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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Area: 102,870.6 sq.
State capital: Patna
Largest cities: Patna, Bhagalpur, Gaya, Munger.
Origin of name: from