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.