Ok, so we have to admit, Patna is not your typical dream destination. However, on our recent journey through Bihar, we ended up spending four days in Patna and managed to find enough to keep busy. While the state is slowly shedding its negative image and we felt quite safe, infrastructure development has a long way to go and tourism is extremely under-developed. The main bridges across the Ganga, that divides the state in half, are all in and around Patna and all roads (and train tracks) run through this ancient city!
Once the capital of the Mauryan and Gupta Empire, Patna is an interesting amalgamation of several empires and religions, including Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. It is also the birthplace of the 10th Guru of the Sikh religion, and an ancient city where some of the greatest emperors of the sub continent lived. Today Patna, one of the fastest growing cities in the country, is an important place to understand the many different cultures that flowed through this region.
What to see and do in Patna
Khuda Baksh Oriental Library
What a wonder this is! Opened to the public in 1891, this important library contains a fantastic collection of Oriental, Arabic and Persian manuscripts, paintings and the sword of Nadir Shah. The library also contains the only books to survive the sacking of the Moorish University of Cordoba in Spain. We spent an afternoon at the library chatting with the curator there, who could read Persian, Arabic and Urdu, and showed us many priceless old books including stunning Qurans handwritten in blue and gold, the Timur Nama and Shah Nama, and on Hoshner’s prodding even an old Zoroastrian text, written in a language which even he did not recognize. Many of the 4,000 books are first editions copies and still others are only surviving versions of books on science and the arts from several hundred years ago, all carefully preserved in a temperature controlled room.
The sprawling Patna Museum is one of the most important things to see, to get a quick crash course in the many empires and cultures that the region was home to. Housed in a building as majestic as its contents, there is a superb collection of Mauryan and Gupta stone sculptures, Buddhist statues, Tibetan cloth paintings and more. Don’t miss the sacred casket believed to hold some of Buddhas ashes and the 16m long fossilised tree, though many of these old relics are slowly being moved to the new, modern, state of the art Bihar Museum, opened only in 2015 which aims to bring into focus the history and culture of the region. Along the museum circuit is the small but informative National Gandhi Museum which contains an interesting pictorial history of his life and some of his belongings. Head to the Buddha Smriti Park, a huge green space in the middle of the city inaugurated by His Holiness The Dalai Lama in 2010, once the site of the largest jail in the city. The park is now home to saplings planted from both the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya and Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. There is the Buddha Museum housed there which beautifully encapsulates the life and journey of the Buddha in the form of pictures, paintings and audio-visuals. The new age sandblasted charcoal stupa in the middle of the park houses a unique bulletproof relic chamber with relics donated by 5 Buddhist countries.
Probably the site which Patna is most famous for, the Golghar is a 230 year old British era granary built to avoid a repeat of the great famine of 1770. The huge bulbous structure now sits in the middle of a park by the Gandhi maidan and you can climb its 145 spiral steps to get to the top from where workers would empty grain in through a opening in the the roof. The view of the city and the Ganga from the top is spectacular, or so we are told, we couldn’t get up there as the structure is being restored.
Other things to see See.
Home to several empires, Patna, or Pataliputra as it was known has interesting ruins strewn in and around the city. Kumhrar, site of the ancient city has very little left of its previous glory, except for a Mauryan Hall supported by 80 sandstone pillars, of which only one remains intact. The Padri ki Haveli or the St Mary’s Church is the oldest church in Bihar built by the catholic community when they arrived in the early 1700s. To take a step back even earlier in time, visit the serene Har Mandir Takht, one of the four sacred shrines of the Sikh religion, stands at the birth place of the tenth Guru Gobind Singh. The original temple was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab and contains belonging of the Guru and other holy texts. For a different time in history, make your way to the Sher Shah Suri Masjid, built in an Afghani style of architecture by the ruler in 1545 to commemorate his reign.
Getaways around Patna
Bihar is an important confluence of historical events and Patna, despite the dust and unimaginative city feel, is the perfect place to base oneself. Head north of the Ganges through small villages to the ruins of Vaishali, one of the earliest republics dating back to 6 BC, where the Buddha preached his last sermon. It is also the birthplace of Lord Mahavir and important to the Jain community. 105km South of Patna, is the important historical town of Rajgir, which holds the 40m Vishwa Shanti Stupa, or Peace Pagoda built by the Japanese Buddhist order, and stands atop the Ratnagiri Hill. From Rajgir you can also visit the well maintained and serene ruins of the 5th century Nalanda University, which gained UNESCO status in 2016. Don’t miss the Xuan Zang Memorial Hall built by the Chinese in honour of the famous traveller who walked to India and studied and taught at Nalanda. For a break from all the Buddhist history, visit the little town of Maner, about 30 Kms from Patna to check out the stunning Chota Dargah, said to be amongst the most stunning Mughal era monuments in the Bihar.
What to eat and Where to Stay
While in Patna make sure you sample the street food, including the Puri Jalebi, Bihari style Chinese and Litti Choka (chickpea / wheat flour dough balls, served with boiled potatoes, tomato and brinjal mash), Patna’s favourite snack. Also check out Biryani Mahal, for some excellent and very reasonable Biryani and Kebabs. Pindballuchi is great if you are looking for a place to kick back with a drink (of the non-alcoholic variety) and take in Patna from above, which looks rather nice in the evenings. This 18th floor revolving restaurant offers 360 degree views of the city including the Gandhi Stadium and the holy river beyond. For a good hotel which is not too expensive check out Gargee Grand or the new Lemon Tree, well placed on Exhibition road. The New Republic Hotel, located in a bustling market area off Gandhi Maidan, is a great midrange option. The location is perfect to explore Patna by foot.