Meandering through paddy and wheat fields on a cycle rickshaw, in search of physical markings of a mythological history, I realised that if there are a million ‘tellings’ of the Ramayana, these aren’t only to be found in texts and plays, dances, songs and shadow puppetry. There is a Ramayana unfolding in each person and place staking some claim to it. The landscape, people and temples of Janakpur, a small town in Nepal, create a compelling telling themselves. This telling is infused with stories of Sita (or Janaki), who lived till her marriage in the ancient city of Mithila (Janakpur is the present-day urban equivalent). I travelled to Janakpur with these stories ringing in my ears, my nose in many versions of the Ramayana, and in my mind pictures of a countryside that would reveal a history I never thought of or knew existed. A history of Sita’s life before she became Rama’s wife, before she became an instrument in a great epic story.
I have to say I didn’t quite get what I was expecting. I spent two days in Janakpur searching, probing beneath the surface of stories, monuments and many of Janakpur’s 72 kunds or (now weedy) sacred ponds. By the end of my visit, I had a sense of a telling of the Rama and Sita story, but it wasn’t the one I had hoped to find. In spite of being Sita’s domain, the stories and sites of interest are mainly linked to her father, her husband, and other protagonists in the Ramayana. Even the Janaki temple, the centre point of the town, and the destination for many a pilgrimage, has no separate shrine for Sita: she always sits beside Rama, Lakshmana and Janaka. It was rare to find a thread of the story that spoke of Sita herself, her growing years, her haunts, the details of her life before her marriage. The telling of the Ramayana at Janakpur begins with the lila, or story, of Rama and Sita, and it is this telling that pervades the small town.
What is fascinating about Janakpur is that it’s a town that sits on the line between myth and reality, and seems entirely comfortable there.
From the Janaki temple, in all possible directions, radiate roads, stories, tanks and temples that trace their origins to the Ramayana, and locate the epic in physical reality. So Dhanush Sagar is a tank on the spot where one piece of the bow of Shiva, broken by Rama when he came to win Sita’s hand, landed. Another piece is in Ratan Sagar, some distance away. And the third in Dhanusha, some 15km from Janakpur. The garbage-strewn Rangbhoomi is where the Swembar, or the ceremony where Shiva’s bow was broken, happened. The Rama-Sita Vivah Mandapa is made on the spot where Rama and Sita were married. Bihar Kund is the pond where Rama and Sita swam and generally engaged in marital bliss.
And it’s not just the sacred sites — you can stop at any street corner, and hear people’s own variations of where Rama and Sita went and why. The landscape of Janakpur is thus crossed with myth and brings the Ramayana closer in a living, gritty kind of way.
Seeing Mithila, Janaka’s white
and dazzling city, all the sages
cried out in praise, ‘Wonderful!
Mithila is the name for the sage-king Janaka’s capital — Ayodhya’s sister city — now known as Janakpur. It was commonly used for the Videha kingdom of the Janaka rulers, and was bounded by the Ganga in the south and the Himalaya in the north. Janaka found Sita while he was ploughing the land in what is present-day Sitamarhi district of Bihar. He brought her back to his palace in Mithila, the place where the Janaki temple now stands, where she grew up and where she was married to Rama. Mithila is said to be divyabhumi, a sacred land that pulled Rama to it, without any of the prayers and yagnas that were done before his birth in Ayodhya.
The Janaki temple that now exists has some expected stories woven into its history. The Mahanth at the Janaki temple tells me (a story more vigorously researched and dramatically told by his second-in-command, the lively Binodji) that in the mid-19th century, the childless Rani of Tikamgarh, Brisabhanu Kunwar came to Janakpur to pray for a son. When her prayers were answered, she had nine lakh rupees sanctioned for the building of the Nau Lakha, or the Janaki temple, in 1911. The material for the temple came primarily from present-day Madhya Pradesh.
The temple is a white-washed ornate structure, resembling sometimes an 18th-century north Indian palace. Green, yellow, blue painted details lend a certain kitsch to the façade. But the relative newness of the temple takes away from what charm and historicity it might have had.
The temple complex has shrines for Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Janaka. One side of the structure surrounding the central sanctum has rooms where the Mahanth stays, a library and some offices. The other sections have a shrine for Janaka, which also has deities of Sita, Rama and Lakshmana, a cooking area where the bhandar is prepared twice a day, for 50 sadhus each time, and a section where harmoniums and bhajans sound 24 hours a day. The Sita shrine in the centre of the complex is of course the centrepiece of the temple. The area outside the inner sanctum is thronged by visitors almost all day, especially in the morning and evenings. A man sings aloud fromTulsidas’ Ramacharitramanas in the mornings. In the inner sanctum, Sita is flanked by Rama and Lakshmana, deities swathed in fine cloth and silver.
Included in many pilgrimage routes signficant to the Ramayana story, the Janaki temple insists you centre it, return to it again and again. Like most temples, it has a mood for each time of the day. The morning aarti is performed in a haze of agarbatti smoke, the clatter of instruments, the musical chanting of the Ramayana. The temple takes on a glow quite different from any other time of the day: maybe the distilled sense of piety that you can feel, the special urgency of a morning prayer. Holy men sit along verandahs at regular intervals, beads in hand, chanting the name of Sita-Rama. The temple closes in the afternoon, but a midday meal is served before that, so some amount of buzz remains till noon at least.
The evening aarti happens around 7.30, by which time the temple complex is full; friends meet after days and chat on the stone seats facing the sanctum; scores of women in fluorescent colours sit on the ground and listen to a wise man read (lecture) from the Ramayana. The temple closes after an evening meal has been served. It’s clear that the temple is the social, cultural, even commercial hub of the town; you see its decorative swells and golden spires from almost all directions.
Resisting the near-hypnotic lure of the temple, we took a rickshaw to explore what else Janakpur had to offer. Within the busy town, strongly infused with incense and cow dung, the Rama temple near Dhanush Sagar is an interesting stop. Its intimate size and Nepali pagoda style makes it distinct. The compound is shady and has the calm that perhaps is missing in the Janaki temple, due to that structure’s size and importance. Just next to the Janaki temple compound is the Rama-Sita Vivah Mandapa, where Rama and Sita and all their siblings were said to have been married. The entire marriage is portrayed in this newly-constructed temple structure, combining marble and Nepali wooden pagoda architecture and ringed by a landscaped lawn. The temple lacks any charm to speak of, but forms the site for the Vivah Panchami celebration that happens in Janakpur each December. Lakhs of people come to see the wedding dramatised here, complete with barat and vidayi.
Riding past Ramanand Chowk and into the open fields beyond is almost a relief. Armed with a list of mythological sites to hunt out, we scoured the countryside for kunds and kutis (hermitages) with some link to Sita’s life. The rickshaw driver broke into a sweat when he couldn’t tell Dasarath Sagar from Ratan Sagar, or Agni Kund from Bihar Kund, but we had help whenever we needed it from Janakpurvasis along the way.
Perhaps of all the sites we visited, Bihar Kund, a small pond fringed with sadhus’ dwellings and fruit trees was the only one in which myth seemed to linger. The sadhus sitting by the kund at dusk were eager to tell us how Rama and Sita swam and boated here just after their marriage, as if it were just yesterday, and they had witnessed it themselves. But sadly, the other sites, even if whitewashed temples have been erected by ancient ponds, conjure up no visions of history or mythology.
Back to Janakpur just as 6pm load-shedding has darkened the town’s streets, we find our way to Rooftop restaurant by the light of apple carts and shop after shop selling ‘shringar items’, or Casio watches or garishly-covered DVDs. The blue-lit restaurant throbs with Bollywood tunes (in the background we can hear a soulful Nepali band from the music store across the road). Men we hadn’t seen all day in the spiritual humdrum of the town fill the blue space, sipping beer, or downing whisky quarts.
Sitting on the terrace and observing Janakpur by night, I thought about what the Mahanth at the Janaki temple had told me earlier that day. “Do you remember your grandfather’s grandfather’s name?” he had asked, “But you do remember Rama and Sita. There must be something in these names that people chant them till today.” I thought about the flow of the Ganga and the Ramayana being different from the many rivers and stories there are. Something that settled my unsettledness about myth and reality — or made it redundant — and lent Janakpur a sacredness in its own right.
Janakpur is only a few kilometres from the Indian border, and so can be reached by train, road or flight.
By air: You can fly to Kathmandu and from there to Janakpur — small airlines like Yeti Air (NPR 5,260, return; www.yetiairlines.com) ply a few times a week.
By bus: Buses operate (day or night) from Kathmandu, and cost around NPR 300. If you are crossing the border by road, you can take a train to Raxaul, and have your passport stamped there, and cross over to Birganj on the Nepal side. The bus from Birganj to Janakpur is a dusty, rattly five-hour ride and costs NPR 150. Note that roads on both sides of the border are pretty terrible.
Visas: Indian citizens don’t require a visa into Nepal, and papers are quite easily processed at the border offices in Raxaul and Birganj.
Getting around: Walking is the best way to get around the busy town centre, and also get a sense of its this-could-be-Bihar flavour. Cycle rickshaws are the only mode of transport available to travel slightly longer distances, such as temples or tourist sites further away, or even to the bus stand, railway station or airport. It’s best to negotiate the rate before you get on the rickshaw.
Where to stay: Hotel Manaki International (from NPR 1,600; +977-41-521540) is the newest and possibly the best bet in terms of accommodation in this small town. Rooms are clean, and some quite large. Air-conditioning, hot water and TV are all available. Tip: use room service as much as possible; the green-painted restaurant downstairs is slightly dodgy.
Moving slightly down the ladder in terms of cost and airiness, Hotel Welcome (from NPR 250; Station Road, 520224, 520646) is among the oldest of Janakpur’s larger hotels. There are some musty double AC rooms with attached baths. There’s a restaurant on the ground floor as well. Or try Hotel Rama (from NPR 200; 520059) by the Mills Area Chowk.
What to see & do
-- Go to the temple for the aarti at 8.30am, and the evening one at 7.30pm. Dusk at the temple is a nice time to be there; if you befriend an influential sadhu or Binodji, the temple administrator, you can go up to the roof for a colourful tableau of temple life.
-- Dhanush Sagar, Ganga Sagar and Dasarath Sagar are tanks located either close to the temple or a short rickshaw ride away. It makes sense to hire a rickshaw (about NPR 150) to do four or five mythological sites like Bihar Kund, Agni Kund and Ratan Sagar. Don’t expect too much, but the ride through paddy fields and orchards is itself worth it.
-- The Janak Women’s Development Centre (10am-5pm; closed Fri, Sat) is located a 15-minute rickshaw ride away, near the airport. You can check out and buy Mithila paintings here, which are not as easily available in the town as you might expect. Another contact for Mithila art is Nita Kumari (9804882890).
Tip: Money changing isn’t as big a problem as you might think; many places accept Indian currency quite happily. Your hotel also might be able to change currency for you. There is a money changer in the Sita Hotel complex at Ramanand Chowk. However, the town shuts down early, and everything is closed by 5pm.
Best time to go: This depends on how you like your holy holidays — crowded and eventful, or quiet and peaceful. Rama Navami and Vivah Panchami are big events in the Janakpur calendar, in March and December, respectively. Lakhs of pilgrims come, and the town takes on a totally different guise. Otherwise, any time from October-November to March, when the weather is cool, is a good time to go.