Bihar is one of the largest producers of handicrafts and handloom fabric and that is primarily because of its rich heritage and glorious past. A journey back in time reveals that the modern day state of Bihar consists of two prominent kingdoms in the Vedic Age – the Kingdom of Mithila and the Kingdom of Magadh. While Mithila covered the North and Eastern parts of Bihar, Magadh comprised of the portion of Bihar south of the Ganges. You can read more about the kingdom of Mithila here.

Chronologically, Magadh was one of the 16 Mahajanapadas or great kingdoms, succeeding the age of the Janapadas. Its capital city was Rajagriha. King Bimbisara was one of the most prominent kings of Magadh and it was under his rule that the borders of the kingdom were greatly expanded. In fact the 16 Mahajanapadas eventually coalesced into 4 major kingdoms – Vatsa, Avanti, Kosala and Magadha. King Bimbisara was imprisoned and eventually killed by his own son, Ajatashatru who succeeded the throne, moved the capital to Patliputra (modern day Patna), and continued expanding the kingdom. 

The journey of Buddhism originated in the great kingdom of Magadh. Interestingly, the name ‘Bihar’ is derived from the word Viharameaning monastery and much of what we know about the 16 Mahajanapadas comes from Buddhist and Jain texts. Gautama Siddhartha, an heir prince of a neighboring country, roamed the kingdom of Magadh while it flourished under King Bimbisara, around 534 BC. Gautama became the Buddha, attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in Magadh and enjoyed the patronage of the king. Some say King Bimbisara adopted Buddhism. Succeeding King Bimbisara was his ambitious and bloodthirsty son Ajatashatru who overthrew his own father for the reigns of the kingdom. Magadh saw some of its bloodiest battles under Ajatashatru. The story goes that this bloodshed led one of the king’s courtesans, Amrapali, to become a Buddhist nun and her son, by Ajatashatru, to become a Buddhist monk. Ajatashatru though initially opposed to the Buddha soon became his ally and on the death of Buddha received the largest share of his remains. He enshrined the remains in a stupa at Girivraj. Eventually Ajatashatru hosted the world’s first council of Buddhist monks, which was attended by almost 500 monks.

The kingdom of Magadh lost most of its glory during the reign of the kings who succeeded Ajatashatru until the reign of the Nandas. King Mahapadma Nanda conquered the lands lost under Ajatashatru’s successors and once again Magadh became a mighty kingdom from the Gangetic seacoast in the east to Punjab in the west and right into the Deccan plateau of India. While the great Magadh kingdom stood undefeated during the time of the invasion of Alexander the Great, it fell to the hands of Chandragupta Maurya. Thus the mighty kingdom of Magadh gave way to the even more powerful kingdom of the Mauryas.

Interestingly, the Buddhist influence continued in the Magadh Empire after Ajatashatru through the Mauryan period and beyond, reaching its height under Emperor Ashoka. The well-known tale of Ashoka’s remorse after the bloodshed of the Kalinga war led to him embracing Buddhism and giving up war and violence. Ashoka sent missionaries to travel around Asia and is credited for the spread of Buddhism. Under his peaceful rule, trade and Buddhism spread hand in hand. The influence of Buddhism was seen throughout the Mauryan kingdom and traces of this can be seen through handicraft tradition till today.

For instance Baswan Bigha is a village renowned for its weaving community and cotton weaves. They are most famous for weaving the Bavan Bootas (52 Buddhist motifs) like the stupa, peepal leaf, elephant and deer. Locals claim to have been weavers for at least seven generations and probably have been much longer. This village is located in a district called Nalanda, in close proximity to Rajgir (Rajagriha, the ancient capital of Magadh) and close to Bodh Gaya. Rajagriha and Baswan Bigha were on the silk route. Writer and UN advisor, Ruchira Gupta surmises, “weavers in the Mauryan empire, especially those who lived near the sacred sites of Buddha himself, must have started to weave Buddhist Motifs into textiles that were being traded under the Asokan empire. The promotion of Buddhism and trade went hand in hand.” She adds that the Bavan Bootis woven today are a pattern that are a millennia old.  She quotes weaver Akhilesh from Nepura, “There are two kinds of yarns, katiya and kosa. In the katiya, the silkworm is allowed to grow and live. We cut the pupa and let it fly out. In the kosa, we boil the pupa, the worm dies and then we unweave the thread from the pupa. I am in Buddha's land. My wife and I use the katiya method. This is the Ahimsa yarn.”

Today the erstwhile Magadh encompasses Bhagalpur - the largest handloom cluster of Bihar. You can browse through some of the Bhagalpuri weaves here – wild silk and cotton stoles and relive a tradition that can trace itself back to the times of the Buddha.

Picture credit: