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Bihar, India Click on thumbnails below for additional pictures ...
Bihar, in the eastern part of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, is amply watered by the Ganga and its tributaries, and there is no denying that the landscape here—particularly now, in the early monsoons—is among the most lovely in the country. So many views of the land, rich in untapped mineral wealth, are crossed by broadly curving, slow rivers. Roads and fields are fringed with palm trees and a profusion of wild, tropical vegetation. Rural vistas end along the curves and jags of low, green hills against a soaring sky, blue in the sun or darkening with the promise of rain. Bihar also has an illustrious history as the onetime center of the subcontinent's culture and politics.
"Bihar" is derived from "vihar," or monastery. Here, some 2,500 years ago, the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. His contemporary, the Jain teacher Mahavira, also originated here. About 200 years after them, the Mauryan Empire arose, centered in Bihar and stretching from modern day Afghanistan to most of the Deccan, from Pakistan to the east coast of India. In the 5th century CE, the Guptas founded a Buddhist university at Nalanda, one of the world's most prestigious centers of learning of the 1st millennium. The Mauryas and Guptas are associated with two "Golden Ages" in India. But as Buddhism began to decline in the latter centuries of the 1st millennium, so did Bihar.
The rich and glorious history of Bihar stands in contrast to its condition today. While much of India is seeing a huge economic boom, Bihar is still mired in abject poverty. About 83 million people live in Bihar, a state about half the size of Germany. Literacy stands at 33% for women (one of the lowest in India) and 60% for men. Electrical wires stretch to all villages but other basic infrastructure is clearly lacking. Most villagers live in houses made of stacked bricks mortared only with mud-structures that kill and maim thousands when earthquakes or floods hit. Plumbing and sanitary facilities are meager; fetid water, waste, and piles of unprocessed garbage blight every town and village. The potbellies of malnourished children are more visible here than anyplace else I've been in India in recent years. On top of this, crime runs rampant, as thugs plunder and murder with impunity; highway and train robberies are common. Bihar also has bands of radicalized, illiterate Maoist revolutionary terrorists (Naxalites), who bombed two nearby targets during our visit. Bihar's Chief Minister rides in special bullet-proof vehicles. On the other hand, this violence does stand out in India; Bihar is probably not more dangerous or violent than many major American cities. And for all the poverty, there is not a correspondingly higher number of beggars in Bihar, perhaps because the poverty is too even and there are no tourists (Buddhist pilgrims tend to remain cloistered in their tour packages).
Still, it is not only the poverty and crime that make Bihar feel like a tragedy. It's the sense of futility, of a widespread hopelessness, as if the mindset and the expectations of the people have slipped down to meet the level of their condition. There is little sense of dignity, little stirring of curiosity, little energy for ambition. Never before have I so realized the power and value of hope as a necessary tool or ingredient for the upliftment of people. But how to jump-start a sense of hope from futility and powerlessness? Of all the places I have seen in the world, though Bihar is not materially the poorest, it is the most squalid. A model case to demonstrate that greatness and power, achievement and renown—no matter how illustrious—are every bit as transient as everything else. The Buddhist sites, however, are lovely and draw pilgrims from all over the world.
[ - Usha Alexander, July 06]
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