And the whole reason we went….


Trains, rickshaws, temples and Mithila art were all experiences grabbed at the beginning or end of each day, but the real reason I was in Janakpur was work-related. The Embassy does a roadshow each year, visiting a different part of the country each time to engage with schools, share books with the kids, and share American culture and movies with them. Its a busy couple of weeks for everyone involved. I was just there for a few days at the end of the trip.

The best part of the experience was meeting the kids, and answering their many questions about America and American life. Here are a few scenes from the week:

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Early on…before the crowds descend

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Books for the kids to view. They are later donated to schools, but they’re available for kids to look over as many of them don’t have access to libraries or there are very limited books in the schools.

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Two boys engrossed…sharing a book and a chair

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Mass Read-a-thon

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Sharing eco-friendly cooking techniques with the kids.  Many eco-friendly cookers were old-school techniques – like cooking with dung.  Some of these were still alive and well in Janakpur already….

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The kids loved the book bus with its mobile library, solar panels on the room and mobile theater

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One of the best scenes for me was seeing kids engrossed in books. It made a pleasant change from all eyes on an ipad.

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I talked myself hoarse answering all the questions. I’d answer three, then look up and I’d have 20 kids circling around me.

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Movie time

Meeting Janakpur’s Mithila Artists


I loved the Mithila artwork I saw in Kathmandu, long before I knew anything about it or where it came from. Mithila paintings and painted objects, such as mirrors, trays and cups, have a distinctive primitive style that is colorful and appealing. You can find their handiwork in most “Fair Trade” shops in Kathmandu for a very reasonable price, and before I had the chance to go down and see the artists at work, I had collected quite a few pieces that I loved, as well as sending them as gifts for friends and family.

So when I learnt we were going to Janakpur, I hoped that I would get a chance to see some of the art being produced.  I’m not sure what I expected but it wasn’t to see the art incorporated into everyday life such as government buildings and schools.  Even the otherwise, very shabby airport building had a wonderful collection of Mithila paintings.  It was surprising and delightful to me that the tradition still held strong without tourism spurring it on.

So when I had the chance to visit the Janakpur Women’s Development Center, I was very excited to see what their operation and watch the artists at work.

The Center is located in an attractive wall compound about 15 minutes outside of Janakpur town.  Screenprinting, art and pottery studios surround the internal courtyard and the ladies showed me around all the activities going on.  The walls and pillars are decorated in a traditional local style that reminded me of South Western native american Adobe.  It was a very peaceful place.

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Mithili art at the nearby Janaki temple

The Center provides a great opportunity to keep the Mithili art tradition alive, as well as providing an independent income to rural women in the area.  Its open to the public by prior appointment for tours and they have a small sales room were you can buy their works. Totally worth a visit if you are in the area.

Janakapur Train Station: No Blast from the Past


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I wish I had taken these first two images. Not only because they are great photos, but mainly because it would mean that Nepal’s only train station — here in Janakpur — was still open. The photographer is unknown to me, but kudos to him/her and I hope s/he doesn’t mind me using the photos. They were shared with me by the hotel manager at the place where we stayed. He wanted to show me what the station looked like when it was last open, which was just over a year ago.

The reason for its closure was veiled in the usual confusion of partial information: management problems, money problems, and plans to connect the line with the train line on the other side of the Indian border.  Which…by the way… it may also be already connected to.  No one was very clear on that either.  Chances are it stopped on one side of the border, but it didn’t connect over completely.  But I think a unified Nepalese/Indian connection is now on the cards.

It was the only train line in Nepal, and perhaps the only still functioning, original steam train in the world.  The word is that it will reopen soon, but not as a steam train unfortunately.  That blast from the past won’t be heard again at Janakpur station.

I’m told the old steam train traveled so slowly that you could jump off and walk beside it.  Which, of course, helps explain the bravado of the roof and door riders.  Not so scary when its not traveling at sixty miles an hour.

Today the images are quite different.  The train sits permanently in front of the station, like it might actually be leaving some time soon.  And outside the station, there’s still a bunch of rickshaw drivers waiting to pick up a ride like no-one actually told them there trains had stopped.  (I guess old habits die hard.)

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Rickshaw drivers waiting outside the station. I guess its still their turf…train or no train.

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The lonely train sitting at the station in 2014

But the station’s closing doesn’t seem to have had too much impact on its visitors. The station and track were teeming with life. We walked a ways along the track with many others who were using it as a road to work or school. There were bikes, vendors, customers and garbage a plenty. Life was going on as normal, just without the functioning train.

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Peeking inside the dilapidated carriages.

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The tree is behind the train. The bush is growing inside it.

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“Passengers” walking along the tracks

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The only billboard I saw, advising passengers that they were entering a district with malaria.

Janakpur Temple: Janaki Mandir


Its called Janaki Mandir, the very large – surprisingly large – and important temple in Janakpur. I had seen pictures before I came and had expected a palace-like building on a hill somewhere, overlooking the town. But its not elevated. Its downtown, amid all the chaos. Just sitting there, overshadowing everything else.   Janakpur’s temple is dedicated to the gods Rama and Sita and, as they are major figures in Hinduism, Janakpur is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus.

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There was a protest going on the day we arrive, with crowds and police hanging out in front of the temple.

As I started to unravel some of the legends surrounding the gods, I began to notice references to them in paintings and sculptures. Upstairs in the cultural museum, for 15 rupees you can watch mechanical animations of the stories from Rama and Sita legends, protected behind glass.  Although a little cheesy for my taste, it was cute to see the effort put into them as colourful, dancing mechanized dolls slid up and down rails, chanting or dancing, relating scenes from the religious stories.   For me, the animated displays weren’t the reason to pay the entrance fee.  I loved the view you got down from there into the temple courtyard.  In a way it was the “usual” temple scene, with praying, eating, kids and cows all going on simultaneously.  But it was also different as the architecture was completely unexpected and unlike anything else I have seen in Nepal so far.

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Inside the temple’s exterior walls, the main temple sits in the middle of the courtyard. This was a “shoe off” zone and probably not for non-hindus, so we never went inside.

The temple is around 150 years old and kept in very good condition, especially considering the many maintenance challenges here. But I couldn’t help wondering why so place so beautiful and so holy wasn’t kept cleaner. I did see someone trying to clean up, but she was old and slow, and only one person. The litter, dirty water and cow messes were everywhere. That was a real shame.

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There were many decorative pieces around the temple painted in the style of the local Maithil artists. Clearly this is another representation of the marriage of Rama and Sita.

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My first encounter of Janaki temple chanting was the evening of our second day in Janakpur when it started, broadcast noisily over loud speakers. 36 hours later it was still going strong, having continued all through the night and, quite honestly, it was starting to drive me a bit nuts. When I asked around I was told there the temple had a chanting tradition, which goes on 24/7 year round. This didn’t quite make sense as the town was quiet the first day, and sometime later the chanting inexplicably stopped. Did it go on 24/7 or not? I never did quite get to the bottom of it. The best we could figure out is perhaps someone paid for the chanting to be broadcast (during a wedding perhaps?) and the reminder of the time a holy man chants quietly in the temple somewhere,  hopefully geting someone to change shifts with him occasionally….. Ram Sita, Ram Sita….

Janakpur Town: The Wild Wild South


I just returned from a trip to Janakpur.  Back in Kathmandu it’s dusty.  In Janakpur its dustier.  Kathmandu is pretty dirty….Janakpur is dirtier.  Back here in Kathmandu things are looking more organized…I’m sure you can guess why.

But it was a good trip.  And Janakpur is interesting place to see, despite its difficulties.

Its is in the Terai, the southern part of Nepal, close to the Indian border.  The Terai is flat and fertile — the bread (or rice) basket of Nepal — less populated, less developed and much more Indian in style and flavour.  Rickshaws are very common. There are more bicycles than motorcycles, but not so many that you can’t walk in the street without fearing for your life.  Cars are few.

It took a while to get used to the flow of street life.  People, bikes, and rickshaws traveled slowly, weaving together in continuous intervening streams.  Janakpur had the feel of a  . dusty border town from the wild, wild west – minus the horses and guns.  But what it lacked in horses it made up for in chickens, cows and black boar.  Yes, Pumba roamed the streets here.  Dozens of them.  And I was drawn to them with fascination — as I am now over the street cows (which are so yesterday darling) — and loved watching the squealing black piglets running down the side streets.  Often the street cows and pigs grazed the garbage in peace, side by side.

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Foraging piggies….in the mist.  My best shot ;o(  Never work with children or animals!

We took a couple of early morning walks through the city.  Even at 6.30am in the early morning mist, there were already throngs of people walking to work or school.  We headed into the unknown through the fog, past storefronts just opening or shopkeepers still curdled up under bedding.

By the end of my stay I was ready to leave the dust and dirt.  But I took home some good memories of the people, countryside, and the famous Janaki temple – which I will leave to another post.

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Hotel Welcome – where welcome never ends ;o)