Located to the east of the country, Bihar is one of the most exciting and alluring destinations with a tranquil aura to it. The culture and ancient sites here tell tales of the state, which come alive on its busy streets. Renowned for its fascinating festivals of colours and deep-rooted customs and values, this state is a treat that has been hiding in plain sight. Bihar’s long and rich history dates back centuries—the former kingdom of Magadha and home to multiple dynasties, like the Mauryas and the Guptas. To ensure the safety of travellers, the state government has also issued stringent precautionary measures. Step foot into blissful Bihar and wonder why it is often overlooked.
On a Spiritual Trail
The antiquity of this ancient land where India's first major empires rose and fell is evident from its name, derived from the ancient word ‘Vihara’. Located about 90kms southeast of the capital Patna, is Rajgir. Originally known as Rajagriha—translating to ‘home of the king’—it was initially the ancient capital of the city of Magadh. It was in Rajgir that Gautam Buddha spent several months meditating and preaching, and Lord Mahavira spent 14 years of his life at a single place during four monsoon months. Home to rock-cut caves, forts, Buddhist ruins, shell inscriptions, Hindu and Jain temples, and Muslim tombs, it speaks the language of the soul of Bihar.
Further along in the Nalanda district, is one of the greatest centres of learning in ancient times. This small village in the Buddhist circuit is as serene as ancient times. The ruins of Nalanda University, constructed in the Kushana style of architecture, can also be found here.
It is in Nalanda that the pristine, marbled Vishwa Shanti Stupa, or the World Peace Pagoda, atop the Ratnagiri Hill resides. Although the climb uphill may seem daunting, the views continue to amaze travellers from all walks of life. The four golden Buddha statues—depicting his birth, enlightenment, preaching and death—are flocked by the followers of Buddhism and Jainism alike. Additionally, there is also a ropeway that can take travellers uphill. This pilgrimage trail also leads one to Bodh Gaya. Dotted with temples and monasteries, this 2,500-year- old birthplace of Buddhism lets you retrace the footsteps of Lord Buddha and his path to nirvana. Soaked in saffron and maroon robes, the chants and prayers of the monks here build a cocoon of peace.
The Heritage Arch
Toss the two-headed coin and heritage is bound to follow history. Bihar is believed to be the only state with a history of over 3,000 years and rightly so. The presence of numerous ancient architectural relics represents the rich heritage of the state. Forts, caves, and tombs are regular topographical features here with occasional heaps of forgotten ruins. History rings loud in each sight in Bihar and travellers must follow its sound.
Bihar’s delightful and longstanding relationship with history and heritage can be found at Kumhrar, where the remains of the ancient Patliputra were excavated. Ancient ruins here, along with relics also include an 80-pillared assembly hall. The site is a testimony to the state’s cultural abundance. Patliputra boasts of a glorious path and the ruins at Kumhrar today bear testimony to the fact. Excavations over the years have been a delight for the lovers of archaeology.
Further in Sasaram is an awe-worthy example of Indo-Islamic architecture at the tomb of Sher Shah Suri. The exquisite tomb is regarded as one of the noblest specimens of Afghan architecture in the country. The octagonal tomb, topped by a dome standing at the centre of a lake on a square stone plinth with domed kiosks, chhatris at each of its corners,withfurther stone banks, connected to the mainland through a wide stone bridge, is truly a work of wonder. The tomb of Hassan Shah and his son Salim Shah are some other architectural monuments of interest here.
As serenely surprising as Bihar is, the oldest surviving rock-cut caves in the country, located in the twin hills of Barabar and Nagarjuni hills, are an overwhelming sight. Created during the Maurya reign, they were dedicated to the Ajivaka Cult, later extensively used by monks belonging to this sect. Much like the state’s various trails, the caves tell the history of their time along with the multiple cults and clans involved in their centuries of existence.
Situated in the town of Rajnagar near Madhubani, is the Navlakha Palace. Built in the 17th century AD by Maharaja Rameshwar Singh of Darbhangha, the palace neighbours the Kamala River that hosts a marble temple of goddess Kali. Another temple of goddess Durga forms an integral part of the palace and is still operational.
Moving on to Nalanda, the Jal Mandir—meaning water temple—also known as Apapuri, in Pawapuri—meaning a town without sins—makes a highly revered feature. The temple, dedicated to Lord Mahavira—the 24th Thirthankara (religious preacher of Jainism)—is nothing short of astonishing. It boasts of marvellous architecture and the integration of the various cultures of the state. Move on to the religious town of Buxar, also known as Vishwamitra Nagari, along the banks of river Ganga. The most noteworthy sight is clearly the high standing Buxar Fort, one of the ancient testaments erected by King Rudra Deo in 1054 AD.
The Wild Side
Bihar’s fertile fields and green forests on the banks of the river Ganga host some of the wildest beasts in their habitats. In the Terai region of the Shivalik Hills, spread over an area of 880 sq km, the Valmiki Tiger Reserve is home to tigers, leopards, flying foxes, flying squirrels, wild cats, langurs, sloth bears, antelopes, different species of birds and a variety of reptiles and butterflies. Travellers can indulge in safaris at the Valmiki Tiger Reserve at Rampur, or go trekking and birdwatching, or even pull off a full-moon visit, which is quite the experience.
On the other side, lies the Pant Wildlife Sanctuary, also known as the Rajgir Wildlife Sanctuary, in Nalanda. With various illustrations and auspicious existence of hammocks from the Buddha and Jain era, this sanctuary is spread across 36 sq km and has some history in itself. Enriched with dense tropical forestry on the hills, the sanctuary hosts the likes of wild boars, nilgais, langurs, and pythons alongside species of large mammals, birds and reptiles, many of which are endangered.
For those looking to escape the city, Ghora Katora, a lush, nature-bound water reservoir near Rajgir is a serene escape. Situated amid mountains, it is frequented by the young and old alike. It is believed that the horses of the kings of Rajgir used to drink water here. What also makes this escape unique is the fact that fuelled vehicles are not allowed here, engulfing visitors with an air of tranquility.
Birds have a different habitat altogether in the state at the Kanwar Lake Bird Sanctuary. One of the greenest parts in the region, it was established in 1987 to ensure the preservation of migratory birds. The Kanwar Lake is known to be the largest freshwater oxbow lake in Asia. It is home to settler bird varieties as well as migratory ones. Keep an eye on the ground here to find musk deer, leopards and black bears living in complete harmony.
Art and Culture
Bihar is as rich in culture, as it is in history and spirituality. Present in the region is the history of music including classical Hindustani and folk, along with dance forms such as Kathak and Khajri. Culture in Bihar is a celebration of a history dating back to the Vedic times. Delving into the world of art are Madhubani paintings, the most precious gift presented by the Mithila culture to the world. The Mithila culture of the Maithili speakers gives the true essence of cultural richness. Noted to wear a 'paag' as a symbol of honour and respect and a significant part of the culture, these people love their art.
With initial references in the Hindu epic of Ramayana, the cultural significance of Madhubani paintings is beyond doubt one of the most pristine ones in the country. The paintings illustrated the thoughts, hopes, and dreams of the women who later began making them. Traditionally made on the base of plastered mud walls, they were later replaced by handmade paper, cloth, and canvas. Often characterised by complex geometrical patterns, these paintings are exemplary sights of Bihar’s cultural history that one must explore.
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