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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. Tourists and Buddhist pilgrims 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. The safety situation has improved significantly, but check before you travel.
Patna, Bihar’s capital, dates back to the sixth century BC, but shows few signs today of its former glory as the centre of the Magadhan and Mauryan empires. A sprawling metropolis hugging the south bank of the Ganges, Patna stretches for around 15 km in a shape that has changed little since Ajatasatru (491–459 BC) shifted the Magadhan capital here from Rajgir.
The first Mauryan emperor, Chandragupta, established himself in what was then Pataliputra in 321 BC, and pushed the limits of his empire as far as the Indus; his grandson Ashoka (274–237 BC), one of India’s greatest rulers, held sway over even greater domains.
To facilitate Indo-Hellenic trade, the Mauryans built a Royal Highway from Pataliputra to Taxila, Pakistan, which later became the Grand Trunk Road. The city experienced two revivals, first when the first Gupta emperor, Chandra Gupta, made it his capital early in the fourth century AD, and then again when it was rebuilt in the sixteenth century by Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri.
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From the Mahabodhi Temple, which includes a cutting of the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, to the Mahakala Caves, these are the best things to do in Bihar.
Slap-bang in the middle of Bihar’s capital, Patna, the 22-acre Buddha Smirti Park stands on the site once occupied by Bankipur Central Jail. The park was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 2010, and its trees include saplings taken from the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya.
The big stupa in the middle houses an urn supposedly containing ashes from the body of Buddha himself, which were unearthed at Vasihali. This being a Buddhist site, there’s also a meditation centre, and a museum illustrating the life of Buddha and the history of Buddhism.
Patna’s most notable monument is the Golghar, also called “the round house”, a huge colonial-era grain store built in 1786 to avoid a repetition of 1770’s terrible famine; thankfully, it never needed to be used.
Overlooking the river and Gandhi Maidan, its two sets of stairs spiralling up to the summit were designed so indentured workers could carry grain up one side, deliver their load through a hole at the top, and descend down the other.
Sightseers now clamber up for mighty views of the river and the city. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, there’s a sound-and-light laser show illustrating the history of Bihar and the Golghar.
Patna’s Gandhi Museum is really more like a book in museum format, consisting largely of text and photos illustrating, in one room, the Mahatma’s life, and in another, the history of the Independence movement in Bihar.
One or two of Gandhi’s personal effects are also on display, but are labelled in Hindi only.
The Patna Museum (Jadu Ghar), although faded and run down, has an excellent collection of sculptures. Among its most famous exhibits is a polished sandstone female attendant, or yakshi, holding a fly-whisk, dating back to the third century BC.
There are also Jain images from the Kushana period, a group of Buddhist bodhisattvas from Gandhara (in northwest Pakistan), some freakishly deformed stuff ed animals and a gigantic fossilized tree thought to be two hundred million years old.
In Haji Ganj, an old part of town 10km east of Gandhi Maidan, congested lanes lead to Harimandir Sahib, the second holiest of the four great Sikh shrines known as takhts (thrones).
Set in an expansive courtyard off the main road, the dazzling white onion-domed marble temple is dedicated to Guru Gobind Singh, born in Patna in 1660.
Visitors can explore the courtyard and even venture inside where devotional music is often playing.
A short way northeast of Harimandir Sahib, the private Qila House (or Jalan Museum) holds a fine collection of art, including Chinese paintings and Mughal filigree work in jade and silver.
Among the antiques are porcelain items that once belonged to Marie Antoinette, and Napoleon’s four-poster bed.
Set amid paddy fields 55km north of Patna, the quiet village of Vaishali was the site of the Buddha’s last sermon. Named after King Visala, who is mentioned in the Ramayana, Vaishali is also believed by some historians to have been the first city-state in the world to practise a democratic, republican form of government.
After leaving his family and renouncing the world, Prince Gautama (Buddha) studied here, but eventually rejected his master’s teachings and found his own path to enlightenment.
He returned to Vaishali three times and on his last visit announced his final liberation – Mahaparinirvana – and departure from the world, in around 483 BC. A hundred years later, the second Buddhist Council was held in Vaishali and two stupas erected.
A small but well-presented archeological museum provides a glimpse into the ancient Buddhist world.
Jitwarpur, a village on the outskirts of the small town of Madhubani, in northern Bihar, is home to a vibrant tradition of folk art.
Madhubani paintings by local women were originally decorations for the outside of village huts. Illustrating mythological themes – including images of local deities as well as Hindu gods and goddesses – the paintings were eventually transferred onto handmade paper, often using bright primary colours to fill the strong black line drawings.
Fabrics printed with Madhubani designs have become very chic; these days they tend to be professionally made elsewhere, and are sold in the expensive boutiques of India’s major cities, although you can still pick them up cheaply in Madhubani itself.
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. Shoes are tolerated within the grounds but not inside the temple.
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.
Many legends surround the destruction of the original, but it is generally thought that Ashoka, when he sent his daughter Sangamitra to Sri Lanka as an emissary of Buddhism, had sent a cutting with her.
This was planted at Anuradhapuram, and a cutting from that was later brought back to Bodhgaya and replanted. Pilgrims tie coloured thread to its branches and Tibetans accompany their rituals with long lines of butter lamps.
A sandstone slab with carved sides next to the tree is believed to be the Vajrasana, or “thunder-seat”, upon which Buddha sat facing east.
The small white Animesh Lochana Temple to the right of the compound entrance marks the spot where Buddha stood and gazed upon the Bodhi Tree in gratitude.
Numerous ornate stupas from the Pala period (seventh to twelfth centuries) are littered around the grounds and next to the temple compound to the south is a rectangular lotus pool where Buddha is believed to have bathed.
Bodhgaya’s Archaeological Museum, west of the Mahabodhi Temple complex, has a collection of locally discovered sculptures. Its prize exhibit is the stone balustrade that once surrounded the Bodhi Tree in the Mahabodhi Temple.
The pink-sandstone parts date from the first or second century BC, but the granite ones are newer, dating from the sixth or seventh century AD.
In remote, almost desert-like surroundings on the far side of the Falgu River, sit the Mahakala (or Dungeshwari) Caves, where Buddha did the severe penance that led him to see the futility of extreme asceticism.
Realising 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.
Founded in the fifth century AD by the Guptas, the great monastic Buddhist university of Nalanda attracted thousands of international students and teachers until it was sacked by the Afghan invader Bhaktiar Khilji in the twelfth century.
Courses included philosophy, logic, theology, grammar, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. Excavations have revealed nine levels of occupation on the site, dating back to the time of the Buddha and Mahavira in the sixth century BC.
The site is strewn with the remains of stupas, temples and eleven monasteries, their thick walls impressively intact.
Nalanda is now part of the modern Buddhist pilgrimage circuit, but even casual tourists will appreciate taking the time to walk through the extensive site, or climb its massive 31m stupa for commanding views.
A small museum houses antiquities found here and at Rajgir, including Buddhist and Hindu bronzes and a number of undamaged statues of the Buddha.
When it comes to choosing the best cities to stay in Bihar, most travellers will opt for Patna, the region's capital. However, there are some other alternatives. Here’s where to stay.
As the capital city of Bihar, Patna serves as the ideal base for exploring the state's diverse offerings. There are a lot of business hotels and solid midrange guesthouses to pick from.
There are plenty of excellent budget-friendly digs in Bodhgaya.
Browse places to stay in Bihar.
Most travellers will explore Bihar by train, but you can get around by bus and taxi too.
Train travel is the fastest and most convenient way to navigate the cities of Bihar. With well-connected stations, hopping on a train allows you to effortlessly explore the popular attractions in the region.
For a more scenic journey, Bihar's extensive bus network offers an economical and comfortable option. Sit back in air-conditioned comfort as you traverse the state, enjoying the lush green landscapes and stunning architecture that grace our cities.
When it comes to reaching off-the-beaten-path destinations, taxis are your go-to choice. Metered and readily available, these comfortable vehicles provide accessibility beyond bus and train routes.
Keep in mind that surcharges may apply depending on the time, location, and taxi company, so it's advisable to inquire about these additional costs and request a receipt at the end of your ride for a clear understanding of the fare.
If you have limited time but still wish to experience the essence of Bihar, allocating 5-7 days will allow you to uncover the highlights of the region.
Begin in Patna, the capital city, where you can immerse yourself in the vibrant markets, visit historic landmarks like Golghar and Patna Sahib Gurudwara, and sample the local cuisine. Then explore the ancient city of Nalanda, before visiting Bodh Gaya, the spiritual epicentre of Buddhism, and the Mahabodhi Temple.
If you wish to extend your stay, allocate some time to exploring Rajgir, known for its ancient ruins and hot springs and ascend to the Vulture's Peak for breathtaking panoramic views and visit the tranquil Veerayatan, a Jain pilgrimage site.
Looking for inspiration for your trip? Check our India itineraries.
Bihar generally has a warm and pleasant climate, making it a year-round destination. However the post-monsoon period (October to April), is considered the best time to visit as the weather is better and tourism is at its peak, meaning everything is open.
The monsoon hits Bihar in early June, lasting until September, and the very best time to visit is immediately after that, in October and November. Bihar 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.
Find out more about the best time to visit India.
Most travellers will arrive in Bihar by train, though the state does have an airport. Here are the best ways to arrive.
Patna’s airport is 5 km west of town. Flights serve Delhi (10 daily with Air India, IndiGo and Go Air), Kolkata (5 daily with GoAir and IndiGo), Ranchi (3 daily with GoAir and IndiGo) and Lucknow (2 daily with IndiGo).
All mainline train services arrive either at Patliputra or at Patna Junction station, 10km apart, both set in the west of Patna.
Patna Junction is the most important railway station in the region, and has a foreigners’ reservation window (No. 7) on the upper floor of the booking office.
Find out the best ways to get to India.