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Population: 86 million
Languages: Hindi
Capitol: Patna

A great irony about Bihar is that this state has some of the most holy pilgrimage centres for Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Sufi faiths yet is one of India's poorest, most lawless and most corrupt states.

Bodhgaya is where the Buddha attained enlightenment and is, internationally, the most important Buddhist pilgrimage place. It is here that the direct descendent of the bodhi (peepal) tree under which Buddha sat, grows and is revered. (A sapling of the actual tree was taken to Sri Lanka by the daughter of the Mauryan emperor and Buddhist convert Ashoka. The current tree is from a sapling from that tree which was in turn brought back to Bodhgaya and planted.) Nalanda, near Patna, is the site of an ancient Buddhist university, established by the Guptas in the 5th century AD. A description from the 7th century reports 10,000 monks and students living and studying there, including many from other countries. Attacked and burned by Afghani Muslims in the 12th century, it is now an extensive ruin. At Rajgir, near Nalanda, the first Buddhist council was held after the Buddha attained enlightenment. At the time capitol of the area, Rajgir was the Buddha's home for twelve years. At Vaishali, near Patna, it is said that Buddha preached his last sermon before he died. It is believed that a silver urn in a stupa in this city contains his ashes.

It is also at Vaishali, in 599 BC, that Mahavira, one of the Jain tirthankars, is said to have been born, making this a place of pilgrimage for the followers of that faith. In Parasnath, in south Bihar, is India's main Jain pilgrimage centre, where twenty four shrines are dedicated to the twenty four tirthankars. Pawapuri is another Jain holy place, where Mahavira is said to have attained enlightenment, died and been cremated.

Gaya is an important pilgrimage place for Hindus, second only to Varanasi. Here Hindu pilgrims come, traditionally a year after the death of their relative, to perform rituals and make offerings for the release of their ancestor from bondage to the earth.

Patna, the capitol, is a pleasant city of less than a million people. Here, in 1660, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru, was born, and the Har Mandir Sahib in Patna is one of the four great Sikh shrines.

Near Patna, at Muner, is the mausoleum of the Sufi saint Yahia Muneri which every year around February draws pilgrims for its three day festival in the saint's honour.

In the south are Bihar's industrial cities, Ranchi and Jamshedpur. This southern area, called the Chotanagpur Plateau, is at the northern edge of the Deccan. While the rest of the state is low-lying, this area rises to 1000 feet in elevation and much of it is covered in dense forest and is quite scenic. The tribal groups that live in this forested plateau region constitute the bulk of it population, and a subsection of them has engaged, so far without the desired result, in a violent struggle for tribal autonomy.

West of Ranchi a 1000 square kilometre forested area has been set aside as the Palamau (Betla) National Park, whose already scarce tiger population has been further depleted by severe drought in the last years.

In the 6th century BC the Magadhas ruled in the area. Their leader, King Bimbisara, was converted to Buddhism by the Buddha himself. The Magadhas were defeated in 321 BC by Chandra Gupta Maurya, the first Mauryan emperor. Based in Pataliputra, as Patna was then called, this great ruler expanded the Mauryan empire as far as the Indus River. His grandson was Ashoka, a brilliant leader and another famous convert to Buddhism, who expanded the empire even further. Having embraced Buddhism under a succession of rulers, the assumption of control by the Gupta dynasty in the 4th century marked the return of Hinduism to the area.

Towards the end of the 1100s the Muslim Sultanate gained control of the region. By the end of the 15th century the Moghuls ruled all of North India including what is now Bihar. They in turn succumbed eventually to the British, until, at Independence, Bihar took its present form.

Since Independence Bihar has stubbornly resisted attempts at modernization or even simple good governance. Over time the political system has become riddled with corruption with caste-based politicians holding sway and thumbing their noses at any attempts to reign them in. Infrastructure in the state has decayed from decades of neglect and the business class in the urban centres has gradually been moving out, increasing the economic hardships in the state.

In the countryside feudal forces reign, with the landed classes (in reality mostly desperately poor farmers) trying to keep the landless peasants (equally poor and desperate) "in their place". Massacres and mayhem are frequently the order of the day, with brutal attacks by landowner armies like the Ranbir Sena and retaliatory attacks by Marxist revolutionary groups like the People's War Group " (PWG) who side with " the landless peasants.

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