Culture & Society

An Introduction To Bihari Literature

Bihari literature, spread over two millennia, consists of literary works produced in various languages spoken in Bihar. These include Magahi, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Angika, Bajjika, Hindi, Urdu, Persian (Farsi), English and classical languages such as Sanskrit and Pali.

An entrance to Nalanda University.

Bihar has a long history that dates back to the foundation of the Mahajanapada (great kingdom) of Magadha in southern Bihar, with its capital first at Rajgriha, present-day Rajgir, and later at Pataliputra,
modern-day Patna. Over the centuries, several dynasties ruled Magadha and gave rise to two of India’s great empires—the Maurya empire and the Gupta empire. Both these empires witnessed great
advancements in mathematics, astronomy, literature, philosophy, science and statecraft, and saw the emergence of new religions such as Buddhism and Jainism.

Bihari literature, spread over two millennia, consists of literary works produced in various languages spoken in Bihar. These include Magahi, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Angika, Bajjika, Hindi, Urdu, Persian (Farsi), English and classical languages such as Sanskrit and Pali.

Magahi is derived from the ancient Magadhi Prakrit, which was spoken in the ancient kingdom of Magadha, the core of which was the area south of the Ganga and east of the Son river. It is believed to
be the language spoken by Gautama Buddha to deliver his sermons.

It was also the official language of the Mauryan and Gupta courts and the language in which the edicts of Emperor Ashoka were composed. Pali is also identified with Magadhi Prakrit. Written in Brahmi
script, it was the sacred language of Buddhism. Bhojpuri is chiefly spoken in western Bihar. The language is also spoken in Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, South Africa, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.

Maithili is spoken in the states of Bihar and Jharkhand and is one of the twenty-two languages listed in the Constitution of India. It is also spoken in the eastern Terai region and is the second most-spoken
language in Nepal. Tirhuta was formerly the primary script for writing Maithili.

Angika is mainly spoken in the Anga region, which includes Munger, Bhagalpur and Banka districts of Bihar and the Santhal  Pargana division of Jharkhand.  Bajjika is a language spoken in eastern India and Nepal, mostly in the north-western districts of Bihar and the adjacent areas of Nepal.

Persian was the court language during the Mughal reign. Hindi and Urdu, meanwhile, are spoken across the state. English newspapers are printed and read in the capital city of Patna and distributed in the large urban centres of Bihar every day.

Recently I edited The Book of Bihari Literature which is the first-ever attempt of its kind to present a glimpse into the rich world of Bihari literature in English translation, drawn from many languages spoken across Bihar. Translations from languages such as Sanskrit, Pali, Magahi, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Bajjika, Angika, Hindi, Urdu and Persian have been included in the anthology. Many of these works have been translated for the first time, making these accessible to the English-speaking world.


A view of Nalanda University. Getty Images

This book also brings to the fore literature from some of the lesser-known languages of Bihar, such as Magahi, Angika and Bajjika, making them available to both national and international readers, 
enriching Indian literature as well as world literature. It also highlights the original English writings of Bihari diaspora writers such as Amitava Kumar and Tabish Khair.

The Bihari diaspora is spread across the world. Countries such as Mauritius, Seychelles, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, Netherlands, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand have a significant Bihari population that continues to speak and read in various languages of Bihar. This book will hopefully act as a bridge in connecting them with their roots.

Editing this book has been quite a journey. I was born in Nalanda district of Bihar. My mother spoke to me in Magahi, while my father spoke in Hindi. I remember finding a copy of Rashmirathi by Ramdhari
Singh Dinkar at home when I was in class 3 or 4. I started reading it and fell in love with the sound of its words. Since then, I haven’t stopped reading or reciting Rashmirathi. It was my introduction to
Bihari literature.

When I came to study at Delhi University, people asked me if I spoke Bihari. So far, I had only heard of Bhojpuri, Maithili and Magahi, besides Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Pali and Sanskrit. Here were people asking
me if I knew how to speak Bihari, which was strange because there is no Bihari language. Most people consider Bhojpuri to be Bihari.

In fact, in the school syllabus we had a number of Hindi stories and poems—even English was a compulsory subject in high school and I had to learn by heart William Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a
stage’ and William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ but sadly there was no mention of Magahi, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Angika or Bajjika stories or poems. I studied Sanskrit in high school and learnt about the literature of ancient India, but I was not aware of the literary treasures in my mother tongue, Magahi, and other Bihari languages.

The idea of editing The Book of Bihari Literature was conceived while I was trying to learn more about the works of writers from Bihar. Despite being from the state, I had very little knowledge about the written literature of various languages spoken in Bihar. In fact, my ignorance was so profound that I thought there was no written literature in Magahi as I had never come across a single book written in this language. 

My ignorance was dispelled soon when people made me aware of the rich literature available in Magahi.
It took me almost another year before I set out to find Magahi folk tales, short stories and novels. The treasures that I found left me spellbound.


Talking to various Magahi writers and poets, I was surprised to learn that the works of Magahi literature had never been translated into English. Immediately, I started gathering and translating poems and
short stories from Magahi into English. I also came across the first Magahi short novel Fool Bahadur which was first published in 1924 and is based in the town of Bihar Sharif in the Nalanda district of Bihar. I was so fascinated by depiction of life of government officials in the colonial era that I immediately started translating it into English. 

Similarly, I came across deeply moving poems and short stories in Bhojpuri, Maithili, Angika, Bajjika, Urdu, Farsi and English, none of which I had read before. Sake Dean Mahomed, the first Indian
to publish a book in English, titled The Travels of Dean Mahomed, was born in Patna, while Avadh Behari Lall, a noted poet of the late nineteenth century who wrote in English, was from Gaya. His poem
‘An Epistle to the Right Hon’ble Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poet-Laureate, England’ is worth a read for the insight it offers on the impact the colonization of India had on its literature. One of the finest Persian
poets, Abdul-Qādir Bēdil, whose poems are still read with great reverence in Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries, was born in Anisabad, Patna.


The book begins with a poem by Mutta dating back to 600 BCE.

Free, fabulously free, 
free from three trifles—
pounder, pounding bowl and my wicked lord—
free from endless births and deaths,
the chains that fettered me down 
     are suddenly no more.       [Free, Fabulously Free by Mutta]

 It maps the works of key figures in the world of literature of Bihar from ancient times till contemporary times such as Sumangalmata, Kautilya, Vatsyayna, Sarhapa, Vidyapati, Abdul-Qādir Bēdil, Dean Mahomed,  Mahendar Misir, Bhikhari Thakur,  Raghuveer Narayan, Heera Dom, Acharya Shivpujan Sahay, Rambriksh Benipuri, Bedil Azimabadi, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Nagarjun, Phanishwar Nath Renu, Surendra Mohan Prasad, Rameshwar Singh Kashyap, Mathura Prasad Naveen, Surendra Prasad Tarun, Rajkamal Chaudhary, Kalam Haidari, Lalit, Ravindra Kumar, R. Ishari Arshad, Harishchandra Priyadarshi, Pandey Surendra , Mithilesh, Chandramohan Pradhan, Mridula Sinha, Shamoil Ahmad, Ramdhari Singh Diwakar, Usha Kiran Khan, Alok Dhanwa, Subhash Chandra Yadav, Hussain Ul Haque, Shaiwal, Aniruddha Prasad Vimal, Abdus Samad, Prem Kumar Mani, Ashok, Nagendra Sharma Bandhu, Arun Kamal, Narayanji, Avdhesh Preet, Vibha Rani, Anamika, Savita Singh, Ashwani Kumar, Amitava Kumar, Dhananjay Shrotriya, Arun  Harliwal, Tabish Khair, Kumar Mukul, Ratneshwar, Kiran Kumari  Sharma, Kavita and Pankhuri Sinha.


It ends with a poem on Nalanda Mahavihar/University, world’s first resident Buddhist monastery/University which in so many ways symbolises Bihar and recounts the story of its rise and fall. 

Nalanda Poems

The Day of Massacre at Nalanda

Bakhtiyar and his men
play buzkashi180 in my alleys today

monks are being burnt alive, and
those who try to escape are beheaded

Dharmagunj—the nine-storeyed library
has burst into flames

smoke and ash from the burning books 
     have turned the day into night

The sun has disappeared from the sky today
and even my bricks bleed

the sacred chants that once sanctified Magadha 
have turned into shrieks of a failing humanity.


The light of the world is fading today
to face the ravages of time alone

abandoned, scorned, forgotten
or perhaps, to be reborn into many Nalandas.

The Rise of Nalanda

Forlorn under the red earth
buried for centuries
I rise today like a phoenix
eight hundred years later
from the ashes of my burnt books.

I open my arms today to embrace you
whoever you are, from wherever you are
come, walk into my enlightened fold
as once Buddha and Mahavira did
seeking shelter in my groves

I remember Hiuen Tsang and Faxian—
the saint–seekers from the East
I hear footsteps of Aryabhata and Charaka
in my ancient compound today,
     you too come; come as I rise again.


While editing this book, I came across a rich world of literature in the various languages spoken in Bihar. However, I have only been able to include a very small fraction because of space and time constraints and the lack of good-quality translations. I think many more such books deserve to be published in the years to come. I hope you’ll relish this delicious potpourri of Bihari literature.