A Day Trip To Historic Saran District In Bihar

The Saran district is full of interesting history, folklore, and legends that are worth checking out
Emperor Akbar at his court
Emperor Akbar at his courtWikimedia Commons

Saran district is one of 38 districts in Bihar. Located in the east of the state, it is also known as Chhapra district and has three subdivisions: Chhapra, Marhaura and Sonepur. The etymological origins of Saran are contested between two different viewpoints.

The first camp believes the version supplied by the British Army officer and archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893). He ascribed it to the Hindi word for asylum, sharan, due to the presence of a Ashoka Pillar in the area. However, it is more popularly believed that the word derives from sarangaranya, which means 'deer forest'.

A spotted dove with beautiful plumage
A spotted dove with beautiful plumageFlickr: Shashi Ranjan

Chhapra was an important place during the Mughal emperor Akbar's reign, so much so that it appears in the 16th century Ain-e-Akbari document, which lists the administration of the empire under Akbar. In it, Saran is listed as one of six revenue divisions in Bihar. When the East India Company took control of this region in 1756, Saran continued to remain an important revenue unit.

Six kilometres east of Chhapra lies Chirand. Excavations conducted by the state Directorate of Archaeology in the early 1960s unearthed a wealth of archaeological treasures. Chirand is a stratified Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Iron Age settlement from the ages of 2500 BCE to 30 CE.

The Neolithic settlement (2500-1345 BCE) contained evidence of small circular huts and small scale farming of wheat, rice, mung, masoor, and peas. Tools made of stone as well as bone were found here, although the latter were more in number. Hammers, millers, pestles, quern-stones, and balls have also been discovered.

Children playing in Saran district
Children playing in Saran districtFlickr: Shashi Ranjan

Additionally, several microliths were unearthed here, constituting an integral part of the Neolithic settlement. Parallel-sided blades, scrapers, arrow-heads, points, lunates, borers, and some geometric shapes were the main microlith objects discovered. A visit to these sites is awe-inspiring and a chance to step back in time and imagine how our ancestors lived.

Where To Go

Aami Mandir In Chhapra

A print of the Goddess Ambika by Ravi Varma
A print of the Goddess Ambika by Ravi VarmaWikimedia Commons: Ravi Varma

East of Chhapra in Aami village lies an ancient temple called the Aami Mandir or Ma Ambika Bhawani. It is dedicated to the goddess Ambika, also known as Durga, Sati, and Parvati. This mandir is a shakti peeth, a significant site for pilgrimage.

The tale of Sati's death comes to us from the Puranas, Tantra literature, and in Kalidasa's lyrical Kumarasambhava. The goddess Sati became distressed when her father, King Daksha, hurled insults at her husband, the Lord Shiva. When her father hosted a yagna, she decided to die by self-immolation and prayed that her next birth would be to a father whom she could respect.

Shiva mourns for his spouse, Sati
Shiva mourns for his spouse, SatiWikimedia Commons

Shiva was so enraged at hearing of his wife's death that he summoned fearsome demons from the locks of his matted hair. They stormed the ceremony, wreaked mayhem, and decapitated King Daksha. When the people begged for clemency, Shiva spared them and even brought back King Daksha to life, albeit with a goat for a head.

Grief-stricken, Shiva then picked up the body of his beloved wife and went away, roaming the earth with her body in his arms. To calm him, Lord Vishnu used his sudarshana chakra to dismember Sati's body into 51 pieces. In her next life Sati was reborn as Parvati, and the places where the parts of her body fell make up the 51 shakti peeths of India.

Pilgrims flock the temple daily but it is most crowded during Shivratri and Navratri. Near the shrine is a garden with a well where devotees offer water.

Baba Hariharnath Temple In Sonepur

Shiva and Vishnu idols at the temple
Shiva and Vishnu idols at the templeCopyright: https://hariharnathmandir.com/

The Hariharnath temple is said to have been originally built by Lord Rama. The present structure is simple and was built by Raja Ram Narain of Bihar during the late Mughal period.

The temple is also considered to be the site of the Gaj-Grah (elephant-crocodile) battle and the subsequent rescue of the elephant by Lord Vishnu. The story of this battle is a Puranic legend.

It is said that in ancient times, a herd of elephants and their king, Gajendra, roamed the land. One day, Gajendra reached a lake with his herd and entered the water first to check if it was safe. Suddenly, a crocodile who lived in the lake caught Gajendra's foot and their epic fight began. No-one could help Gajendra and so he struggled against the might of the crocodile for a 1000 years. Eventually, the elephant's strength began to wane.

The liberation of Gajendra
The liberation of GajendraWikimedia Commons: Chitrashala Press, Pune

Realising he was about to die, he called out to Lord Vishnu. Hearing his devotee's call, Vishnu rushed to his aid. As Gajendra saw his deliverer, he lifted a lotus flower with his trunk to Vishnu. The god, pleased with Gajendra's obeisance, killed the crocodile with his sudarshana chakra. Vishnu then told Gajendra that he had been King Indradyumna in his previous birth, and had been cursed to be born as an elephant in his next one by the great sage Agastya.

Similarly, the crocodile too had been a gandharva (celestial nature spirit) called Huhu. Cursed by sage Devala for interrupting his prayers, Huhu was born as a crocodile. After he begged for forgiveness, the sage told him that he would be released from his birth as a crocodile by Lord Vishnu. Thus, both gaj and grah were delivered from their curses by him.

There are several smaller temples nearby, including the Panch Devta Mandir and the Kali Asthan. The Sonepur Cattle Fair takes place in November and December and is worth a visit.

Getting There

The nearest airport to Chhapra is Jayprakash Narayan International Airport. There are frequent bus and taxi services that cover the 70km from Patna to Chhapra. Chhapra Junction is the town's railway station that connects to most major Indian cities.

Where To Stay

Hotel Midtown, Hotel Amitansh, and Hotel Mayur are 2-4 star establishments. It is recommended to look at their photos online and even call their customer service helpline to clarify information, such as mode of payment, before booking.

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