JANAKPUR, 165km east of Birgunj and 25km south of the Mahendra Highway, is the Terai’s most fascinating city. Also known as Janakpurdham (dham denoting a sacred place), it’s a holy site of the first order, and its central temple, the ornate Janaki Mandir, is an obligatory stop on the Hindu pilgrimage circuit. Possessing a strong Indian influence, the city is small and manageable: motorized traffic is all but banned from the centre, and tourist hustle is largely absent.
Despite the absence of ancient monuments to confirm its mythic past – no building is much more than a century old – Janakpur remains an attractive city. Religious fervour seems to lend an aura to everything; the skyline leaves a lasting impression of palm trees and the onion domes and pyramid roofs of local shrines. Most of these distinctive buildings are associated with kuti – self-contained pilgrimage centres and hostels for sadhus – some five hundred of which are scattered throughout the Janakpur area. The city’s other distinguishing feature is its dozens of sacred ponds, which here take the place of river ghats for ritual bathing and dhobi-ing.
Hindu mythology identifies Janakpur as the capital of the ancient kingdom of Mithila, which controlled a large part of northern India between the tenth and third centuries BC. The city features prominently in the Ramayana: it was here that Ram – Vishnu in mortal form – wed Sita. In Janakpur the chant of “Sita Ram, Sita Ram” is repeated like a Hindu Hail Mary, and sadhus commonly wear the tuning-fork-shaped tika of Vishnu. Mithila came under the control of the Mauryan empire around the third century BC, then languished for two millennia until Guru Ramananda, the seventeenth-century founder of the sect of Sita that dominates Janakpur, revived the city as a major religious centre.Read More
Janakpur’s atmosphere is charged with an intense devotional zeal. New shrines are forever being inaugurated and idols installed, while loudspeakers broadcast religious discourses and the mesmerizing drone of bhajan. Pilgrimage is a year-round industry, marked by several highlights in the festival calendar:
Parikrama As many as 100,000 people join the annual one-day circumambulation of the city on the day of the February/March full moon, many performing prostrations along the entire 8km route. The pilgrimage coincides with the festival of Holi, when coloured water is thrown everywhere and on everyone.
Ram Navami Ram’s birthday, celebrated on the ninth day after the March/April full moon, attracts thousands of sadhus, who receive free room and board at temples.
Chhath Women bathe in Janakpur’s ponds and line them with elaborate offerings to the sun god Surya at dawn on the third day of Tihaar (Diwali) in October/November. Women in the villages surrounding Janakpur paint murals on the walls of their houses.
Biwaha Panchami The culmination of this five-day event – Janakpur’s most important festival – is a re-enactment of Ram and Sita’s wedding at the Janaki Mandir, which draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims on the fifth day after the new moon of November/December.