Indian States: Bihar

by Vinay Lal, copyright 2001 and 2006

(This is a slightly altered version of the original, which was published in the World Book Encyclopedia in 2001.  The article is intended for use mainly by students in junior and senior high school.)


At a Glance...




Indus, Ganga and others




Madhya Pradesh

Uttar Pradesh


Bihar is one of India's poorest states and the most densely populated. In ancient times, it was the seat of great empires, and in the twentieth century its people played a major role in the movement for independence from British rule.  Most of its people derive their livelihood from agriculture, though elsewhere in India the agricultural sector’s contribution towards employment and revenues alike continus to diminish rapidly.

People and government

People. Bihar has one of the largest populations of all the Indian states. Nearly half of the population is below the poverty line.  Only a little over a quarter of the population are able to read and write.  Bihar also has one of the highest infant mortality rates in India.  In towns, taking data from the year 2000, 60 out of every 1,000 children die before reaching the age of one year.  The rate is nearly twice as high in rural areas.

Hindi is the main language. It is spoken by more than 90 per cent of the people. Bhojpuri, Magahi, Maithili, and Urdu are also spoken on the plains.  Bihar also has a small tribal population.  Nearly 85 per cent of the people are Hindus, and Muslims are the next largest group with around 14 per cent of the population.

Government. In 2000, Bihar had 40 elected members in the Lok Sabha (lower house) and 16 nominated representatives in the Rajya Sabha (upper house) of the Indian national parliament. Bihar has a legislative assembly with 299 members. It also has a Legislative Council with 96 members. The state is divided into 21 administrative districts.


Agriculture and fishing. Bihar is predominantly an agricultural state. Bihar's agriculture reflects its location between the wet east and the drier west of the Indian plains. Rice is the major crop everywhere and is grown as the main wet-season crop. Barley, maize, pulses (the seeds of various pod vegetables, such as beans, chickpeas, and pigeon peas), and wheat are also important. The main cash crops are chillis, jute, oil seeds, potatoes, sugar cane, and tobacco. Jute is grown in the far east of the state, where conditions are not very favourable, and the quality of the crop is poor.

Many farmers grow fruit and vegetables. Mangoes are a particular speciality.  The forest cover is very scarce, except for small pockets in Champaran and Bhagalpur-Monghyr.  However, Bihar is India's biggest producer of freshwater fish. More than half of the catch is sold in Calcutta, and it is unlikely that most people in Bihar can afford the price of fish.

Manufacturing.  The industrial belt in Bihar was in the Chota Nagpur region, which now comprises the state of Jharkhand.  Bihar has few large power plants and manufacturing is not well developed.  There are several craft industries. Madhubani painting is done by women from the Mithila region (to the northeast of Patna) and has now become famous around the world.  Traditional vegetable dyes are obtained from leaves, mixed with goat's milk. The "paint" is then used on handmade paper. Women from the same district also weave a special grass, called sikki. They make brightly coloured boxes and baskets. Bihar is also known for its wooden toys, metal figures, and leather goods.

Transportation and communication. Bihar has over 14,000 kilometres of surfaced roads. The Grand Trunk Road crosses it from east to west linking Calcutta and Delhi. Until the 1980's, the difficulty of crossing the Ganges at Patna limited travel to and from north Bihar. A new bridge, the longest river bridge in the world, has now opened up road traffic on the main road routes to the border with Nepal.

The railway network is reasonably well developed, but the larger cities, such as Patna, Gaya, and Bhagalpur are much better served than the smaller towns.  Patna has the main airport in the state, and there are flights to Calcutta, Delhi, Jamshedpur, and Ranchi.

Almost the entire state is within reach of the radio, and some 80 per cent people can receive television.  Cable television has become popular in the larger cities and towns.   The penetration of internet into the countryside is still very maginal.  National newspapers are available in all the major centres and some publish a Patna edition. Regional Hindi newspapers are published in Patna as well.  But the newspaper circulation of some 5 newspapers for each 1,000 people is among the lowest in India.


Location and description. Bihar is a landlocked state.  It shares an international border to the north with Nepal. To the east is West Bengal and to the south, Jharkhand. Bihar has a short border with Madhya Pradesh to the southwest, and its western border is with Uttar Pradesh.

From the Siwalik foothills of the Himalaya, the boundary stretches 600 kilometres south to the forested borders of the Chota Nagpur Plateau, while its maximum east-to-west width is about 480 kilometres.

Land features. The Ganges River runs from west to east through the heart of the plains which comprise the state's central region. The plains are almost flat and lie about 75 metres above sea level.

Rivers. By the time the Ganga [Ganges] reaches Bihar from the northwest, it is one of the world's major rivers. During the monsoon season, it receives heavy rains and water released by melting snow from the Himalaya (see Monsoon). At Patna, in central Bihar, the Ganges may be over 15 kilometres wide during July and August.

The Ganges is joined by its northern tributaries from the Nepal Himalaya, such as the Ghaghara, Gandak, and Kosi. The Son River joins the Ganges from the southwest. To the north of the Ganges are old river beds, which fill up with water to form chains of lakes during the monsoon. These lakes are a vital source of fish.

Torrential rain in the Himalayan foothills leads to major floods in some of the rivers, such as the Kosi. Because of the flatness of the Ganges Valley, such flooding is disastrous.  The Kosi has shifted course frequently and, over a period of 130 years, has moved more than 110 kilometres westward. It also deposits vast quantities of alluvium (deposits of sand and coarse silt), which destroy previously fertile land.

The state authorities built a major protective embankment in 1960 to limit the flooding and westward movement of the Kosi, protecting 265,000 hectares of agricultural land.  Attempts to control the Kosi by building dams are still under consideration. However, the project is hard to bring into effect because of the very large amounts of silt. Other problems are that the Himalayan foothills are an earthquake zone and that the dams would have to be built outside India, in Nepal.

To the south of the Ganges is another stretch of alluvium. It is much shallower than that to the north of the river and about 150 kilometres wide. When the Ganges is in full flow, this southern alluvial strip is subject to severe floods between July and October.

The plains of the Ganges are widely cultivated. As a result, little natural vegetation remains. Along the foothills of the Himalaya, sal forest was once widespread but is now much less extensive. Grasses and bamboo are common in the marshy areas. Forest clearance has taken place rapidly in Bihar.

Animals. As forests were cleared, the habitats of wildlife were destroyed. There is a miniscule number of elephants, leopards, and some smaller mammals found in the wild.

Climate. The average minimum temperature on the plains is 11 °C, rising to 27 °C from June to August. Average maximum temperatures range from 24 °C in January to 40 °C in May.  In recent years, perhaps on account of global warming, the summers have been longer and hotter.  Temperatures then fall slightly after the start of the rainy season.

Most of Bihar receives more than 1,100 millimetres of rain a year. The east receives more than the west. About 95 per cent of the rain falls between June and September. Only 8 millimetres falls in November and December, and a further 15 millimetres in March and April.


Archaeologists have found agricultural settlements in Bihar from before 2000 B.C. Cities emerged in the area around the 500's B.C. The ancient Indian state of Magadha dominated the region during this period. It became the centre of a succession of powerful kingdoms. Some of the kings were outstanding administrators. Bimbisara (reigned 544-493 B.C.) unified and strengthened his kingdom and maintained good relations with neighbouring states and contacts as far afield as Taxila in the northwest. His successor Ajatasatru (reigned 493-462 B.C.) was another successful ruler. These and other Magadha kings expanded the territories they ruled to form a major Indian empire.

During the period of Magadha rule, the region of Bihar experienced changes in social and economic life. As towns grew in number and size, trade and commerce developed. There were also changes in religion. The Magadha rulers supported the emerging religions of Buddhism and Jainism. There are many places in Bihar that are associated with Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and Vardamana Mahavira, the founder of the Jain faith.

Toward the end of the 300's B.C., a new empire emerged in the Bihar region, as Chandragupta Maurya overthrew the last of the Magadha rulers. Chandragupta Maurya reigned from about 321 B.C. to about 298 B.C. and laid the foundations of the Maurya Empire. This was the first empire to unite most of India under one ruler.

The early Magadha kings had their capital at Rajagriha, 100 kilometres west of the modern city of Patna. Stone walls with a perimeter of about 40 kilometres surrounded Rajagriha. When Chandragupta Maurya came to power, he moved the capital to Pataliputra, the site where Patna now stands. Pataliputra had the shape that Patna has today — a long, narrow city stretching along the bank of the Ganges River.

Chandragupta's grandson was the great emperor Asoka, who became ruler of all India except the south. A pillar bearing one of Asoka's edicts (messages to his people) has a capital with lions facing the four directions of the compass (see Ashoka).

For 600 years after the death of Asoka in 232 B.C., the Bihar region was ruled by fairly insignificant clans (families). Then the Guptas came to power. These kings encouraged a flowering of Hindu culture, known as the classical period, in the A.D. 300's and 400's. The poet and dramatist Kalidasa and the astronomer Aryabhata were great intellectuals of this period. The Guptas expanded their territory despite defeat by the Huns.

Turks and Afghans arrived and defeated the Hindu rulers in 1197. From that time the influence of Muslim political power in Bihar was very strong. The Delhi sultans and a succession of local Muslim rulers, independent of Delhi, controlled the region until the 1500's. Sher Shah Suri, Bihar's ruler, won fame for his defeat of the Mughal emperor Humayun in 1539. Sher Shah became emperor of northern India. Bihar became Mughal territory during the reign of Akbar (1556-1605). Muslim place names, such as Aliganj and Hajipur, are evidence of 500 years of Muslim political dominance.

The Mughals retained Bihar until the British won the Battle of Buxar in 1764.  At that time, Bihar was still part of Bengal, but later the two regions were separated. Bihar became a province under British rule and declined into poverty. The British (United Kingdom) government's policy of granting land ownership to local zamindars (tax collectors) meant hardship for Bihar's peasants. The region became a breeding ground for resistance to the British and for nationalist movements and rebellions.  It is from the Champaran district of Bihar that Mohandas Gandhi commenced his political activities that would soon catapult him to the leadership of the nationalist struggle against British rule, and though Bihar remains much maligned among the Indian middle classes, it played an extraordinary role in the achievement of Indian independence. 

In 1936, Orissa and Bihar were separated.  Bihar took its final and present form at India's independence in 1947. It lost two districts, Purnea and Manbhum, to West Bengal during the 1956 reorganization of India's states.

During the 1900's, Bihar continued to be one of India's poorest and most badly administered states.  Throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century, there were outbreaks of violence between castes in the countryside..  There continue to be frequent feuds over land ownership, and between landlords and their tenants.  The state has become notorious for private armies, bureaucratic apathy, and corruption.  One may gauge the reputation of Bihar from the jokes that circulate about it among India’s middle classes for whom Bihar has been something of an embarassment, and is now decidedly a state that the elites wish they could entirely disown.  In one joke, at a meeting between the Indian Prime Minister and Pakistan’s President, General Musharraf, the Indian Prime Minister agrees to hand over the highly contested territory of Kashmir to Pakistan, so long as Pakistan also agrees to take custody of Bihar.

For well over 100 years, emigration from the state has exceeded immigration.   In the middle part of the nineteenth century, there was considerable migration from the Bhopuri-speaking belt to Mauritius, Trinidad, Guyana and Surinam -- and later to Fiji, among other places.  In the period after Indian independence, the poor have moved to cities such as Calcutta and Bombay or to work on tea plantations. Hundreds of thousands of Biharis travel to regions such as Punjab and Haryana to work during harvests.  The tribal people who were alarmed at the rapid depletion of forests and the threat to their traditional way of life successfully agitated for autonomy.  The new state of Jharkhand, carved out of the southern portion of Bihar, came into existence in November 2000.

The Congress Party of India dominated the political life of Bihar after independence for well over four decades.  Opposition parties have been more successful in recent years. Communists and socialists had considerable influence in Bihar's political affairs at one time.  A coalition of lower-caste Hindus and Muslims was successful in keeping the Congress out of power.  The Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gained strength in Bihar in the mid-1990's, and in the general election of 1999 the National Democratic Alliance, a coalition in which the BJP is the main party, came to power.

A radical group known as the Indian People's Front, which advocates sweeping land reforms and other social changes, also gained considerable political influence in Bihar in the 1990’s.   However, for the last fifteen years, Bihar’s politics has been dominated by Laloo Prasad Yadav, a student leader during the period of the Emergency (1975-77) who rose to become the Chief Minister of Bihar in March 1990.   In July 1997, during his second five-year term in office, Laloo was removed from office upon conviction in the so-called “Fodder Scam”, but he managed to get his wife, Rabri Devi, installed as the Chief Minister.  Laloo suffered an unexpected and crushing defeat in the eletions of November 2005, but he retains his importance in Indian politics, not least as Railways Minister in the cabinet of Manmohan Singh.  The Chief Minister of Bihar at present is Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United).

Facts in brief about Bihar

Population:1991 census —64,530,554.
Area: 102,870.6 sq. km.
State capital: Patna
Largest cities: Patna, Bhagalpur, Gaya, Munger.
Origin of name: from vihara ("monastery").