In the abode of Saints & Sages

Dr. John Patrick Ojwando
Published: December 2014

A tryst with Patna, the capital city of India’s eastern state of Bihar for a social engagement, coming at the far end of what had been an enthralling election campaign in the South Asian subcontinent, could not have gotten off to the worst of beginnings, or so it seemed to Dr. John Patrick Ojwando, following a freak accident.


sagesAn innocuous fall is all it took to leave my well laid plans in the limbo when a chance to make a maiden foray into the State of Bihar, for long admonished by many but a repository of India’s rich cultural heritage, came calling. Thanks to an ill advised attempt at replicating a dance routine, I could only fetch a ligament tear in the bargain, with the clock ticking with eloquence towards the scheduled departure.

But with the bookings in place, calling off the trip surely could not have been an option. Instead, I was hassled to put up a brave face and grudgingly make way to Kempe Gowda International Airport to catch the flight at dawn.

It was evident though that I had inflicted a sizeable damage to my soft tissues and the pain seemed to increase with every single stride I took. Reduced to a hobbling mess, the discomfort would later bring with it a host of security hassles at every approach at domestic airport facilities. Right here in Bangalore, I was singled out for a detailed scrutiny at the entrance itself leaving me pondering whether those on clutches portend serious security threats. Perhaps!

Keeping my disgust in check, I handed over my passage ticket only to draw a wide grin from the security personnel. “You are going to my Patna,” he made an enquiry, all the while scanning the ticket as if he had made some grand discovery.

“Achaa. Very nice, very good!”

I later gathered that the officer hailed from a nondescript town ensconced a few kilometers from Patna. Obviously, he was overwhelmed at the prospect of finding someone from distant shores heading in the direction of his homeland. Trudging along, buoyed by the early morning encounter, I made my way to the check in counter.

I must confess that prior to this trip, I had been privy to discussions that only served to highlight just about everything that could have gone awry in a state. Take the case of Madhu Preetha, a Software Engineer from the state who has been living with her family in a locality just outside Patna, but presently working in Bangalore.

“I have heard the older generation say that things used to be really bad,” she says. “The term ‘Bihari’ became slang when referring to people from the state. But many things about Bihar are much better now though the notion that we are ill-mannered and show no respect to other cultures remains.”

Her childhood friend Apparajita Guha shares her views. “People from the state have seen it all across. From rickshaw pullers to technocrats, we are always at the receiving end,” she rues. “Biharis are well placed in virtually every field, from politics to sports, engineering, writers, journalism, you name it. But the feeling is that they are only good at menial tasks. Apparajita is an aspiring radio jockey and presents a show on a local radio station in the city. Born in a middle class family, she studied engineering but aspires to become a star radio presenter. “I have heard a lot of people talk about what the state used to be and I can well imagine,” she says. “I guess the present government deserves credit for what it has done. It’s easy to find faults but we should also give credit where it’s due.” Aparajita has been to other cities in India and believes it’s the same. “Prejudices can cause insurmountable distress especially when they stem from people in your own society.”

Obviously, with such fears fervently ‘stretching’ my thoughts, I was determined to make this journey count. The Go Air flight turned up on schedule. So too was its sister flight following a three hour stopover in Mumbai. We landed at the Patna Airport at 1.30 pm. It was peak summer and the sun having had its fair share of ‘fun’ had left in its wake a sweltering tarmac. That heat for a moment threatened to dent my enthusiasm but I had been well briefed earlier on what to expect during summers.

Interestingly, Patna Airport is listed as a restricted international airport (whatever that means) and holds an appeal from the name of Lok Nayak Jai Prakash, popularly referred to as JP or Lok Nayak in these parts of the country.

An activist, social reformer and political leader, JP is remembered for leading the opposition against the former Prime Minister of India, the late Indira Gandhi.

trudgingStanding on the runaway, the short stride from the plane to the arrivals reminded me of a similar airport in the island of Zanzibar. A trifle modest, the laid back attitude of the staff at the facility and the irritation those in power exude on their travels was there for all to see. Here, a political big wig was at the airport accompanied by a battery of supporters, relatives and friends and they virtually lay a temporary siege at the departures. The numerous bouquets scattered all around the place served to highlight his stature and all busybodies, including the staff at the airport were too eager to garner his attention.

Luckily, his departure did not come in the way of our exit. In a short time, I was out of the airport to a warm reception from my hosts. My dream had finally been fulfilled. I was in the backyard of the some of the movers and shakers of India’s polity! As we made our way from the airport into the city, I found it hard to comprehend the source of the region’s negative press. Alright, there were graffiti on walls, garbage strewn in the neighbourhoods, a couple of haphazard structures here and there, and just about every mode of travel vying for the space along the routes. But this was nothing so different from what we all have come to associate with other Indian cities, metros included!

On reaching the bus stop, the signs of a developed state became evident. Digital clocks displayed information and the people went about their routine chores with the now ubiquitous: OK. Horn Please. Ok, the only culprit in raising the decibel levels. Even to a first time visitor, the stereotype of Bihar being the backward state of India was not immediately evident. Or maybe, I was still to see more.

Checking in at the guest house, the people were just happy to be of some service. I got to engage in a long drawn conversation with one of them and among the many things we spoke about were Madhubani paintings. We agreed to sample a few the following day, time permitting. But that was the closest I came to owning the famed paintings.

Most buildings in Patna had distinctive architectural outlook. Later at the function, I would come to grips with the city after an enlightening discourse alongside the festivities, a talk that would eventually help me put things in perspective. The source of this enrichment was a lecturer at Patna College.

sages-1The origin of Patna, the capital and largest city of the state of Bihar (only falling behind Uttar Pradesh as the largest state to the east of India) is shrouded in tales that speak of an enviable past. Once touted as one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world, Patna, which also serves as the seat of Patna High Court, owes its foundation to the King of Magadha. Ancient Patna, then known as Pataliputra, was the capital of the Magadha Empire and the seat of erudite endeavours and fine arts. Legend describes the origin of Patna to a mythological King Putraka who through a streak of magic created Patna for his Queen Patali, literally translated as ‘trumpet flower’, which gave it the ancient name of Pataligrama.

In honour of the Queen’s first born, the city was named Pataliputra.

However, Patna rose to prominence when King Ajatashatru of Magadha decided to move his capital from the hills of Rajagrha to the more strategic locale in an attempt to combat the threats from Licchavis of Vaishali. He chose the site on the bank of the Ganges and fortified the area.

Gautama Buddha passed through this place in the last year of his life and amongst his prophesies was a great future for the place although he also predicted its vulnerability to floods, fire and feuds.

The modern city of Patna is situated on the bank of the Ganges and straddles three other rivers –Sone, Gandak and Punpun. Not surprising then, the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain pilgrim centres of Vaishali, Rajgir, the ruins of Nalanda, the world’s first university, Bodh Gaya and Pawapuri are in the vicinity, while for the Sikhs, Patna is a sacred city as the last of the Sikhs; Guru Gobind Singh was born here. So this was Patna for us, though the visits to its major attractions were not possible, thanks to the now heavily strapped spoiler, my leg!

Aside the tales narrated long into the night, I was equally intrigued by the way the people still held to their cultural mores. Even for those who eke out their living in other states, the sway of the culture was evident looking at the ease in which they went about the numerous routines. I would gather that traditional Bihari weddings are some of the most elaborate weddings that could go on for days on end because of its amalgam of rustic fervor and intrinsic rituals. Meanwhile the gastronomic instincts of the guest are kept well in check with a lavish spread of Bihar gourmets, a rare fusion of both veg and non-veg dishes. Bihari cuisine is predominantly veg because of the influence of Buddhist and Hindu values of non violence (abhorrence to eggs, chicken, fish and other animal products) though there is a tradition of meat eating and fish dishes, the latter largely because of the numerous rivers in the state.

Some of the dishes the state is famous for include Sattu Paratha (Indian bread stuffed with chickpea flour), chokha (spicy mashed potatoes), Bihari kebab, postaa-dana kaa halwa, amongst others.

Sometime later, the tiring journey finally took its toll. Unable to keep pace, I took leave as the festivities picked tempo. I would come to learn that the final curtain to the proceedings was drawn only in the wee hours of the morning. Incredible! The rest of the world may choose to come to Patna or remain complacent in their biases towards Bihar but there are many things that just stuck with me. Yes, like other Indian cities, I could not shake off the unwarranted attention and stares all around, but from what I saw, the state surely has a head start considering its expansive treasures.

Aboard the Air India on my return passage, the hospitality, bonhomie, friendships inked, and the bonds strengthened, were invaluable takeaways. Staring down as the illuminated buildings receding in the background with the speedy ascent into the Patna sky, I was convinced this state merits an expansive tour, sooner than later.