Bihar is one of the sorriest places on earth. The eastern Indian state is the poorest and most illiterate in the subcontinent. Extortion and gang wars are rife, thousands of people die in floods every few years, and NASA recently discovered a cloud of smog over Bihar five times as dense as that over Los Angeles. It's not a place where you'll find many tourists, and certainly not somewhere you'd expect a center of scholarly excellence.
So the existence of the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library (kblibrary.nic.in
), a small pink building in downtown Patna, the state capital, is a wonder in itself. Inside, you'll find 250,000 books and 21,000 manuscripts, some dating back a millennium. The number and quality of Arabic and Persian manuscripts is unsurpassed in Asia, and it is all the result of the collecting passion of a late 19th century noble, Khuda Bakhsh. Priceless treasures include the only existing copy of a history—illustrated in gold and indigo—of the Uzbek Emperor Tamerlane, whose dominions once stretched from Baghdad to Bengal. There are 500-year-old Sanskrit scriptures inscribed on palm leaves, Korans 25 mm wide (written so the verses form the shapes of animals) and, in the margins of verses by the poet Hafiz, annotations by the Mughal Emperors Humayun and Jahangir. There are even jottings by Byron—two verses added by the English poet to his "Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte." With so few visitors, director Imtiaz Ahmad will dig out his most precious pieces for you to peruse over chai and spicy chips. "The academic traditions of this city will endure," he says. "They are weakened, but not lost." It's almost enough to restore your faith in Bihar.