Janakpur, 120 kilometres south of Kathmandu and just twenty kilometres from the Indian border, isn’t exactly on Nepal’s main tourist trail. But for a taste of a more North Indian landscape without actually crossing the border, Janakpur is an excellent little town to spend a day, especially if you can tie a trip in with one of Nepal’s major festivals. The festival is known around Nepal as Tihar, but more commonly called Deepawali in Janakpur (where the Maithili language is predominant), is a great time of year to visit.
Janakpur is religiously important to Hindus, as it is supposedly the place where Lord Rama’s wife Sita (also known as Janaki, hence the town’s name) was born. It is a pilgrimage site for Hindus from both Nepal and India, and much of the central area of town caters to Indian tourists, evidenced by the number of Indian restaurants and the types of souvenirs sold.
The main attraction of Janakpur, the place around which the town’s life revolves, is the ornate Janaki Mandir (temple), built in 1911 and completely unlike anything else in Nepal. Built in a proto-Rajput style, it resembles a Rajasthani palace, of the type found in Udaipur or Jaipur in India, but isn’t anywhere near as old as them. Inside the temple, the precinct is a small museum, which is worth visiting more for its comic than its informative value. In the basement are a few dusty cases of idol clothing, and upstairs is what was described as an “animation”, a series of moving dolls portraying the life of Sita and scenes from the Ramayana.
The Janaki Mandir is worth seeing at any time of year, but during Deepawali, it, and the town is transformed. Deepawali/Tihar celebrations are spread out over three main days in Nepal. I arrived in Janakpur on day two of festivities, and nothing much seemed to be going on. But by day three the streets began to resemble a lush South Indian backwater town (sort of!). Thousands of banana palm branches had been cut down and ‘re-planted’ outside shops along the main roads. This seemed especially appropriate for a town with a mythical history — the town is supposed to be the place where Sita, Lord Ram’s wife, was born. If one tried to block the noise of motorised traffic, it may almost be possible to imagine how the subcontinent may have been during the mythological times, lush and green and fecund.
During this third day of the festival a large, busy market was held in the square in front of the Janaki Mandir, selling all of the religious paraphernalia necessary for Hindu worship: coloured powders in the brightest imaginable colours for creating rangoli decorations outside homes and businesses, clay lamps, bangles, marigold garlands, coconuts, laddoos, Gulab Jamon, RagGullah, and other round, syrup-sodden sweets, luridly coloured posters of deities… Throughout the day small lamps—either of the clay or electric variety—were placed carefully on the palm branches along the streets, and after dark these were lit to entice Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, into homes and businesses.
Being a pilgrimage town, it is worth visiting Janakpur during any major religious festivals, many of which fall around full moons: Parikrama and Holi in February/March, Ram Navami (Lord Rama’s birthday) in March/April, or BiwahaPanchami in November/December. But, the day I left, the day after the Deepawali festivities, the banana leaves were wilting, the market had packed up and the glittering jewellery shops had drawn their shutters for the day.
Inspired? If you are interested in our festival tours, have a look at what Royal Mountain Travel can also offer: