Did you say “What? You must be joking!!” No, we’re not. We’re as serious as we were when we wrote about Kerala’s backwaters in the ‘70s. Sceptics said, “Have a heart! Kerala is not tourist-friendly”. Then when we wrote about China in 2000, cynics sneered, “Yuk! They’ll slice you up and serve you as chop suey!” We could repeat that about many other destinations for which we stuck out our necks and then were proved right. So now we say, “Take a long hard look at Bihar.” We have, and we’re enchanted.
To start with, it already has a strong image as a pilgrim destination. Buddhists flock to Bodh Gaya, Rajgir and some lesser places. For Sikhs, Takht Sri Patna Sahib is second only to Amritsar’s Golden Temple. Sufis regard Maner Sharif almost as important as Ajmer Sharif. Jains deeply revere Pawapuri where Mahavir was cremated. And for Christians, Patna’s Padri ki Haveli is a church of miracles sanctified by the spiritual presence of the late Bishop Hartman. It is also the place where Nobel Laureate Mother Teresa studied nursing before she started her famed Missionaries of Charity.
Pilgrims, then, are the established base from which other tourism products can be spun off.
Offer add-on excursions into our past, Bihar has a rich treasure trove of history. This is where the great Mauryan capital of Pataliputra once stood. Here, Chanakya created the world’s most hard-headed principles of realpolitik, influencing world affairs even today. In the Scottish battlefield of Culloden, where the Scots lost their last battle for independence, we have seen how the past can be brought alive by a carefully-designed Audio-Visual (AV). Bihar should create a similar AV for this ancient site. But even if the state does not, then a sensitive commentary by a guide can also bring the glories of this great city alive. Another site begging for an AV is Nalanda - the world’s first international multi-disciplinary and residential university.
That, however, is only the start of Bihar’s golden legacy of Indian history. From here marched the great Sher Shah Suri who challenged and defeated a Mughal emperor and laid the foundations of the iconic Grand Trunk Road. His mausoleum in Sasaram is a dream of Indo-Afghan architecture. Flowing into more recent times, the Mahatma started his agitation against British planters here, firing the first peaceful salvo in our Second War of Independence. Out of that ferment emerged such stalwarts as our first President, Dr Rajendra Prasad, the redoubtable Babu Jagjivan Ram, Loknayak Jayaprakash Narain, and many others. We see the potential of organising school-children’s history tours to embed a site-based impression of our national struggle for freedom.
There is also another little-used dimension. During conversations we have had with British tourists, on the Bihar segment of a Ganga cruise run by the Assam Bengal Navigation Company, we have realised that they hunger to revisit the sites of their ancestors’ days of glory. They come armed with books like ‘Kim’, ‘Monsoon Traders’, and the ‘Raj trilogy’. They delight in seeing Agustus Cleveland’s stately mansion, the former home of George Orwell who wrote Animal Farm, the Indigo-packing factory now the Bihar Survey’s printing press, and the enigmatic granary called the Gol Ghar. Spice this with occasional forays into Bihari cuisine and you will offer an unforgettable multi-dimensional experience.
Dovetailing into all tours should be excursions into the village-crafts of Bihar. They should be village-crafts and not handicrafts displayed in showrooms. During our three research visits to Bihar, we have seen village artisans create their evocative Madhubani murals (‘No, we don’t speak Hindi, we speak Mythili, which is identified as a distinct language in the Constitution’). There are even Madhubani saris. In a village of weavers, we met craftsmen who produce fabrics for high-profile designers in Delhi. And we recalled that the elders in our family rejected cheap plastic buttons because shell ones were more elegant. We saw buttons being made out of river shells by busy men and women in a village cluster where equally industrious potters created clay images of Saraswati with a living mosque rising serenely behind. Then there were Muzaffarpur’s Muslim artisans swiftly crafting glittering lac bangles traditionally worn by Hindu brides.
Finally, if you get your schedules right, your tours could also revel in the famous Sonpur Mela, which is reputedly the largest cattle fair in our land. There’s also the Kite Festival on the sandbanks, the diara, of the Ganga across the river from Patna. And do remember the great Bihari festival of Chhath Puja with puja pandals and offerings made by women to the Sun God at dawn while immersed waist-deep in a river or pond.
The most intriguing part of the Bihari experience is that much of this is unknown to the travel trade. The Government of Bihar seems reluctant to spend money on promoting its state’s attractions. But this lacuna has a positive side.
Those who go in there first will be able to harvest the best fruit. Which is why we say, ‘Get in and grab the great, beckoning, opportunity called Bihar’.