Bihar is an Indian state located in the north-east of the country. It borders Nepal as well as the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. Bihar is the second most populous state of India, with a 2001 census giving the figure of 82,878,796 inhabitants. According to most Indians, it is also the most backwards, corrupt, and crime-ridden state of the country.

Half the population lives below the poverty line, and the majority is illiterate - 70% of Bihari women cannot read or write. Caste identity is still strong, and results in frequent clashes between different groups, usually with landowners (zamindar) on one side and landless labourers on the other. Roads are in spectacularly bad condition, and even trains, dependable throughout India, are marred by long delays and railway bandits.

Official sites tend to downplay Bihar's present plight and instead promote its glorious history. Divided down the middle by the holy river Ganga, the state is an important place to nearly all of India's religions. Princess Sita of the Hindu epic Ramayana hailed from Bihar, as did Valmiki, the poet who wrote down the epic. Lord Mahavira, who founded Jainism, and Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikhs' last guru, were both born and died here. It is also the place where the Buddha reached Enlighenment, and Bihar's name is derived from vihara, a term which describes the Buddhist monasteries that uesd to litter the country.

Emperor Ashoka, who spread Buddhism in India, started out here. So did the modern country's first president, Dr Rajendra Prasad. However, the most famous Bihari today is Laloo Prasad Yadav, a populist politician known for his colourful statements and massive corruption.

Bihar lies on the Gangetic plain, a highly fertile area which can support its crores of people. It is India's largest producer of fruits and the second largest when it comes to vegetables. The soil also yield large mineral resources, making Bihar the single most important source for coal, iron ore and bauxite in India. How, then, can it be so hopeless?

Climate is one explanation. Every season of the year has its problems. Winter is very cold by Indian standards, while summer is hot and dry. The monsoon can be either too small or too great, leading to either drought or flooding. Frequently, the state experiences both at the same time, with some districts being dry and others getting much more water than they can swallow. If Bihar had had a more energetic government, it could have been equipped with dams and canals to control the rain and the floods. However, the usual people in power are mainly energetic when it comes to filling their own pockets.

Misrule is the main reason for Bihar's decline. Most of its greatness happened before the 10th centry AD. First a centre of the Mauryan empire, then of the Guptas, the country came to have less and less importance as various outsiders invaded it. From 1765 it was ruled by the British from Bengal, and received little attention. Although separated from the Bengal Presidency in 1911, then from Orissa in 1936 and Jharkhand in 2000, new leaders who genuinely cared for the state never emerged.

Sadly, the place which houses Nalanda, one of the world's first sites of higher learning, now has little education to offer its inhabitants. The lucky few who finish their basic education grow up to find indifferent universities where degrees and exam papers can be bought and sold. The tiny elite which has money continues to amass wealth, the masses remain impoverished. Not surprisingly, Biharis migrate in droves to other parts of India. They comprise 30% of Delhi's slum dwellers.

The main languages of Bihar are Hindi, Maithili, and Bhojpuri. The population is overwhelmingly Hindu, at 82%. 15% is Muslim and only 3% belong to some other religion, according to the 2001 census.

Places to see in Bihar, for the undeterred or ignorant tourist:

Patna - the state capital is an ancient city and also the birth place of Guru Gobind Singh.

Bodh Gaya - see the site where Buddha attained Enlightenment.

Janakpur - King Janak's capital where Sita grew up and married Lord Rama, now naturally filled with temples honouring the divine couple.

Nalanda - the ruins of an ancient university, founded in the 5th century, can be viewed here.

Rajgir - capital of the ancient Magadha dynasty, now a pilgrimage site for Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists alike.

Sasaram - home to the magnificent tomb of Sher Shah, the Afghan who defeated the Mughal emperor Humayun.

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