Have always been curious about Bihar. Think about all those history lessons one learnt by rote. All those confusing dates that refused to register and the names of various kings in the long lineage of dynasties. But even amongst all those pages of wars and exploits and secessions , the annals of King Ashoka who gave up fighting and spent the rest of his days working for the welfare of his subjects, never failed to intrigue. He is still so much a part of every Indian’s everyday life , isn’t he, our currency and the national flag and the National emblem all bearing symbols of what he had left behind.
After the Kalinga war and King Ashoka’s adoption of Buddhism, his kingdom is said to have had fifty years of prosperity and peace . The soil of Magadh is where Mahavir and Buddha walked , where dharma was supposed to have flourished , where Nalanda, one of the world’s oldest universities, attracted those bitten by the bug of learning from all over the world, including Huein Tsang.
And then we have the Bihar of the present times. How could a region turn so topsy turvy? What had happened in between ?
My recent trip to Bihar was courtesy some close friends , whose young nephew Anuj, was to be married. I knew the boy too and it didn’t take long for them to persuade me to attend the wedding in Gaya. Theirs is a large joint family and it was quite a fascinating experience in itself to be going up and down the stairs of their residence , from one floor to another , from one suite of rooms to another where each separate branch of the huge family tree spread out. The inhabitants there were from different generations and it was confusing when somebody called another quite obviously only old enough to be of his father’s generation “Dadaji” (grandfather) . Joint families of course can have a lot of undercurrents going on , but it is a wondrous thing that they still exist even rarely in these quite individualistic times. I feel the advantages would more evidently present themselves if only the older generation were a little more accepting of the changing mores .
The building was one of the many rows of houses , standing shoulder to shoulder on one side of the street. Gaya is not one of the cleanest towns by any standards , but it was quite alive. People and rikshaws and cars jostled each other on the roads , unnervingly sometimes. There was hustle and bustle from dawn till dusk , in the neighbourhood.
I didn’t see too many buses on the roads though. For the wedding , we travelled from Gaya to a place called Giridih, which is situated in Jharkhand just across the Southern border of Bihar , in the direction of and close to Shikharji, which is an important place of piligrimage for the Jains . The marriage was to take place in a community complex there, as it was convenient, logistics-wise for both the families of the bride and the groom.
On the way, all one saw were stretches and stretches of barren land on both sides for most of the distance of about 175 kms. It was punctuated by small clusters of houses and shops here and there and a few townships. The exciting bit of the journey for me was to pass by Jumrathalaiya, in Koderma district. I was immediately transported to those days when Vividh Bharati was our prime source of entertainment . Jumrathalaiya is a word akin to Timbuctoo. It gives you the feeling that they didn’t actually exist . But all those song requests that used to flood the Vividh Bharati programmes of hindi film songs was a sure sign that it did. Mr. Jain , my host told me that the place around that area used to be rich in mining activities and it had been a flourishing town till perhaps the 1990s and the place had a considerable num,ber of phone connections , even in those times.
The marriage of course was a vibrant , heady mix . Colourful sarees and jewelry, music and dance , tasty food . It was fun but exhausting as well , true to form of any Indian wedding , I guess.
Our visit to Nalanda, the next day was a solemn affair in contrast. The remains of the monasteries, with its small cells , where the students of those times must have laboured over their texts , the small beds built of mud and stone, the sloping section in the walls of some of the rooms which let in the light , the platforms where discourses may have been delivered , the remains of temples, all gave an eerie feeling .
The Nalanda University is supposed to be the oldest residential university in recorded history, that housed thousands of precious books, all of which is said to have been burnt , some say by Allaudin Khilji , a Turkish invader , while others hold that the fire was the result of confrontation between the brahmanical order and the Buddhists. Xuan Xang(when we learnt about him in our history texts, he was Huein Tsang) had travelled across mountains and deserts to reach Nalanda , where he had stayed and studied for many years. There is a new monastery that has come up recently near Nalanda, which has been built in tribute to the great scholar, which is a must visit if one is travelling to this region.
And then of course , the visit to Bodh Gaya. Funny isn’t it that as Indians , all of us take so much pride and talk incessantly about “our culture and heritage” and yet apparently it was a British archeologist who unearthed the remains of both Nalanda as well as the Bodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya.
There was a huge crowd that evening at Bodh Gaya, as is the case everyday. Lots of Buddhist monks, lots of tourists from Srilanka and lots of local people as well. The place was buzzing with activity of both the worldy type which involved buying and selling as well the religious type of meditating and chanting . It was quite touching to see a large group of Buddhist monks praying for the earthquake victims of Japan , near the Bodhi tree. I’ve posted some more of the pictures on my Facebook profile . Take a look.
What was really nice about the whole trip was the optimism that was clearly evident everywhere . From Moti, the driver to those doing business in the Jain household where I was staying, and others one met elsewhere , all waxed eloquent about “hamara Nitishji”. He really seemed to be making a difference. He has sent a strong message, it seems across all the Government departments that the systems must be functioning and functioning well. People are feeling more secure . More investments are flowing in and property prices are going up. The newspapers apparently carry details of which doctors are on duty in the Government hospitals, lots of labourers who had left the state in search of employment elsewhere have returned , there are more children in the schools and more teachers to teach them. The roads are being improved , there is more of police patrolling and so on. One really wishes that other Chief Ministers would learn a lesson or two from Nitishji.
The travel bug had invaded my blood a long time ago and I am glad that now I can succumb whenever its attack gives me the itch to pack my bags and board a train or bus. I personally feel it’s the best way to expand one’s minds and hearts. Besides, it makes coming back to one’s own personal space and the warm circle of dear ones and friends all the more appealing after staying away for a while. My advice folks, put on your travelling boots once in a while. It is really worth it.