Mythological stories claim that Bihar was the place where Manu resided after the great flood, with the help of Matsya. A king of the Yadus nicknamed "Mahabali" ruled over this last in ancient times. He was impotent. His guru was Dirghatamas. Mahabali had many wives and so Maharishi Dirghatamas with the permission of his king impregnated Mahabali's chief queen Sudeshna. Queen Sudeshna bore five children or "Kshetrajas" (rulers of lands), one of them was King Anga, which is modern-day Bihar. From Anga sprang Anapana.
According to the historian Asim Maitra, the history of Magadha from the earliest times to the dawn of the Buddhist era is not well known. The Vedas display open hostility and disgust towards Magadha because it was a great stronghold of the non-Aryans and refused to be absorbed in the stereotyped Brahmanical pattern. Before the discovery of the ruins of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, the cyclopean walls on the hills of Rajgir were an ancient archaeological remains in India.
Modern Bihar is a combination of two great ancient kingdoms, Magadha and Mithila. From Magadha arose two traditions, Jainism and Buddhism. The first Indian empire, the Maurya Empire, originated from Magadha, with its capital at Pataliputra (modern Patna) in 325 BCE.
Mithila is known for its literary traditions, education and culture. Four of the āstika (orthodox) schools of Indian philosophy - Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mīmāṃsā, and Samkhya - were developed in the Mithila region. Vidyapati and his work shaped the language and culture of the entirety of eastern India, comprising Bengal, Assam, Odisha and even up to some extent to Nepal. It is believed that Mithila became the power centre of India in the later Vedic Period under the rule of Janaks. Sita, the daughter of one of the Janaks of Mithila is mentioned as the consort of Lord Rama in the Hindu epic Ramayana, written by Valmiki. The Maurya emperor Ashoka is believed to be one of the greatest rulers in the history of India and the world. He became a Buddhist.
According to indologist Arthur Llewellyn Basham:
The age in which true history appeared in India was one of great intellectual and spiritual ferment. Mystics and sophists of all kinds roamed through the Ganges Valley, all advocating some form of mental discipline and asceticism as a means to salvation; but the age of the Buddha, when many of the best minds were abandoning their homes and professions for a life of asceticism, was also a time of advance in commerce and politics. It produced not only philosophers and ascetics, but also merchant princes and men of action.
Bihar remained an important place of power, culture and education during the next one thousand years. The Gupta Empire, which again originated from Magadha in 240, is referred to as the Golden Age of India in science, mathematics, astronomy, religion and Indian philosophy. The peace and prosperity created under leadership of Guptas enabled the pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavours. Historians place the Gupta dynasty alongside the Han and China and the Roman Empire as a model of a classical civilisation. The capital of the Gupta Empire was Pataliputra.
A number of viharas (Buddhist monasteries) grew up during the Pala Empire in Magadha and ancient Bengal. According to Tibetan sources, five great Mahaviharas stood out: Nalanda University were among the oldest and best centres of education in ancient India, Vikramashila, the premier university of the era, was established by the second Pala emperor, Dharmapala (783 to 820); Somapura Mahavihara (now in Bangladesh) was built by king Dharmapala of Pala dynasty, Odantapurā Mahavihara was established by king Dharmapala in the 8th century, and Jagaddala was founded by the later emperors of the Pala Empire, Ramapala (c. 1077 – 1120) (now in northwest Bangladesh). Some writers believe the period between 400 and 1000 saw gains by Hinduism at the expense of Buddhism. Although the Hindu kings gave much grants to the Buddhist monks for building Brahmaviharas. A National Geographic edition reads, "The essential tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism arose from similar ideas, best described in the Upanishads, a set of Hindu treatises set down in India largely between the eighth and fourth centuries B.C."
The Buddhism of Magadha was swept away by the Islamic invasion under Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji, during which many of the viharas and the universities of Nalanda and Vikramashila were destroyed and thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns were massacred in the 12th century. The region saw a brief period of glory for six years (1540–1546 CE) during the rule of Sher Shah Suri, who built the longest road of the Indian subcontinent, the Grand Trunk Road. The economic reforms carried out by Sher Shah Suri, like the introduction of Rupee and Custom Duties, are still used in the Republic of India. He revived the city of Patna, where he built up his headquarters. During 1557–1576, Akbar, the Mughal emperor, annexed Bihar and Bengal to his empire. With the decline of the Mughal Empire, Bihar passed under the control of the Nawabs of Bengal and Murshidabad. During 1742 to 1751 Marathas under the two Maratha chiefs, the Peshwa and Raghuji attacked eastern India (Bihar, Bengal & Orissa). The Marathas defeated the nawab Alivardi Khan (1740–1756) and took charge of these provinces. Thus, the medieval period was mostly one of anonymous provincial existence. Many South Asian rulers recruited soldiers from Bihar and neighbouring Awadh who were referred to as Purbiyas who gained a reputation in there use of firearms. The 10th and the last Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh was born in Patna.
After the Battle of Buxar (1764), the British East India Company obtained the diwani rights (rights to administer, and collect revenue or tax) for Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. From this point, Bihar remained a part the Bengal Presidency of the British Raj until 1912, when the province of Bihar and Orissa was carved out as a separate province. In 1935, certain portions of Bihar were reorganised into the separate province of Orissa. The British recruited many soldiers from the Bihar and Awadh region, mainly from the Rajput and Brahmin caste. These soldiers were referred to as Purbiyas.
Babu Kunwar Singh of Jagdishpur and his army, as well as countless other persons from Bihar, contributed to the India's First War of Independence (1857), also called the Sepoy Mutiny by some historians. Resurgence in the history of Bihar came during the struggle for India's independence. It was from Bihar that Mahatma Gandhi launched his pioneering civil-disobedience movement, Champaran Satyagraha. Raj Kumar Shukla drew the attention of Mahatma Gandhi to the exploitation of the peasants by European indigo planters. Champaran Satyagraha received the spontaneous support from many Biharis, including Sri Krishna Sinha, the first Chief Minister of Bihar, Rajendra Prasad, who became the first President of India and Anugrah Narayan Sinha who ultimately became the first Deputy Chief Minister and Finance Minister of Bihar.
In North and Central Bihar, a peasant movement was an important side effect of the independence movement. This movement aimed at overthrowing the zamindari system instituted by British Raj. It was being led by Sahajanand Saraswati and his followers Yamuna Karjee, Rahul Sankrityayan, Karyanand Sharma, Nagarjun and others. Karjee along with Rahul Sankritayan and a few others started publishing a Hindi weekly Hunkar from Bihar in 1940. Hunkar later became the mouthpiece of the peasant movement and the agrarian movement in Bihar and was instrumental in spreading the movement.
Bihar's contribution to the Indian independence struggle was immense, producing outstanding leaders like Sahajanand Saraswati, Rajendra Prasad, Krishna Sinha, Dr.Anugrah Narayan Sinha, Brajkishore Prasad, Maulana Mazharul Haque, Jayaprakash Narayan, Thakur Jugal Kishore Sinha, Ram Dulari Sinha, Satyendra Narayan Sinha, Basawon Singh, Rameshwar Prasad Sinha, Yogendra Shukla, Baikuntha Shukla, Sheel Bhadra Yajee, Yamuna Karjee and many others who worked for India's independence.
The state of Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar in the year 2000. 2005 Bihar assembly elections ended the 15 years of continuous Rashtriya Janata Dal rule in the state, giving way to NDA led by Nitish Kumar. Bihari migrant workers have faced violence and prejudice in many parts of India, like Maharashtra, Punjab and Assam.
The food culture of Bihar is both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Most of the people are non vegetarian. Among all the varieties of food eaten by the Bihari people, Litti-Chokha is the most famous. Beside Pedhaa, Dal Puri, Puwa etc. are also famous. In snacks bhuja (roasted gram, flat rice commonly known as chewra, peanut, maize, etc.) Thekua, Purukia etc. are prepared.
The traditional dress of Bihari people includes the dhoti-mirjai (a modified form of the flowing jama) or the kurta (replacing the older outfit of the dhoti and chapkan which is a robe fastened on the right) for men and Ghagra-Choli for women but ghagra choli is limited to folk dances or celebrations and is considered the ancient or historical dress of women of Bihar. In everyday life women wear saree or Kameez-Salwar. The saree is worn in "Seedha Aanchal" style traditionally. Nevertheless, Western shirts and trousers are becoming popular among the both rural and urban male population. And Salwar-Kameez for women in urban Bihar. Jewelery such as rings for men and bangles for women are popular. However, there are some traditional Bihari jewelries like "Chhara", "Hansuli", "Kamarbandh", etc.
Hindi and Urdu are the official languages of the state, whilst the majority of the people speak one of the Bihari languages – Bajjikaa, Bhojpuri, Magadhi, Maithili and Angika, along with Nepali in the border regions. Bihari languages were once mistakenly thought to be dialects of Hindi. However, that does not hold true as they have been more recently shown to be derived from the language of the erstwhile Magadha kingdom – Magadhi Prakrit, along with Bengali, Nepali, Assamese, and Oriya. Bhojpuri is spoken throughout the Bhojpuri region by the majority of Biharis living there. Maithili is used by the Maithils in the Mithila region. Along with the above-mentioned languages, Bihari Hindi is spoken as a local dialect of the Hindi language.
The number of speakers of the Bihari languages is difficult to count because of unreliable sources. In the urban region, most educated speakers of the language name Hindi as their language because this is what they use in formal contexts and believe it to be the appropriate response because of unawareness. The uneducated and the rural population of the region regards Hindi as the generic name for their language.
Despite of the large number of speakers of Bihari languages, they have not been constitutionally recognized in India. Hindi is the language used for educational and official matters in Bihar. These languages was legally absorbed under the subordinate label of Hindi in the 1961 Census. Such state and national politics are creating conditions for language endangerment. The first success for spreading Hindi occurred in Bihar in 1881, when Hindi displaced Urdu as the sole official language of the province. In this struggle between competing Hindi and Urdu, the potential claims of the three large mother tongues in the region – Magahi, Bhojpuri and Maithili were ignored. After independence Hindi was again given the sole official status through the Bihar Official Language Act, 1950. Urdu became the second official language in the undivided State of Bihar on 16 August 1989. Bihar also produced several eminent Urdu writers including Sulaiman Nadvi, Manazir Ahsan Gilani, Abdul Qavi Desnavi, Paigham Afaqui, Jabir Husain, Sohail Azimabadi, Hussain Ul Haque, Dr. Shamim Hashimi, Wahab Ashrafi etc.
Bihar has produced a number of writers of Hindi, including Raja Radhika Raman Singh, Shiva Pujan Sahay, Divakar Prasad Vidyarthy, Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar', Ram Briksh Benipuri, Phanishwar Nath 'Renu', Gopal Singh "Nepali" and Baba Nagarjun. Mahapandit Rahul Sankrityayan, the great writer and Buddhist scholar, was born in U.P. but spent his life in the land of Lord Buddha, i.e., Bihar. Hrishikesh Sulabh and Neeraj Singh (from Ara) are the prominent writer of the new generation. They are short story writer, playwright and theatre critic. Arun Kamal and Aalok Dhanwa are the well-known poets. Different regional languages also have produced some prominent poets and authors. Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay, who is among the greatest writers in Bengali, resided for some time in Bihar. Upamanyu Chatterjee also hails from Patna in Bihar. Devaki Nandan Khatri, who rose to fame at the beginning of the 20th century on account of his novels such as Chandrakanta and Chandrakanta Santati, was born in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Vidyapati Thakur is the most renowned poet of Maithili (c. 14–15th century). Satyapal Chandra has written many English bestseller novels and he is one of India's emerging young writer.
Bihari society follows a very rigid caste system, which influences daily life and politics.
The 2011 Census of India indicated that Scheduled Castes constituted 16% of Bihar's 10.4 crores population. The census identified 21 of 23 Dalit sub-castes as Mahadalits. The Mahadalit community consists of the following sub-castes: Bantar, Bauri, Bhogta, Bhuiya, Chaupal, Dabgar, Dom (Dhangad), Ghasi, Halalkhor, Hari (Mehtar, Bhangi), Kanjar, Kurariar, Lalbegi, Musahar, Nat, Pan (Swasi), Rajwar, Turi, Dhobi, Pasi, Chamar and Paswan (Dusadh). The Paswan caste was initially left out of the Mahadalit category, to the consternation of Ram Vilas Paswan.Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes) constituted around 1.3% of the Bihari population. They include the Gond, Santhal and Tharu communities. There are about 130 Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) in Bihar.
According to the 2011 census, 82.7% of Bihar's population practiced Hinduism, while 16.9% followed Islam.
A few Bihari people moved towards Madhesh of Nepal for job opportunity. The first Bihari settlement in Nepal started since the 18th century due to similar language and lifestyle to that of Madhesi people of Nepal and many Bihari people got assembled in existing indigenous Madheshi social groups. In 1947, at the time of Partition, many Muslim Biharis moved to what was then East Bengal adjacent to their Bihar province in eastern India.
However, when East Pakistan became the independent state of Bangladesh in December 1971, the Biharis were left behind as the Pakistani army and civilians evacuated and the Bihari population in Bangladesh found themselves unwelcomed in both countries. Pakistan feared a mass influx of Biharis could destabilise a fragile and culturally mixed population, and Bangladeshis scorned the Biharis for having supported and sided with the West Pakistan during the war.
With little or no legal negotiation about offering the Biharis Pakistani citizenship or safe conduit back home to their native Bihar in India, the Biharis (called "stranded Pakistanis" by some Bangladeshi politicians) have remained stateless for 33 years. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has not addressed the plight of the Biharis. An estimated 600,000 Biharis live in 66 camps in 13 regions across Bangladesh, and an equal number have acquired Bangladeshi citizenship. In 1990, a small number of Biharis were allowed to immigrate to Pakistan.
Pakistan has reiterated that as the successor state of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), as well as having greater cultural and linguistic similarities with Bengalis, Bangladesh should accept the Biharis as full citizens. Pakistani politicians and government officials have refused to accept these nearly 300,000 stranded Pakistanis of Bihari origin due to inability to absorb such a large number of immigrants at the moment.
In May 2008, a Bangladeshi court ruled that Biharis who were either minors in 1971 or born after 1971 are Bangladeshi citizens and have the right to vote. As a result of the ruling, an estimated 150,000 of the 300,000 Biharis living in Bangladesh are eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship. Although the court ruling explicitly said that the Biharis are eligible to register to vote in the December 2008 elections, the Election Commission closed its rolls in August 2008 without enrolling them.
A large number of people from Bihar travelled to various parts of the world in the 19th century to serve as indentured labour on sugarcane and rubber plantations in Mauritius, and Natal, South Africa.
A majority of Indo-Mauritians are Bihari Mauritians. Most of the Mauritian Prime Ministers were Indo-Mauritians of Bihari descent.
Bihari sub-nationalism is a sentiment which unites people speaking Bihari languages.
According to social scientist Dr. Shaibal Gupta, the beating of students from Bihar in Mumbai in October 2008, has consolidated Bihari sub-nationalism.
Bihar Movement was a movement initiated by students in the Indian state of Bihar in 1974 and led by the veteran Gandhian Socialist Jayaprakash Narayan against misrule of and corruption in the government. By 1975 it had attracted a mass following amongst all sections of the population in Bihar and in some other states. It is also called "total revolution". It led to giving up of surnames by many Biharis in the 1970s.
During recent times, the people from Bihar have been the major victims of discrimination, often resulting in violence directed against them and even their social outcasting at times.
The uneven economic development in India has resulted in mass migration of Bihari workers and middle-class professionals to seek work in more developed states of India like Maharashtra, Delhi, Haryana and Punjab. The free movement of Indians to settle and work anywhere inside the Indian Union has been guaranteed by the constitution of India. Bihari settler communities living in other states have been subjected to a growing degree of xenophobia, racial discrimination, prejudice and violence. Biharis are often looked down upon in Delhi and their accent is ridiculed. In 2000 and 2003, anti-Bihari violence led to the deaths of up to 200 people and created 10,000 internal refugees. Again in 2008, anti-Bihari violence in Maharashtra, notably in Nashik, Mumbai, and Pune, created a record 40,000 to 60,000 internal refugees.