The car that I was in ground to a halt at a congested intersection. The traffic was banked up and immovable. A cacophony of horns blared in frustration. Around me, new flyovers, shopping malls, and apartment complexes were being constructed. I could’ve been in a suburb of Mumbai. I wasn’t though. I was in Patna, the capital city of Bihar.
I actually spent 5 days, traveling alone, in Bihar last week. Bihar Tourism had invited me to experience the Sonepur Fair and write about it, as well as to visit Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha became enlightened.
I’d been in two minds about accepting the invitation. I do love an adventure but… it was Bihar. A state with a reputation for poverty and lawlessness, and generally being uncivilised (this message is especially promoted by certain opportunistic political parties).
Yes, I’d heard that Bihar was progressing. But how much? Fortunately, the desire to go there and see for myself won over. It was a fantastic opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I wanted to be able to come back and tell people what Bihar was really like, and hopefully recommend that they visit it.
“So much has changed here in the past three or so years,” the representative who’d collected me from the airport commented. “Look at all the cars now, and no space for them!”. The city was indeed showing signs of prospering.
According to news reports, Bihar is now India’s fastest growing state. What’s more, its turnaround success story has become a case study. The article credits this to the state’s Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, who took office in 2005. It also states that in Patna, apart form the development, the “main difference is the number of people, particularly women, walking around freely after dark”.
So, how was I treated?
I’d dressed as conservatively as possible, in a long sleeve salwaar kameez. In fact, I’d decided to wear Indian clothes for the whole trip, in an attempt to blend in. I thought that if I dressed in a traditional way, I was less likely to be hassled. But still, I looked around nervously for the first sign of any man who was likely to misbehave with me. After all, Biharis have a reputation.
Yet, it didn’t take me long to realise that something was not quite right. The men’s behaviour didn’t seem to match their reputation at all. People greeted me with innocent curiosity. What’s more, they didn’t seem aggressive or uncouth. Rather, they were simple and genuine, and dignified.
In Patna, much to my surprise, the hotel employee who carried my bags to the lift vehemently refused a tip even.
Admittedly, I avoided going out alone at night. I just didn’t want to risk putting myself in any untoward situations. However, at the Sonepur Fair, I ended up walking back to my room alone, just after sunset one night, after a function had finished. Twice I was approached by young guys, who asked me where I was going in Hindi, and encouraged me to go with them. Yet, they quickly retreated when I glared at them and expressed my disinterest. Something like that could’ve happened anywhere, and indeed has happened to me in many places in India. It was nothing specific to Bihar or particularly concerning.
I’m pleased to say that I didn’t feel unsafe at all during my whole trip. That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges though. There’s plenty of scope for organisation to improve. Plus my driver, along with many other people, didn’t speak one word of English. “Although the people are nice, language is an issue,” the representative who’d picked me up from the airport had warned me. I wasn’t too bothered, as I knew I could make myself understood in Hindi. But take that away, and as a foreign women traveling alone, I would’ve felt quite helpless. It made me realise just how much living in Mumbai for nearly five years has given me confidence go anywhere in India, and not just cope but be comfortable.
But what about Bihar as a tourist destination?
Bihar Tourism is devoting significant resources to promoting the state’s attractions. Undoubtedly, Bihar has huge potential to draw visitors, both in terms of rural and spiritual tourism. It has many important Buddhist and Jain pilgrim sites, and its relative lack of development makes it an ideal place for “real India” aficionados. Without a doubt, I had some of my best and most memorable India experiences to date on my Bihar trip (which I’ll write about next).
I’d already come away with a positive opinion of Bihar. However, just in case I needed final evidence to confirm my view, I unknowingly dropped my passport at Patna airport after checking in on my way home. Much to my surprise, I was approached by security officers while I was sitting there and eating a snack. They’d come to inform me that someone had found my passport and handed it in.
Is Bihar an uncivilised and lawless state? Not in my experience. In my mind, it’s jewel that’s currently undergoing polishing. The work is underway, and it’s gradually beginning to sparkle.