It is believed that the events leading up to the epic battle of Mahabharata had resulted in the disintegration of the ancient kingdom of Mithila. For long the kingdom revered as site of Sita’s prenuptial life and subsequent marriage to Ram, became a mere memory - a myth among devotees. Much later, around the 16th and 17th centuries, owing to the Mughal takeover of Ayodha, Hindu sages began journeying northwards into the thick jungles of the Terai in search of Janakpur, the kingdom ruled by Sita’s adoptive father Janak. A new settlement rose around the discoveries of artifacts by the first-arriving sages – remnants of a time when gods walked among men.
According to the Ramayana, during the twenty-third generation of the Videh dynasty a great drought afflicted the Mithila kingdom. In an effort to appease the god of rain, then King Janak performed a great sacrifice. Upon turning the soil emerged a baby lying in the furrow. King Janak named the baby Sita and raised as her own; the rest is history.
Although the story of Ramayana is ubiquitous for most Nepalis, many of us are still unware of the hidden gems of Janakpur that would intrigue even the biggest skeptics. A weekend in Janakpur is a great way to rediscover the Ramayana - to immerse in the pious livelihoods that thrive here.
When Sita became a maiden, King Janak created a challenge to secure her the most fitting suitor. A bow belonging to Lord Shiva that had been bestowed to the protection of the kingdom became the deciding vote. It is said that 50,000 men were required to lift the bow into the palace complex, whereas Ram not only lifted the recurve without struggle, but also broke it into three pieces while stringing it. One piece is said to have flown towards the sky, one fell on earth and the final piece went deep into hell. It was through this display of strength Ram was revealed to the kingdom as the Lord of the heavens, hell and earth.
The town of Janakpurdham sprawls outwards from a concentrated mesh of houses around the world-renowned Janaki Mandir. For this reason the best way to spend your first day in Janakpur is to venture out of town and visit temples that lie at distance. Starting with the bow pieces takes you out of the main town which is also an opportunity to visit other places.
Dhanushsagar, a pristine pond located at a few minutes walk from the main town center, is a great introduction to a devotee’s life in Janakpur. The pond lies opposite the Ram Mandir and is said to be the site where one-third of the broken bow landed. Dhanushsagar is a site of daily ablutions for devotees and presents the strong bond between water and Madhesis.
From the pond, walk over to Zero Mile, the local bus park, where you can hop onto a southbound bus to Jaleshwor, close to the Indian border. Here you’ll find one of the most sacred Shiva temples of the region. Women from all walks of life fill the grounds of the temple during special occasions to be blessed with water from a pool that is believed to be holy.
A visit to Dhanush Mandir is then the appropriate way to conclude the first day of your travel. The temple complex lies some 15 km north of Janakpurdham and is said to be the site where the bow piece that entered hell is slowly protruding out of the earth. Here you will find the most surreal and intriguing corroboration of the Ramayana. An ancient tree sits within the main temple where rock formation appear along the roots. Locals say that the formation has been growing outwards slowly.
Back in Janakpurdham your first evening can be spent along the tranquil waters of Maha Gangasagar, where regular nocturnal aratis are a must see. Maha Gangasagar is the largest of the many ponds that dot the locality and is connected to Dhanushsagar by a channel. Locals believe that dipping in Gangasagar is equivalent to a dip in the actual Ganga. On the Southeastern corner of Gangasagar lies the newly constructed Bhootnath Temple complex, which has a beautiful garden to stroll through before heading back to the hotel.
The coupling of Ram and Sita through matrimony is seen as an important part of Janakpur’s ancient history. The divine couple is most celebrated within the famous Janaki Mandir. Built in Hindu Rajput architectural style with influences from Islamic traditions, the temple was commissioned by an Indian queen who spared no expense in marking the exact site where Sita lived with her monarch father.
It is believed that the sage Mahanth Surya Kishor Das discovered a golden statue of Sita where the temple sits and forms the heart of the town. Its bright white walls and domes adorned with red and green colors are brilliant under the sun. The main sanctum in the inner courtyard boasts of carved marble interiors and are home to statuettes of Sita, Ram and his half-brothers.
The best time to visit the temple is early Saturdays around 8 am. Devotees and priests pray and chant in unison till the statues inside are revealed and blessing is offered soon after. Evenings are also enchanting as devotees light lamps and park themselves around the temple complex. There is also a small collection of kinetic exhibits that retell the story of Sita’s adoption and early life. This museum is located to the southwest of the main sanctum and is open throughout the day.
Adjoined to the Janaki Mandir is Bibah Mandap, which marks the site of the divine marriage. Designed by a Kathmandu-based architect and built under official patronage in 1970s, this Mandap is constructed in pagoda style of Kathmandu Valley and looks somewhat incongruous, seating right next to the magnificent Mughal-Rajput specimen of built form. However, some of the carved marble columns of the Mandap are from the same quarry in Central India from where materials were procured for the construction of the main temple. Inside, life size marble statues of Ram and Sita are found along with other noted characters of the Ramayana.
Close by, across the main road from the Mandap lies the Rangamanch. A vast open ground (locally known as the bahra biga) is a site for mass gathering and celebration on the day of Bibha Panchami, the day when Ram and Sita’s matrimonial union For the afternoon, travel to the Janakpur Railway Station, Nepal’s only station for locomotive travel. The station is currently undergoing construction but can offer a glimpse of the Indian railway system that has influenced all of the subcontintent. For the remainder of evening, Janakpur’s many street vendors and other temples provide great engagement and sampling of local eats.
Being a pilgrimage site, most shops in Janakpurdham do not cater to tourists. Other than basic necessities and ingredients for rituals and offerings little can be found in the way of souvenirs. A great alternative to taking home Janakpur’s heritage while supporting a social cause is to visit the Janakpur Women’s Development Committee (JDWC). Established in 1992, JDWC has revived the Mithila artistic traditions (which is also linked to the Ramayana) to benefit women of the region.Using a variety of media, they export and sell traditional Mithila paintings, ceramics, mirrors, printed fabrics and much more. JDWC is located in the midst of peaceful mango groves close by the airport. It has a beautiful courtyard decorated with wall reliefs that are otherwise not visible in other parts of Janakpur.