If you had asked me what I thought about Bihar a few weeks ago, I would not have really been able to give you a serious answer. The fact is that I really knew nothing about the place and anything that I had heard didn't paint a wonderful picture of the place. So when I was asked to go to Patna, the capital of Bihar for work I had a few reservations and of course after a week of staying there I had realized that I was a fool. Bihar has a very culturally rich and ancient history from where much of Indian civilization flourished. It is also where the seeds of one of the most widely adhered -to religions, Buddhism, were planted by Siddhartha Gautama as he sat under the Bodhi tree and gained insights into human suffering and its causes. Most importantly, I found out that the people of Bihar were really kind and helped make my experience there wonderful.
When I found out I would be heading to Patna to assist Milaap's new field partners, CDOT in implementing the SalesForce software used to help thousands of clients throughout rural India, I immediately started doing a little research about the place. I was blown away when I found out that many of the events depicted in the ancient epics and religious texts of Hinduism took place in Bihar. It was the seat of some of the most powerful kingdoms and empires of Classical India, where legendary rulers like Bimisara, his son Ajatashatru, and the great Ashoka ruled vast empires. Under the rule of these empires Bihar flourished as a center for knowledge and academia. The oldest university in the world you cannot tell already, I am really fascinated by ancient cultures and civilizations and the more I learned about Bihar the more I wanted to see the place and the remnants of its glory.
During my research I also found out that one if the most widespread and oldest religions in the world was developed in Bihar. During the 5th century B.C.E Siddhartha Gautama travelled to the ancient Magadha Empire where he stayed at Bodh Gaya where was said to have attained Enlightenment and realized the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path, the main tenants of Buddhism as we know today. After my research I knew that I had to go explore Bihar for myself and see all these fascinating places.
I had arrived at Patna at about two in the morning on a Saturday (my train from Kolkata was delayed by a few hours). I was surprised to see that the Patna Junction station was bustling with activity at such a late hour. I immediately checked into the nearest hotel and passed out, because I had my first meeting with a representative from CDOT named Ambar in the morning. The next day I met with Ambar at a wonderful guesthouse near the CDOT headquarters. Ambar had been working for CDOT for a few years and previously worked within the garment industry for many years. He was a very smart, business savvy guy and it only took me no time at all to explain the procedures involved when using the SalesForce website to upload loan profiles for the hundreds of clients CDOT and Milaap represent. Since we got a lot of the important business wrapped up during the beginning of the week, Ambar proposed that we visit a few of CDOT’s many branch offices which also happened to be located in historically rich places like Bodh Gaya, Nalanda, and Rajgir.[caption id="attachment_6028" align="aligncenter" width="594"] A small boys and girls home I was lucky to be able to visit in Patna[/caption]
Our first stop on our little tour of Bihar was Bodh Gaya, from where Buddhism flourished throughout Asia. Bodh Gaya is the most important of the four pilgrimage sites for Buddhists, and is considered to be the ‘Mecca” of Buddhism. According to Buddhists texts it was from here where Buddha sat under the famous Bodhi tree and attained Enlightenment. We first went to the Mahabodhi Temple where King Ashoka, regarded as the most powerful ruler of ancient India, built the temple to mark the exact place where Siddhartha Gautama was Awakened. A descendant (third generation) of the original Bodhi tree under which Gautama Buddha contemplated the origins of human suffering still grows there today. Walking underneath that tree and walking the same steps that the Buddha himself took was a surreal experience and one I will never forget. After that I was able to take a brief tour of the many monasteries that dot the ancient city of Bodh Gaya. Buddhists communities from all over Asia are represented and I was able to chat with a few monks that have devoted most of their lives to preserving the traditions of Buddhism in India.[caption id="attachment_6030" align="aligncenter" width="645"] Giant Buddha statue in Bodh Gaya[/caption]
The next day I took a train to the Nalanda district of Bihar. One of the original branch offices of CDOT is located in this area and they have been providing financial support to local farmers and entrepreneurs for the last fourteen years. I got a little peak at the latest project CDOT has been working on with support from Milaap. Ambar explained to me that after extensive surveys were done in the area one of the main things that lacked in these rural communities was access to stable electricity and power. In order to alleviate some of the stress caused by frequent power outages, CDOT is now providing a 75 watt solar panel which charges a small battery that can provide power for up to 8 hours. This package also includes two powerful mounted lamps and an adapter that allows one to power electrical appliances like fans and cell phone chargers. Ambar explained that after rolling out this new loan package there has been a lot of positive feedback from locals who cannot afford to shell out the money needed to purchase expensive generators.[caption id="attachment_6032" align="aligncenter" width="614"] Solar package provided by CDOT[/caption]
After meeting with the staff of CDOT’s Nalanda branch we visited the ancient ruins of Nalanda University, which is considered to be the oldest university in the world. It is said that the Buddha himself gave lectures in a forest near the site. It was an influential center for learning and the development of modern Buddhism during the Gupta Empire, unfortunately the complex was eventually burned to the ground during a Turkish invasion during the 12th century, and it is said that the library at Nalanda burned for three months straight.[caption id="attachment_6033" align="aligncenter" width="682"] The ruins of Nalanda University[/caption]
Our final stop on our tour of Bihar was Rajgir, which was the first capital of the ancient Magadha kingdom where many historical and religious figures from the Mahabharata originated. It was the seat of the famous king Bimisara and his son Ajatashatru, who later moved the capital to Patna. It is a very important pilgrimage site for Buddhists because it is believed that the Buddha would frequent the large hills in the area from where he gave many legendary sermons and initiated King Bimbisara himself. The mountain known, as Vulture’s Peak was the site where the First Buddhist Council was held a year after the death of the Buddha, during this council many of the tenants of Buddhism were hashed out. The area is currently the site of the Vishwa Shanti Stupa, one of the eighty World Peace Pagodas erected during the seventies to promote peace and nuclear disarmament.[caption id="attachment_6034" align="aligncenter" width="700"] World Peace Pagoda in Rajgir[/caption]
To reach the pagoda I hopped on a ropeway that took me all the way to the top of the mountain where the Pagoda rests. From the top of the mountain the view of the valley below was breath taking, and the repetitive thud of the drum from within the monastery next to the Pagoda brought about a sense of tranquility. I will never forget how amazing my experience in Bihar was and I encourage everyone who has an opportunity to come to India to experience Bihar for themselves.