Photographs from the Patna Museum

Maitreya, 10c, Gaya

Maitreya, 10c, Gaya

In Lord Buddha’s time the capital of Magadha, the largest state in northern India at the time and the place where he spent a lot of his teaching career, was Rājagaha, but shortly after he passed away the capital was moved to Pāṭaliputta, which was situated at a strategic point on the Ganga, which could control commerce on the river as well as provide a good defensive position as it commanded the waterways. A couple of centuries later Asoka’s capital was also at Pāṭliputta, by which time it had grown into the centre of a large and powerful empire.

Even after Asoka, the heartland of Buddhism remained in the same area of ancient Magadha, especially with the center of Buddhist devotion always being at Bodhgaya, and then the rise of the great Universities at Nālanda, Vikramaśila and elsewhere. Because of this the amount of high-quality production of Buddhist artifacts of all sorts in this area was vast, and the Patna Museum reflects this output, though it also has to be stated that a large part of the collection remains in storage at present, especially its manuscript collection.

The present Museum was built in 1917 during the British Raj under the directions of Edward Gait, who was then the lieutenant governor of Bihar & Orissa, to house the historical artefacts found in the vicinity of Bihar, and the present building, in the style of the Mughal and Rajput architecture, was erected in 1928. There is a plan to build a new Museum soon, which, judging by the design photographs, will be a tasteless, futuristic concrete block. But it will hopefully provide more space for the Museum’s collections.

The collection that is on display is quite large even now, but many of the items held less interest for me, as it also doubles as a Natural History Museum, besides other things. As we were heading for Vaishali the same day, we were on a tight schedule, so I had to overlook the Hindu and Jaina artifacts. The Buddhist materials seemed to be the largest part of the collection anyway.

At the door to the Museum is a remarkable 8th century Toraṇa or Gateway from Udyagiri, Kalinga (modern-day Orissa). This is a really fine example of the craftmanship that was current in India at that time. The main part of the Museum’s collection however, at least as far as I recorded it, comes from either the Gayā or Nālanda areas, and consists of both stone sculpture and bronze castings.

Inside there are fine Buddha statues, and, as most of the works come from the 2nd half of the 1st millennium, there are also fine Bodhisattva statues, including Maitreya, Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśri, Tāra, Samvara, and others; and there are also some fine inscriptions. One of the masterpieces the Museum holds is the Didarganj Yakṣi, which dates back to around the 3rd century BC, and is one of the only free-standing sculptures found from that period.

Apart from those there are some of the best examples of bronze statues I have seen, with some really fine work. Unfortunately when Buddhism was lost to India in the 12th-13th centuries the skill in bronze work was lost also, so this collection represents one of the high watermarks in the Indian artistic tradition. More information about these matters can be found by following the link to the website.

There are other materials in the museum relating to Buddhism, like the thangkas brought back from Tibet in the 1930s by Rahul Sankritayana, but they had faded badly in the more humid climate and I didn’t photograph them. There are also the relics of Lod Buddha that were unearthed in Vaishali, which can be viewed for Rs. 500/-, but we didn’t see them.



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