The State of 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 during the early monsoons when we visited—is among the loveliest in India. 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 under a soaring sky, blue in the sun or darkening with the promise of rain.
This land also claims an illustrious history as the onetime center of the subcontinent's culture and politics. Its name, Bihar, is derived from the Sanskrit vihara (Buddhist monastery), and it was here, 2,500 years ago, that the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment sitting under the Bodhi tree. His Jain contemporary, Mahavira, the quintessential master of non-violence whose teachings reach into modern times in the form of ahinsa (ahimsa) and Gandhi's ideals, also originated from this region.
By 300 BCE, the Mauryan Empire had arisen in Bihar, stretching from modern day Afghanistan southward into the Deccan, and from modern Pakistan to the east coast of India. A few hundred years later came the illustrious Guptas, who founded a Buddhist university here at Nalanda, considered one of the most prestigious centers of learning in the world of the 1st millennium. Both the Mauryas and Guptas are associated with "Golden Ages" in India and for many centuries Bihar was the source of India's highest cultural refinements in art, music, math, science, and philosophy. 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 sharp contrast to its condition today. While much of India is seeing a huge economic boom, Bihar is still mired in abject poverty and political corruption. About 83 million people live in Bihar, a state close to 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 the villages we passed, but other basic infrastructure is clearly lacking. Most villagers live in houses made of stacked bricks mortared only with mud, the kinds of structures that kill and maim thousands whenever earthquakes or floods strike. 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. Travelers are advised to get off the highway before dark.
It's 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. It's difficult to visit Bihar without shaking one's head and wagging a finger, without moralizing about this story that reads like an object lesson in history: greatness and power, achievement and renown—no matter how glorious and great—always prove fickle and transient.
Today there are plans to give a second birth to Nalanda, honoring its former glory by building a new international university on the same spot. Also, a new Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) is to be built near the capital, Patna. Still I wonder, how will they attract and retain quality instructors in this forsaken spot? How will they make these universities thrive? And again, maybe this is really what is needed to begin a change: that someone should take a chance and do something big, that someone might have a little hope.
(More photos of Bihar can be found here.)