A teenage girl sits on her boyfriend's lap under the shade of a neem tree. Both stare into each other's eyes. A couple of trees away, a couple is holding hands. The boy tells his girl something, and the girl blushes. The sprawling compound is full of such couples seeking privacy. I seem to be the only person around except for the government staff manning the area. Welcome to Kumhrar, located on the eastern fringes of Patna, the capital of Bihar.
Kumhrar, then known as Pataliputra, was the heart of the ancient capital of the Magadha Empire from the fifth century BC for a few hundred years - the Magadh Empire, which was ruled by the Mauryas and the Guptas, among others. The great Maurya emperor, Ashoka, led from this place a vast swathe of the Indian subcontinent, including modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, covering nearly all of India until the borders of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The mighty Guptas of the eponymous empire created the Golden Age of India while based here.
My story is as much about the site as it is about the great Magadh emperors. The story behind the discovery and excavation of the site is no less interesting.
Pataliputra was not the initial capital of the Magadh Empire. Rajgriha, now called Rajgir, located about a hundred kilometres from Pataliputra, was the capital from where the first of the many dynasties ruled Magadh. Bimbisara established the Hiranyak dynasty and lorded over the empire from there. After his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, some seventy kilometres southwest of Rajgir, Buddha travelled to Rajgir. Bimbisara became Buddha's disciple as well as a friend and protector. His son Ajatshatru dethroned him and ultimately had him assassinated.
Ajatshatru's son, Udayin, identified a site north of Rajgir to set up a fort near the Ganges river. The place was called Pataligrama or Pataliputra. This fortification served two strategic purposes to keep an eye on the pesky Licchavis with whom they had a running feud and control trade along the river. Eventually, Ajatshatru vanquished the Licchavis and moved his capital to Pataliputra, which was more central in the areas controlled by the Magadh Empire.
Over time Hiranyak dynasty declined, and several others took its place in quick succession, none lasting more than a few decades till the advent of Chandragupta Maurya. With the help of his guru Chanakya, Chandragupta expanded the empire. Ashoka the Great was Chandragupta's grandson.
After the decline of the Mauryas, several other dynasties ruled Magadh for short durations till the advent of the Gupta dynasty.
Yellow-painted walls encircle Kumhrar Park. I cross the garish green-coloured iron gates and buy myself an entrance ticket. I tell myself that a fee of Rs 25 is a small amount to pay to be transported to the centre of India, 2600 years ago. The premises, with its swaying trees, well-manicured lawns, and paved pathways, contrasts with the general squalor around the area.
I walk to the Park's centrepiece, the site of the Eighty-Pillared Hall.
If you search discovery of Kumhrar online, nearly all the websites will tell you that an American archaeologist, David Spooner, excavated it. Sir Ratanji Tata, the famed Parsi philanthropist and son of the founder of the Tata Group, Jamshedji Tata, funded his excavation. Spooner was indeed the first well-thought-out and organized exploration, but he was not the first to work on the vexing topic of Pataliputra's location.
Alexander Cunningham, an engineer in the army of the East India Company, is considered the father of Indian Archaeology. He discovered and located several long-forgotten sites like Sarnath, Taxila, Sanchi, Bodh Gaya etc. The Ashokan edicts were discovered and deciphered. There would have been one central body, the archaeologists surmised, which would have controlled the activities. The Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, Megasthenese, had mentioned a powerful city called Palibothra in his book Indica. The location of this centre of the empire- later known as Pataliputra- Pataliputra eluded Cunningham and several other antiquarians interested in India's past.
A medical doctor, Dr Waddell, identified Kumhrar as the site of Pataliputra. He had drawn a map of the possible area based on the travel accounts of Xuanzang and Fa Hien, who had travelled to India during the Gupta period. Wadell discovered that a Sheikh Akram-ul-Haque now owned the land of Kumhrar village. He told Dr Waddell about the artefacts his family had found while digging wells in the area.
Emboldened by his success, he returned after a few years in 1897 to start excavating the area. To his dismay, he discovered that the site was now under a professional archaeologist Babu P. C. Mukherjee of the India Museum in Kolkata. The Indian expert had already dug out several pillars by then. Waddell tried to get him sacked from the job but could not succeed. Much to his chagrin, Mukherjee later also discovered the location of Kapilvastu, where Buddha grew up. Waddell was following a false lead elsewhere
Over a hundred years ago, David Spooner discovered a matrix of pillars placed 15 feet apart. Later excavations found the total number to be 80, the Hall being ten pillars wide and eight pillars long. The jury is still out about the purpose of this Hall Ashoka's palace, the throne room or a pleasure hall. Most experts say that this was where the Third Buddhist Council was held during the time of Ashoka.
I spot a massive pillar placed horizontally in a locked enclosure. The ASI staff unlocks the gate and lets me in. This is the only partially intact pillar of the famed eighty-pillared Hall built by Ashoka. I run my fingers over it it is polished and smooth. Mauryan Polish, as it is called. Outside the enclosure, pieces of other pillars are displayed.
Nothing remains on the site of the Hall it is just a patch of land with some grass growing on it. I spot a rough-hewn stone sticking out of the soil. The ASI staff tells me that this is a part of the original structure and remains there to indicate the existence of the Hall at this site.
My shoes crunch on the carpet of dried leaves piled on the otherwise well-kept lawns as I walk towards Arogya Shala, a low brick structure close to the Eighty-pillared-Hall. Arogya Shala, dating back to the Gupta dynasty, was excavated about 70 years ago. A terracotta seal found at the site says" Sri Arogya Vihare Bhikkusanghasya," a hospital cum Buddhist monastery. A ceramic fragment with the legend Dhanvantari discovered there indicates Dhanvantari probably being the doctor's name or title.
As I leave the Kumhrar Park premises, I shake my head in disbelief at having seen glorious vignettes from ancient India. I visualize how successive emperors would have sat on their thrones here, planned the conquest of nearly all of India, and presided over the golden age of India. I want to summon the courting couples around the Park and tell them these stories. Or maybe I should just let them enjoy the open spaces, dreaming of their futures. Just like the kings of yore did around 2000 years ago