Guest post by KAVERI GILL
Bihar Tourism’s Neglected Treasures
A recent work trip took me to the north-east of Bihar, the poorest region of a state with ‘critical’ poverty incidence by any measure. For instance, within the state, on NSS 2004-05 data, West Champaran is the worst-performing district on headcount ratios (76.9) in rural India (Chaudhuri and Gupta, Economic and Political Weekly, 2009). Such destitution was on ample evidence amongst the segregated group of mahadalit and minority women members of a self-help group we spoke to, in a tola with no electricity and only candles to dispel an eerie fog settled over the village at dusk. Of 13 of them, 11 had repeat experience (up to three times per woman) of losing a child in the last trimester of pregnancy, just after giving birth or of a child under 5 years of age. It was from Champaran that Gandhi first led landless labour and tenants or ryots, in his first satyagraha against the British, protesting the coerced cultivation of the cash crop, indigo. Almost a century later, not much has changed in tangible terms for the population of this part of the democratic Republic of India.
“The historical figure that we call the Buddha is said to have prophesied that Bihar would give rise to a great civilisation, but would also be threatened by ‘feud, fire and flood’. And so it has proved. This is a region that takes its name from the Sanskrit word vihara, meaning ‘monastic centre’; for centuries it was a land of monastries, a beacon of piety, learning and culture. Many of these religious complexes lie unlocated to this day, insignificant bumps in the landscape that after centuries of quarrying have been further pared down by the ploughshares of generations of ryots.” (Allen, The Buddha and the Sahibs, 2002, p.9). Driving back to Patna, a colleague mentioned an Archaeological Survey of India site at Kesariya, and so it was that I saw a partially excavated mound of a height of more than a 100 feet in the early morning mist, reputed to perhaps be the largest stupa in the world. Legend has it that it was here that the Buddha left his begging bowl to grieving disciples, asking them to return to Vaishali as he made his final journey alone to Kushinagar.
As I circumambulated what is a representation of the Buddha’s mind, silently, alongside intrepid others drawn by its obscured honeycombed brick grandeur, stumbling upon some people discretely relieving themselves in the embankment of the overgrown grassy knoll, I was saddened by the sheer disregard for a site that any discerning country would excavate and restore to its fullest glory. For the Buddha is a towering figure of history and a revolutionary thinker far ahead of his times, whose appeal lies beyond the religious. The purely philosophical content of his teachings, for instance on dependent origination, has resonance with cutting edge quantum physics theories (Ricard and Xuan Thuan, The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet, 2004). The socially equalising framework he espoused was one that Ambedkar ultimately chose over Marxist thought. Of the 17 master scholars of the Nalanda tradition, many – including Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, Shantideva, as well as Shantarakshita, Kamalashila and Jowo Atisha – embody true cosmopolitanism in travel and outlook at a time when journeys were fraught with danger, and parochialism the norm. The monastery flourished for many centuries, its demise preceding the setting up of renowned western seats of learning of a certain vintage, such as the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Visiting the spectacular Nalanda ruins today, one doesn’t need to be a subaltern to appreciate this ancient, yet arrestingly modern, and unique heritage that is ours.
But perhaps that is the sad shackled mind-set of ‘modern’ India, for what else would explain the neglect of monuments that would draw tourists of multiple hues, bringing in much needed jobs and boosting the economy of deprived areas that are poverty traps? “Thanks to the efforts of men like Jones, Buchanan, Prinsep, Cunningham and Marshall, as well as of those who have followed them, the great Buddhist monuments of Ajanta, Sanchi, and Sarnath are now visited and admired by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year” (Allen 2002, p.292). Go to Gridhakuta or Vulture’s Peak in Rajgir, Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath and Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, as I have in the past year, and the international nature of Buddha’s appeal in contemporary times becomes evident, for one will see droves of laypeople, Theravadin and Mahayanist monks and nuns, not just from the subcontinent but from Burma, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, Taiwan, Laos and increasingly, China and the West.
Prime Minister Modi articulates a desire for closer foreign policy ties with East and South East Asia. His government has promised a hundred new “smart cities”, as well as fast job creation, especially for the youth. At the state level, tourism to Bihar’s developed Buddhist sites account for a vast injection into its income, as well as provide the reason for direct flight connectivity to Bangkok, of poor districts like Gaya. Thinking of low-hanging fruit in terms of soft diplomacy and local economies alone, a suggestion to both governments is to identify partially excavated Buddhist origin sites, such as Kesariya’s neglected stupa; restored sites that could do with improvement, to avoid travesties such as Nalanda Monastery’s original narrow red bricks being replaced by modern day ones; as well as remote sites, such as Vikramshila University in Bhagalpur. Given their global importance, as well as the urgency and scale of work that the Archaeological Survey of India alone cannot manage, they should consider agreements with private Trusts, following the exemplar model of the Aga Khan Foundation’s restoration work on Humayun’s Tomb (Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Initiative), whose integrity to the original and jardin de Mughal attract thousands each year. Perhaps a benevolent benefactor will even build the necessary metalled highways to Bihar’s poorer outposts.
Let’s do this, for the heritage of Gandhi and Ambedkar, if not the Buddha. Let’s do this, while we wait, as we have this past century, for other channels to uplift the forgotten poor of Champaran and similar places. Let’s do this, while we wait for Godot and the present day Nalanda University to actually become worthy of its namesake. Most of all, let’s do this to prove that the postcolonial mind-set and state is not the worst of the Empire and the subjugated native combined, rather, that we have graduated into the truly self-confident and modern identity befitting a secular, syncretic and international Republic of the 21st century.
[Kaveri Gill works and lives in New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.]