modern state of Bihar but did you know that its predecessor, Pataliputra, was the capital of some of the mightiest empires in India for over 600 years? Patna is also one of the oldest cities in India.

Situated at the confluence of the Ganga and Son rivers, the foundation of Pataliputra as a fortified city was laid by Ajatashatru (4th-5th century BCE), king of the Haryanka dynasty of Magadha and son of King Bimbisara. Ajatashatru had become king during the time of Buddha and constructed a fort wall around Pataligrama, as it was called then, as a security measure against repeated attacks from the invading Lichhavis of Vaishali.

Interestingly, it is believed that Buddha, on his way from Rajgir to Vaishali, passed by this town and predicted that it was destined to become a great city. The words of the prophecy, as given by British explorer Col Laurence Waddell, were as follows: “Among famous palaces, busy marts and emporiums, Pataliputra will be the greatest; (but) three perils will threaten it – fire, water and internal strife.”

Mauryan remains of a wooden palissade at Bulandi Bagh site  
Mauryan remains of a wooden palissade at Bulandi Bagh site  |Wikimedia Commons

After Ajatashatru’s demise, his son and successor, Udayin, taking into account Pataliputra’s strategic importance, shifted the Magadhan capital from Rajgir, to the city newly fortified by his father. It was not only central to important provinces but its location made it easy to connect Pataliputra by road to several other important cities like Mathura in the west, Tamralipti in the east, also Allahabad, Benaras, Punjab and Delhi. (Ironically, it was through this very same route that the Bactrian Greeks attacked Pataliputra in 175 CE). The water bodies nearby also helped the city dominate riverine trade, attracting merchants and making it a seat of commerce.

The new settlement and region surrounding it grew and flourished, and Pataliputra continued to remain the capital under the succeeding dynasties of the Nandas, Mauryans, Shungas and the Guptas, down to the Palas.

The Chinese pilgrim Fa-Hien, who visited Pataliputra in 399-414 BCE, mentioned the elegant carving and inlay wood sculpture work of the buildings, “in a way that no human hands of this world could accomplish”. He stayed and studied here for three years.

Ruins of pillared hall at Kumrahar site at Pataliputra 
Ruins of pillared hall at Kumrahar site at Pataliputra |Wikimedia Commons

Megasthenes, ambassador of the Greek ruler Seleucus I Nicator in the court of Chandragupta Maurya (reign c. 321 – c. 297 BCE), in his book Indica wrote that Pataliputra was among the first cities in the world to have a highly efficient form of local self-government.

Under the Mauryas, Pataliputra which was by now a bustling metropolis also became the fountainhead of knowledge and culture. It was here that Chanakya composed his famous political-economic treatise, Arthashastra.

Mauryan remains of a wooden palisade discovered at the Bulandi Bagh site of Pataliputra 
Mauryan remains of a wooden palisade discovered at the Bulandi Bagh site of Pataliputra |Wikimedia Commons

However, the city rose to its zenith during the time of Emperor Ashoka (reign c. 268 to 232 BCE). Under him, it became a flourishing Buddhist centre, boasting a number of important monasteries. In fact, it was he who introduced the use of stones, which until now were rarely used in construction in this region.

Strabo (c.64 BCE - c. 21 CE), the Greco-Roman geographer in his book Geographia, writes, "At the confluence of the Ganges and of another river is situated Palibothra (as the Greeks called Pataliputra), in length 80, and in breadth 15 stadia. It is in the shape of a parallelogram, surrounded by a wooden wall pierced with openings through which arrows may be discharged. In front is a ditch, which serves the purpose of defence and of a sewer for the city." The wall was crowned with 570 towers and had 46 gates!

Polished pillar from Pataliputra  
Polished pillar from Pataliputra  |Wikimedia Commons

The downfall of this glorious city, referred to as ‘Puspapur’ (city of flowers) by the great poet Kalidasa (c. 4th–5th century CE), started during the Gupta period, in the 4th century CE. While we don't know what exactly triggered its decline – maybe it was just Buddha’s prophecy coming true! – it could have been due to fires in the wooden buildings, frequent flooding due to its location at the confluence rivers, and there must have been internal fights in the royal palace.

When Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited Pataliputra in 637 CE, he found nothing but heaps of ruins, which today possibly lie deep below the foundations of the modern city of Patna. We do not hear of Pataliputra for a long time after this until it became a part of the empire of Sher Shah Suri (1486 – 1545), who restored it and renamed it ‘Patna’.

Pataliputra, once a grand city and a witness to the rise and fall of many major dynasties, has all but vanished over time. All that’s left are the remains of some wooden and sandstone pillars.


DID YOU KNOW?

The first archaeological excavation at Pataliputra, under the supervision of A B Spooner between 1913 and 1917, was funded by Sir Ratanji Jamsetji Tata, who donated Rs 75,000 to the project.

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