Magadh: Ancient and Modern

Silk Road, a series of trade routes, that connected the east and west stretching some 4000 miles like a multilayered necklace, had India like a pendant in the center, and Magadh as a precious stone set in it. What made Magadh one of the most important destinations for the silk route travelers was not just the trade of silk, spices, incense and textiles, but also peace, prosperity, science and knowledge. Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty, who brought all small kingdoms of India together under one rule for the first time, made Patliputra (modern Patna) its capital, and allowed political stability in this region. Ashoka the Great, further expanded the Mauryan empire, and India finally was united as one large nation that included modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan and a part of Nepal.

Under the rule of the Mauryan dynasty, from 322 BC -185 BC, international trade was allowed through Khyber Pass. This also helped Jainism and Buddhism to spread in Asia and Mediterranean. During the time of Ashoka, Buddhist ambassadors were sent out to the countries in the far east and Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) to establish Buddhism. Ashoka built many Buddhist temples, stupas and pillars that shows his support to Buddhism and faith in Buddhist philosophy. The Lion Capital of Ashoka in Sarnath later became the national emblem of India.

Being the center of power, peace and education, Magadh remained the greatest attraction for the travelers and scholars like Faxian (Fa-Hien) and Xuanzang (Hieun Tsang), who received education at Nalanda university, the oldest university of India, and visited Patliputra, Rajgrih (Rajgir), Vaishali, Gaya and Bodhgaya, mentioned in their travel accounts. Magadh also had Odantapura and Vikramashila universities, that were later destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1200 AD. Magadh saw the epitome of glory during the Gupta period, known as the Golden Age of India, due to its achievements in the fields of art, literature, mathematics, astronomy, scientific inventions and discoveries.

As a student of Political Science and History, I was fascinated by the fact that I was born in Magadh; and the history I read of it was not only written in books, but also in the layers of the foundation it was built on, and is still standing there. I was born in Gaya, a part of Magadh, mentioned as early as in Rigveda and Puranas, only 62 miles away from Patna (Patliputra), the capital of ancient India, during both Mauryan and Gupta empires. In Indian mythology, it is believed that Gaya was named after Gayasur, a giant, who by his penance earned the blessings of lord Vishnu, and when he died, the remains of his body became the landscape of the city, existing in modern time. Gaya stands on the pillars of four major religions of the world, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Islam.

Gaya is a holy place for Hindus. Thousands of Hindu pilgrims from all over the world come to Gaya every year to offer Pinddaan (final offerings to their ancestors) for them to attain salvation. It is mentioned in Ramayana, that Ram, Sita and Laxman performed the last ritual of their father King Dashrath on the bank of the Phalgu river, known as Niranjna at the time. Queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore built the famous Vishnupad temple on the bank of river Phalgu, that was often visited by my family. I remember, while my parents and grandparents will worship inside the temple, I would sit on the top of a staircase of the temple built of stone to see from afar, the cremation of bodies, and people offering Pinddaan to their ancestors on the river bank.

Gaya is also a sacred place for Jains. Parasnath (once a part of the Gaya district), is an important destination for Jain followers. According to Jain scriptures, twenty two Tirthankars attained Nirvana in the hills of Parasnath.

Gaya continued to attract spiritual energies in later centuries, and became the birthplace of Buddhism, after prince Siddhartha as a monk attained enlightenment under a Pipal tree there. That place is now known as Bodhgaya. Buddha gave his famous Fire Sermon to a thousand ascetics on Brahmyoni Hill, known as Gyashish in his time.

Finally, Islam came to Gaya with Hazrat Ata Hussain Fani, a Sufi saint of the Chisti order. It is believed that he traveled to Mecca at a very young age, and was spiritually guided by Prophet Muhammad to go to Gaya to spread the messages of Islam. He was also a poet and a great orator, later recognized as Hazrat Ata Hussain “Gayavi”.

So, how was it like growing up in Gaya with the influence of many religions and cultures around me? A town that is an important destination for tourists and pilgrims from all over the world, still has an ancient feel to it. It attracts people not only to see the temples and monuments of the eras gone by, but also to seek knowledge and find deep meanings of life. More or less, Gaya has the same influence on its native people. Everyone seems to have a philosophy in my town. The city which moves at its own pace, lags and progresses at the same time.

Magadh in history, known for its Viharas (abode for ascetics and monks) gave the name to the modern state of Bihar. Bihar that originated from the word “Vihar”, still has several monasteries for the monks to stay there and study religion and philosophy. There are several meditation centers run there for the lay practitioners also.

My most favorite memory of growing up in Gaya was visiting Bodhgaya with my family when I was young, and bowing to the Buddha in the temples. I continued that practice as an adult till the day I graduated from the Magadh University in Bodhgaya before coming to the US. Buddha's statues made of gold and silver were situated in the main temple, and the temples of Thailand, Japan, Korea, Burma, Tibet, China and other countries. But the spirit of Buddha was always in the simplicity of the people practicing Buddha dharma. I was fascinated by the saffron color robes of the Buddhist monks and nuns, and the sounds of the bells heard miles away from the temple. We will shop in the Tibetan market for shawls, sweaters, jewelry, statues and eat the most authentic Asian food served there in small restaurants. Indian style Chinese food, Tibetan Momos and South Indian dishes were also served in tents during big ceremonies like Kalachakra Abhishek. I also loved the mouth watering street foods, mostly vegetarian, served by the local vendors.

Bodhgaya is a mosaic of different cultures from all over the world. There are a number of Tibetan people in exile, living in Bodhgaya among other nationalities, including Chinese, making this town a beautiful example of all cultures, local and international, peacefully co-existing there.

I also visited Patna, Nalanda, Pavapuri and Rajgir with my family. I was captivated to see the ruins of the ancient university of Nalanda attended by many ancient scholars, the lake of Pavapuri, where Mahavira attained enlightenment, and the Vulture Peak of Rajgir, where Buddha meditated and taught his disciples. We always drove to these places, that allowed me to see the beautiful landscapes of Magadh.

One day, we would visit temples and monasteries, and the other day go for hunting in the forest. The jungle of Tekari, known for its beautiful wildlife and cultivation of catechu (Acacia), was also a favorite picnic spot for our family. We will see the Tekari palace, go fishing in the shallow water of a stream flowing nearby, and make food on the wood-fire stoves made of bricks. My maternal grandfather was the right hand of Maharaja Gopalsharan Singh, the last king of Tekari, and managed his princely estate. Therefore, we had many privileges in that area, even after the death of Maharaja. We will often return home from hunting carrying a Sambar or swamp deer, and sometimes rabbits and birds. Now, as I always wished for when I was young, hunting is banned in India, but the legends still continue.

The legacies of the state and city I grew up in are equally humbling. Once known for the golden age in history, Bihar is now one of the poorest states in India. Magadh that was the center of power, peace and learning, is now known for its poor economic infrastructure, poverty, corruption and lawlessness. Permanent settlement of the East India Company in 1793, and the Freight Equalization Policy of the central government has always been blamed for the poor conditions in Bihar. An absence of strong political leaders to negotiate the best for Bihar in New Delhi and to deal with the challenges at grass-root level has also led the state to peril.

Bihar is one of the richest states of India in natural resources and brain power, but one of the lowest in industrial growth and over all development. Its economy is mostly based on service and agriculture. Therefore, thousands of people from Bihar every year migrate to other states in search of employment and higher education. This has given rise to anti Bihari sentiments in many states. It is not easy to be a Bihari in other states of India today. Not only that, it's not easy for a Bihari to be a Bihari in his or her own state, in absence of opportunities and a healthy social and political environment. Bihar must fight back poverty, corruption and sustain the phenomenon of brain drain to contribute to its growth in a strong leadership. Most importantly, the problems in Bihar must not be seen and interpreted from a narrow perspective; and dealt with an arrogance and violence in other states, that is often guided by the stereotyped, regional mentality of Indian people in majority, which prevents them from seeing things in national interest. -