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Tuesday, May 22, 2001

EPIC GROUND

Mists of time and fable fade at Janakpur


By JON BURBANK

JANAKPUR, Nepal -- There are few places where history and allegory blur more easily than the Indian subcontinent. The line dividing fact and fable meanders and shifts like the great Ganges River that figures so prominently in both.

Worshippers and pilgrims perform their dawn ablutions at holy Ganga Sagar Pond in Janakpur, Nepal.

In Nepal, near the border, on the edge of the Ganges' flood plain, is the small, bustling city of Janakpur. At Janakpur's heart is Janaki Mandir, one of the most important Hindu temples in "the world's only Hindu kingdom."

Standing before this enormous white confection of a building drenched in warm, clear winter sun, the differences between truth and legend seem as hazy as the thick fog that masked the temple's domed spires this morning.

In the crowded, lively bazaar surrounding Janaki Mandir, every footstep brings history, myth and faith close enough to touch. The events that shaped Janakpur occurred about 3,500 years ago, but in everyone's minds they are as fresh as the latest headlines on MSNBC (about the only thing my hotel's satellite dish pulled in).

Jankapur takes it name from King Janak, wise and able ruler of the kingdom centered here those thousands of years ago. Janak's daughter, Sita, is familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the subcontinent. Sita, without equal in her goodness, purity and beauty, became the wife of Ram, hero of one of the great epics of world literature, the "Ramayana." Their marriage, Sita's kidnapping by the demon Ravana, and Ram's rescue of her, assisted by his brother Laxman and faithful companion Hanuman the monkey king, make up the heart of this great story.

The goldsmiths' market in Janakpur makes wealth portable.

Janak proclaimed that only the man who could lift the great bow of the god Shiva could ask for Sita's hand. According to legend, he held this great contest in Dhanushadham ("Place of the Bow"), 18 km from today's Janakpur. Hundreds of princes came and tried, but none could lift Shiva's bow until Ram's turn (the last) came. Ram lifted the bow, and then broke it in two. To this day the pieces remain where they fell.

If you sense a tourist attraction, you're right, albeit a low-key one. It's a pleasant bike ride through the countryside to the present-day dusty village. Inside a walled compound people will happily show the bow protruding from the khaki-colored earth, looking suspiciously like a hunk of black volcanic rock.

Cycling is the best way to travel. Local buses are unreliable and, besides, there's not a hill in sight. With a bike you can also visit some of the dozens of large ponds that dot the Janakpur area.

Ram was actually an incarnation of the great god Vishnu, and most of the Hindu pantheon wanted to attend his wedding. Legend says King Janak ordered the ponds dug so each of the gods and goddesses attending the wedding could bathe in private.

The ponds are still there (most are actually more recent), and much of village life revolves around them and their lush, green, shady banks. Worshippers supplicate the gods standing waist-deep in the pond, women beat their washing nearby on stones worn smooth after generations of use and children laugh and splash. In another corner water buffalo relax and wallow, and nearby a fisherman throws his net, a huge mesh circle flying through the air.

Inner sanctuary, Janaki Mandir

In Janakpur you have to sightsee by bicycle or rickshaw, because motor vehicles are banned from the town proper (another thing in its favor). In the town center at dawn people will be bathing at Ganga Sagar Pond, just as Sita is said to have done. Women still bath as Sita did, dressed in a sari.

From here it's an easy walk to Janaki Mandir through a bazaar that is a Hindu version of Asakusa's Nakamise-dori. Shops selling everything from religious icons to the latest fashions and gadgets line the street until it reaches the huge open square containing Janaki Mandir.

The temple is like a marvelous white wedding cake, delicately trimmed in every color of the rainbow and topped with spires and towers in Mughal style. An Indian queen built it in 1911 as an act of religious devotion, marking the spot where in 1657 worshippers found a golden statue of Sita, and decided this was her actual residence.

The actual temple sanctuary sits in an inner courtyard paved with gray-white marble. It's busy from morning to night. Shopkeepers and civil servants going to and from work, housewives going shopping, cows looking for a handout, children going to school or off to play: It seems the entire town stops here at least once a day to pay respects.

Then there are the busloads of pilgrims arriving daily from all across India and Nepal. Large groups of men and women move through the temple in tight clumps, just like tour groups in Japan (minus the flag-waving guide at their head). During festivals the town's population can double or triple overnight.

This tourist trade keeps Janakpur's bazaar going. Before India opened to imports about a decade ago, middle-class Indians came to combine a little religion with a lot of shopping for the latest consumer goods available here in more laissez-faire Nepal. Now this has dried up, but the gold bazaar continues to thrive. In dozens of shops goldsmiths sit cross-legged, fashioning the elaborate jewelry most women consider their most valuable (and often only) asset.

Just on the outskirts of town near the airport is the Janakpur Women's Development Center. Women of the Maithili ethnic group, the area's largest, use the same folk designs they've painted on homes for thousands of years to produce handicrafts. Founded in 1989, the center has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. Visitors are welcome to watch the women work, and there is a shop. The only men are the night watchmen.

Janakpur also has Nepal's only railroad, a narrow-gauge line stretching about 55 km. Quaint if not speedy, it's a cheap way to see this verdant countryside.

Janakpur is accessible by air from Katmandu, about 30 minutes, with flights in both directions daily. Buses take about 10 hours, day and night. Hotel Rama is the best, the top rooms are spacious, with air conditioning and even satellite TV (sometimes). Street-side shops sell excellent snack food, especially at Sukh Sagar. There are several quality restaurants, including one at the Hotel Rama. Negotiate a bicycle rental at your hotel. Bargain with rickshaw pullers.


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