Bihar occupies the flat eastern Ganges basin, south of Nepal, between Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. To its south, Jharkhand, occupying the hilly Chotanagpur plateau north of Odisha, was hewn out of Bihar in 2000, following agitation by its tribal majority. Both states are beset by poverty, lack of infrastructure, inter-caste violence, corruption and general lawlessness.
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Although visitors are usually unaffected by the banditry and guerrilla war, Buddhist pilgrims and tourists have on occasion been robbed and few travellers spend much time here, which is a shame, because the region offers a fascinating mix of religious history. Check the safety situation with your government’s foreign ministry and the local press before travel; local state and tourist authorities tend to downplay safety concerns.
Bodhgaya and around
The world’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage site, Bodhgaya, is wonderfully relaxed, with an array of monasteries, temples and retreats. Its focal point is the Mahabodhi Temple, where Buddha attained enlightenment. The temple dates from the seventh century AD and flourished up to the sixteenth century, when it fell into the hands of Hindu priests, who professed to be baffled by its origins. In the early nineteenth century, British archeologists rediscovered its significance, and Bodhgaya has since been rejuvenated by overseas Buddhists, who have built monasteries, temples and shrines on the site. From November to February, Bodhgaya is home to an animated community of exiled Tibetans, often including the Dalai Lama, as well as a stream of international Tibetophiles.
The elegant single spire of the Mahabodhi Temple rises to a lofty height of 55m, and is visible throughout the surrounding countryside. Within the temple complex, which is liberally sprinkled with small stupas and shrines, the main brick temple stands in a hollow encircled by a stone railing dating from the second century BC. Unlike most popular temples in India, this UNESCO World Heritage Site exudes an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. Extensively renovated during the nineteenth century, it is supposed to be a replica of a seventh-century structure that in turn stood on the site of Ashoka’s original third-century BC shrine. Inside the temple, a single chamber holds a large gilded image of the Buddha, while upstairs is a balcony and a small, plain meditation chamber. At the rear of the temple to the west, the large Bodhi Tree grows out of an expansive base, attracting scholars and meditators, but it’s only an off-shoot of the one under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.
In remote, almost desert-like surroundings on the far side of the Falgu River, 12km northeast of Bodhgaya, sit the Mahakala (or Dungeshwari) Caves, where Buddha did the severe penance that led him to see the futility of extreme asceticism. Realizing that the key to enlightenment was a “middle path” between self-denial and self-indulgence, he walked down to Bodhgaya, where he achieved nirvana. A short climb from the base of the impressive cliff leads to a Tibetan monastery and the three caves.
Eighty kilometres northeast of Bodhgaya, the small market town of Rajgir nestles in rocky hills that witnessed the meditations and teachings of both the Buddha and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. The capital of the Magadha kingdom before Pataliputra (Patna), Rajgir was also where King Bimbisara converted to Buddhism. Rajgir is also regarded as a health resort because of its hot springs, 1km south of town, which can get unpleasantly crowded, especially as the neighbouring Laxmi Narayan Temple has become a popular destination for Hindus not wishing to miss out on Rajgir’s Buddhist and Jain pilgrimage fest.
A Japanese shrine at Venuvana Vihara marks the spot where a monastery was built for Buddha to live in, while at Griddhakuta (Vulture’s Peak), on Ratnagiri Hill, 3km from the town centre, Buddha set in motion his second “Wheel of Law”. The massive modern Peace Pagoda, built by the Japanese, dominates Ratnagiri Hill and can be reached by a rickety chairlift.
Best time to visit Bihar and Jharkhand
The monsoon hits Bihar and Jharkhand in early June, lasting until September, and the very best time to visit is immediately after that, in October and November. November is also the time of the Sonepur Mela. Bihar and Jharkhand can get quite chilly from December through February, especially at night, although daytime temperatures remain comfortable. From March, temperatures start to rise and the heat then gets progressively stickier and more debilitating until the monsoon breaks it.
Festivals in Bihar and Jharkhand
Makar Sankranti Mela (mid-Jan). Pilgrims from across India gather in Rajgir to bathe in the hot springs and herald the coming of spring.
Sarhul (March). Popular village celebration among the adivasi peoples of Jharkhand, welcoming the new blossom on the sal trees with music and dancing.
Pataliputra Mahotsava (March). Patna celebrates its illustrious history with music, dancing and public events.
Chatth Puja (March/April and Oct/Nov). An ancient festival dedicated to the Vedic sun god Surya, celebrated twice a year.
Patna Sahib Mahotsav (May). Annual cultural festival put on by Bihar Tourism around Patna’s Harimandir Sahib.
Rajgir Mahotsav (Nov). Three-day festival of dance and music in Rajgir.
Sonepur Mela (Nov/Dec). Huge annual sadhu gathering at the confluence of the Gandak and the Ganges at Sonepur.
If you’re in Bihar between early November and early December, don’t miss the Sonepur Mela, staged 25km north of Patna, across the Gandhi Bridge, at the confluence of the Gandak and the Ganges. Cattle, elephants, camels, parakeets and other animals are brought for sale, pilgrims combine business with a dip in the Ganges, sadhus congregate, and festivities abound. The event is memorably described by Mark Shand in his quixotic Travels on My Elephant. The Bihar State Tourism Development Corporation in Patna organizes tours and maintains a tourist village at Sonepur during the mela.
Lalu and the caste wars: politics in Bihar
For years, Bihar languished at the bottom of almost every measure of development, from literacy rates to GDP. Author William Dalrymple described it as “the most ungovernable and anarchic state in India”, even though it is blessed with ample coal and iron deposits and large tracts of arable land. The problem was caused by a disastrous combination of virulent inter-caste conflict and criminal misgovernance.
After Indian Independence, Bihar was ruled by a mafia of high-caste landowners, with the lower castes – who together with the dalits and tribal people make up more than seventy percent of the state’s population – marginalized to the point of persecution. All that seemed set to change in 1991 when a rabble-rouser from a lowly caste of buffalo milkers, Lalu Prasad Yadav, united the “backward castes”, the Muslims and the dalits under a banner of social justice, winning that year’s state election by a landslide. In power, Lalu delighted with his common touch; he spontaneously unclogged traffic congestion in Patna by walking the streets with a megaphone and filled the grounds of his official residence with buffalo.
Unfortunately Lalu proved little better than his predecessors. His cabinet of caste brethren included men wanted for murder and kidnapping, and violence remained the main tool of political persuasion – as one election candidate said: “Without one hundred men with guns you cannot contest an election in Bihar.” Much of the state degenerated into virtual civil war as the upper castes, lower castes, Maoist (Naxalite) guerrillas, police and private armies clashed violently.
Lalu’s career appeared to be over in 1997, when he was imprisoned for a short spell for embezzling billions of rupees. He responded by getting his illiterate wife Rabri Devi proclaimed chief minister. Even though his RJD party was toppled in the 2005 state elections, Lalu went on to serve as minister for railways from 2004 to 2009.
At state level, however, things changed. In 2005 a Janata Dal (U)–BJP coalition under Lalu’s chief opponent Nitish Kumar took power, and the situation began to improve, with less obvious domination by organized crime.
Nitish held power for ten years, during which things did improve in the state (literacy went up and unemployment down, for example), with Lalu his main opponent. But in the 2014 Lok Sabha election the BJP swept the board and it looked like the 2015 state elections would herald the end of Nitish’s rule. He subsequently joined together with Lalu and the local Congress Party, and divvied up the state assembly seats in an anti-BJP block, so that each candidate had a straight run against the BJP. Thus united, Nitish and Lalu swept jointly into power, giving the BJP its first major electoral setback since the 2014 general election, and beginning a new chapter in Bihar’s chequered political history.