Many centuries before Patna came to be identified with identity politics, it was the good old Pataliputra, an ancient city founded at the confluence of the Sone and Ganga rivers. Originally founded by the Magadhan ruler Ajatshatru, Pataliputra was what Delhi was to become more than a millennium later — capital of a succession of dynasties which took pride in its fort, culture, language, law and order and even local self-government. The Greek traveler Megasthenes who came as an ambassador to the court of the Mauryas, praised Pataliputra’s local self-government and the sense of honesty among locals. His book Indika is all but lost, but it has been quoted by several historians, including the illustrious Romila Thapar in A History of India (Penguin).
Her pen forms the early images of Pataliputra, an important city during the time of the Magadhan rulers, which then became the capital of the Nandas and later the Mauryas, the Guptas and the Palas. Chandragupta Maurya was born here, Asoka ruled from here, as did Chandragupta I, II and Samudragupta. Much later, it was a place of prime importance for Aurangzeb who briefly named it Azimabad after his grandson Mohammed Azim. With such pedigree, Pataliputra could as well have been the capital of modern India. After all, in the 16th century its fortunes were revived under the Afghan king Sher Shah Suri when the city came to be christened as Patna. Almost 500 years later, the city is still called by that name, and has in its own way inspired historians, non-fiction writers and novelists to trace the vicissitudes on its timeline. Yet, its story is best related by a succession of foreign travelers in ancient and medieval India, each of whom found something amazing about the city which grew out of a village called Pataligram.
If the account by Megasthenes in Indika wherein he is said to have written that people in Pataliputra left their doors and gates unlocked can instantly be recalled by students of history, then those of Fa-Hien and Hiuen Tsang in the 4th and 7th century respectively, draw a picture of Pataliputra as being one among the very best cities in the world. There was political power and the attendant pelf but uniquely, there was an element of culture, a literary magnet that drew many. The universally respected Nalanda University was but a few kilometres from it. Famous Chinese monk Hiuen Tsang spent six years here. His account is probably the best memory of the rule of Harsha Vardhan in the first half of the 7th century. Before Hiuen Tsang, there was Fa-Hien, another Chinese traveler who graced the city in the fourth century. Fa-Hien wrote about it in A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms wherein he called Patna, ‘the city of flowers’, or as well-respected author Amitava Kumar wrote in his engaging book, A Matter of Rats (Aleph), “It is the Indian Florence”.
A few centuries later came the Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri, originally called Farid Khan. He is said to have been a brave man who killed a tiger with his bare hands. Thus named, Sher Shah, he built a fort in Patna and a mosque. The fort has crumbled and the mosque reminds us of the times that were. Talking of times, Patna did not always enjoy the best of moments in history. Or at least, some travelers didn’t. While British traveler Ralph Fitch came to Patna in 1586 and described it as “’a very long and great Town with a flourishing trade in cotton, sugar and opium”, Scottish physician Francis Buchanan described it in unflattering expression, “difficult to imagine a more disgusting place”.
The fact that these distinguished travelers spent time here says something about the importance of being Patna in the days gone by. In modern days though, Patna has not been an arresting beauty for a succession of Indian writers in English. We did have E.M. Forster who made Bankipore (a residential area within Patna) the model for Chandrapore, the fictional town in A Passage of India besides a fleeting reference in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Interestingly, when the novel was adapted to cinema, the film starring the irrepressible Tabu did better business in Delhi and Mumbai than Patna. It was a comment on the decline of the fortunes of the city which seems to have fallen off the literary and cultural map. Its best pens moved out of the city for love and livelihood. A couple of them, notably Amitava Kumar and Abdullah Khan, left Patna but retained it in their heart. Khan’s Patna Blues (Juggernaut) initially struggled to find a publisher, but once it did, the floodgates opened as the book went on to be translated into multiple languages, including Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Bengali, Marathi and Malayalam, etc. It talks of Hindu-Muslim animosity and communal violence which, in real life, is a frequent occurrence in Bihar today. Then there are books by Siddharth Chowdhury whose Patna Roughcut (Picador) and A Patna Manual of Style (Aleph) have appealed to urban readers. Amitava Kumar’s short biography of the city brought Patna to life like none other.
More recently, we have had The Book of Bihari Literature (HarperCollins), edited by Abhay K. The book, among other things, reproduces rather poignantly an excerpt from The Travels of Dean Mahomed who was born in Patna in 1759, and deprived of his father at the age of 11, an incident which made “so deep an impression” on Mahomed’s mind. Mahomed’s excerpt comes from the first book published in English by an Indian. His account is of the 18th century, much like those of other travelers who talked of the past, turbulent or triumphant, but long gone. Unfortunately, modern Patna is more in the news for its political shenanigans, governments coming to power and falling out of it. Not entirely unexpected in a city whose founding father was probably both a regicide and a fratricide.