Centre of the Mauryan Empire


In the Indian royal palace where the greatest of all the kings of the country resides, besides much else which is calculated to excite admiration, and with which neither Memnonian Susa with all its costly splendour, nor Ekbatana with all its magnificence can vie … there are other wonders besides … In the parks tame peacocks are kept, and pheasants which have been domesticated; and among cultivated plants there are some to which the king’s servants attend with special care.


Once South Asia’s largest city, Pataliputra now lies beneath modern Patna, the state capital of Bihar, on the south bank of the river Ganga (Ganges), close to a confluence with the Son. According to Buddhist tradition, it was established in the 5th century BC by Udayibhadda, king of Magadha, when he abandoned the rock fortress of Rajgir in favour of the accessibility offered by one of India’s greatest rivers. Pataliputra was later adopted by the Mauryans as their imperial capital, following their defeat of the reigning Nandas. Astride the Uttarapatha or ‘Northern Road’, Pataliputra’s location offered the Mauryans access to the imperial centres at Charsadda, Taxila and Kandahar in the northwest, Ujjain and Brahmagiri in the south, as well as Sisupalgarh and Chandraketugarh in the east. Although deep below Patna today, it is still possible to reconstruct parts of Pataliputra’s layout from eyewitness accounts and colonial archaeological records, separated from one another by over a thousand years.

The first of these historical accounts, Megasthenes’ Indica (which survives in sections through later Greek and Roman writers), was compiled in the 4th century BC by the ambassador of Seleucus Nikator – one of the successors to Alexander the Great’s empire – to the court of the first Mauryan emperor, Chandragupta Maurya (r. 325–297 BC). Megasthenes noted that Palibothra, the Greek name for Pataliputra, measured 80 stadia long and 15 wide (16 × 3.2 km/10 × 2 miles), taking the form of a parallelogram, and was fortified with wooden walls containing 64 gates and 570 towers. A 14-m (46-ft) deep ditch also protected the city and served to drain sewage away from the capital. Impressed at the vast scale of the city, Megasthenes reflected that the royal palace surpassed the imperial Achaemenid Persian residences at Ekbatana and Susa, and was surrounded by gardens with trees, fish and birds. He estimated that the city had a population of 400,000, which would mean that Pataliputra would have ranked as the largest city in South Asia during the 1st millennium BC.

Excavations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries began to uncover evidence of the former greatness of Pataliputra, following reports of massive timbers being found by farmers. Archaeologists identified them as the remains of wooden walls described by Megasthenes in the 4th century BC.

Courtesy of the Oriental Museum, Durham University.

When visited some 750 years later by Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, parts of Pataliputra already lay in ruins. However, it was still possible to distinguish many of the monuments belonging to the rule of the third Mauryan emperor, Asoka (r. 272–235 BC), one of the great patrons of Buddhism. Thus the 5th-century AD monk Faxian recorded the presence of the ruined doorways and walls of Asoka’s palace and his stupa, as well as Buddhist monasteries beyond its southern walls, the latter still housing 700 monks. Writing two centuries later again, another Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, noted the presence of the city’s walls, but described Pataliputra as ‘waste and desolate’. Recording the survival of only two monasteries, he was still able to trace the presence of Asoka’s stupa to the south of the city and two of his inscribed stone pillars.

Very little remains visible today of ancient Pataliputra since it lies beneath modern Patna. This decorated column capital of the 3rd century BC once stood in a palace in the city. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Neg. UW 36011.

Photo C. Krishna Gairola.

Asoka, the third emperor of the Mauryan dynasty, whose capital was at Pataliptutra, erected stone pillars around his empire carved with his edicts transcribed into different languages. This capital of four lions from Sarnath has become an emblem of India and appears on banknotes.

© Luca Tettoni/Corbis.

Naturally, there was scepticism among British colonial officials about the validity of Megasthenes’ description of the city. However, from the 1860s onwards their attention was drawn to the reports of farmers who encountered massive timbers at a depth of 5 m (over 16 ft) in the suburbs of Bulandibagh and Gosainkhanda, south of the modern city. Exploratory trenches then exposed long alignments of large timber beams taking the form of a double row of upright sleepers some 5 m (over 16 ft) apart and bonded together by transverse planks at the base and top; the excavators assumed that the space between had been filled with clay. One of the directors of the excavations, Colonel L. A. Waddell, recognized the alignments as remains of Megasthenes’ wooden walls, preserved by the high water table.

Later, in 1913, the American archaeologist D. B. Spooner, working for the Archaeological Survey of India, exposed a rectangular monument beyond the southern walls of the city at Kumrahar. Measuring 43 by 33 m (141 × 108 ft), its roof had been supported by 80 stone pillars in a configuration of ten rows of eight. Each pillar was highly polished and measured 9.6 m (31½ ft) high, of which only around two-thirds was dressed, with the remainder acting as foundation below the ground. Many subsequent archaeologists have been struck by the similarities between the Kumrahar hall and the stone-pillared apadanas of the Achaemenids, as well as by the presence of ‘Persianized’ capitals elsewhere within Pataliputra. However, the hall did not represent an imitation since its pillars were uniquely set on timber cradles and its entrance on a timber raft to cope with the waterlogged ground. We cannot be certain whether it was one of the monuments visited by the Chinese monks, or whether it functioned as an administrative block, a waterside pleasure pavilion or part of a monastery, but it vividly illustrates the lavish imperial investment at Pataliputra during the Mauryan period and hints at other great monuments that must still lie beneath modern Patna.

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