The industrial and transport hub of the far west, NEPALGUNJ is also Nepal’s most Muslim city. The presence of Muslims in the Terai is hardly surprising, since the border with India, where Muslims comprise a significant minority, was only determined in the nineteenth century. Until just prior to the 1814–16 war with the British, this area belonged to the Nawab of Oudh, one of India’s biggest landowners; after Nepal’s defeat it was ceded to the East India Company and only returned to Nepal as a goodwill gesture for services rendered during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. A fair few Muslims fled to Nepalgunj during the revolt – Lucknow, where the most violent incidents occurred, is due south of here – and others filtered in during the Rana years, seeing chances for cross-border trade. The resulting permanent Muslim community is self-contained, but maintains business and family links with India. Indeed, the entire city feels Indian.
In the heart of the sprawl is Tribhuwan Chowk, the lively but dilapidated intersection of the city’s two main shopping thoroughfares, south of which the Indian-style Janaki Mandir sits in the middle of the road like a toll booth. The Muslim quarter lies northeast of Tribhuwan Chowk and is worth a wander. The mosques in this area are disappointingly modern, though, and out-of-bounds to non-believers. Hindu worship and trade centres around the nondescript Bageshwari Mandir; behind the temple is a large pool with a jaunty, kitsch statue of Mahadev (Shiva) in the middle.