Sunday, September 30, 2018

Pataliputra: The Capital of the Maurya Empire

In the middle of the vast Empire of the Mauryan laid its capital - Pataliputra.
Remains of the wooden palisade

Bihar Province of modern day India hosted one of the oldest cities in India – Patna. Patna had a rich history as it was once known as Pataliputra, the capital of the Mauryan Empire, which laid in the junction between the river Ganges and Son.

Foundation of Pataliputra

During the 5th century BCE, Ajatashatru, ruler of the kingdom of Magadha, founded the city. Later on, the Nanda Kings made the city their administrative center.
Chandragupta Maurya welcoming a bride
In 321 BCE, Pataliputra switched hands when the Nandas fell to a new powerful dynasty – the Maurya. Chandragupta Maurya and his descendants continued to live in Pataliputra and made it the capital of their vast Empire they carved from the Indian subcontinent.

Mauryan Capital

Pataliputra earned recognition as a major center beyond India. Megasthenes, a Greek envoy of the Seleucid Empire, made a description of the city that wondered many in the Greek world. Though no original copy of his works remained, excerpts survived through the citation of other Greek authors.
Megasthenes became an ambassador to the Mauryan Empire as part of the cordial and friendly relation between the Indians and the Greeks. Megasthenes stayed in Pataliputra and made accounts of the city’s shape. He encapsulated in his writings through his work Indika, which tragically none left for anyone to read. Only through Stabo’s quotation of Megasthenes that the present had the glimpse of the Mauryan Capital.

According to Megasthenes, Pataliputra situated in the junction of the Ganges river and the “Erannoboas” which the Greek labeled as the “third greatest river in India.” Today, many considered Erannoboas as the present day river of Son. Megasthenes also shared precise size of the city stating the whole city as laid out as a parallelogram with the length of 80 stadia (14.5 km.) and 15 stadia (2.4 km.) in width. He described it surrounded by wooden palisades with loopholes for archers and a wide ditch with the length of 600 feet and 14 m in depth usable for defense and collection of sewage. The city’s wall also had 570 towers and 46 gates.

The city housed magnificent palaces, halls, and temples. Mud brick became a common material for the building, but sandstones also formed some of the important buildings in the city. Quarried from modern day Mirazapur, the Mauryans used the Ganges to move the stones to Pataliputra. Ancients wondered over the Mauryan palaces such as Aelian from the 3rd century who indirectly described the palaces of the Indians in his work Characteristics of Animals, stating:
“In the royal residences in India where the greatest of the kings of that country live, there are so many objects for admiration that neither Memnon’s city of Susa with all its extravagance, nor the magnificence of Ectabana is to be compared with them… in the parks, tame peacocks and pheasants are kept.”

Excavation of the British explorer L.A. Waddell unearthed many Mauryan era buildings and walls. He found pillars with capital exhibiting Persian influence as well as Greek as he wrote, “the magnificence colossal capital of a distinctly Greek type – quasi-Ionic…”
A Mauryan capital excavated in 1912
Chinese Buddhist pilgrims from the 5th century also added testimony on the architectural sophistication of the Mauryans and the brilliance of the city even though it laid in ruins. The Chinese monk Fa-Hien described the ruins of the said palace of the Emperor Ashoka:
“The royal palace and halls in the midst of the city, which exist now as of old, were all made by spirits which he employed, and which piled up the stones, reared the walls and gates, and executed the elegant carving and inlaid sculpture work, - in a way which no human hands of this world could accomplish”
Impression of Fa-Hien in Ashoka's Palace
In 1912, American archaeologist David Brainard Spooner excavated a structure attributed to Ashoka and studied further with another dig by K.P. Jaiswal in 1951 until 1955. They uncovered remnants of a hall called the “Assembly of 80 Pillars.” The hall hosted 10 pillars from east to west and 8 pillars north and south with a distance of 4.57 meters from each other forming straight lines. The pillars made from polished sandstone and held a roof made of wood and gave an ambiance in a smaller scale of the beauty of the Persian Palace of 100 columns. The hall showed the architectural skills of the Mauryan as well as their know-how in craftsmanship, mathematics and geometry.
Excavation site of the Hall of 80 Pillars
Pataliputra came further significance during the reign of Ashoka. Besides the Assembly of 80 Pillars, the city, according to stories, also hosted the Third Buddhist Council or Sangha. In the Council, Ashoka said to have attended himself, led to the instilling of order among the monks, organization of scriptures, and the decision to proselytize the religion outside the subcontinent. Thus, Pataliputra became a major site for Buddhism and the city littered with temples and stupas, some built under the patronage of Ashoka himself.

After the Fall of the Maurya

50 years after the death of Emperor Ashoka in 232 BCE, the Mauryan Empire fell. Nevertheless, Pataliputra remained a major center, especially for Buddhism. Later on, many Indian kingdoms also sought Pataliputra as their capital even to the time of the Gupta Dynasty from the 4th to the 6th century.

Summing Up

Pataliputra showed the power and wealth of the Mauryan Empire. It displayed their sophistication in the arts and craftsmanship of Mauryans and showed their openness towards different ideas from the Persians and Greeks. Eventually the awe inspiring wonder of Pataliputra continued beyond the Mauryan that maintained the city’s importance for centuries.

See also:

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Patna.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on September 16, 2018. URL:

“Excavations – Important – Bihar.” In Archaeological Survey of India. Accessed on September 16, 2018. URL:  

Sharma, Gayatree. “A Relic of Mauryan Era.” In The Times of India. Accessed on September 16, 2018. URL:

Waddell. LA. Report on the Excavations at Pataliputra (Patna). Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press, 1903. 

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