How many people can you fit into that _______? (Days of madness and discovery in and around Janakpur)

The beginning of this month was a bit of a whirlwind.

On the morning of December 5, I was sitting at my guesthouse in Bhaktapur wondering what to do next. My iPhone was sitting on one knee, my Lonely Planet guide on the other. I had just finished researching a festival called Sita Bibaha Panchami, an annual affair that takes place in the eastern city of Janakpur every year. It celebrates the marriage of Sita, the daughter of the former king of Janakpur, to Rama, one of the incarnations of the Hindu god, Vishnu. That means it’s a hell of a party. According to LP (as I’ve affectionately started calling it), tens of thousands of pilgrims come from India every year, descending upon Janakpur for a week’s worth of festivities.

Thousands of pilgrims sleep outside Janaki Mandir temple in Janakpur during the annual Sita Panchami Babi festival.
Thousands of pilgrims sleep outside Janaki Mandir temple in Janakpur during the annual Sita Bibaha Panchami festival.

I wanted to visit Janakpur, and this sounded like the time of year to do so. There’s nothing quite like a city during a festival. So, at around 10:30 a.m. on that December morning, I decided to pack up my backpack, and make my way to the border city. There was just one slight obstacle: timing. The main night of the festival – the re-enactment of Sita and Rama’s marriage – was happening just two days later, on December 7. And Janakpur is halfway across Nepal – a 12-hour bus ride from Kathmandu (which, being in Bhaktapur, I was still an hour away from), across the Mahabharat mountain range and into the heart of the country’s Terai district.

But I had made up my mind. I was Janakpur-bound, and I was going to make it there as soon as humanly possible. I didn’t want to miss a moment more of the party.

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I hopped on the next local bus to Kathmandu and found myself back at my original home-base hostel, The Sparkling Turtle, where I had left a few things. There I also encountered my friend Marlon, a Dutch girl I had met during a previous stay. Marlon and I had been casually talking over Facebook about going to Janakpur together, and within minutes, we decided we would be travel companions. It was 1:30 p.m.

Marlon and I, mid-adventure.
Marlon and I, mid-adventure.

The next bus from Kathmandu to Janakpur left at 6 p.m. that evening. Now, if there is one word of advice I’ve read about Nepal, it is that you should avoid overnight buses. The roads are paved and winding at best, and huge pockmarked messes of sand and loose rock at worst. Plus the hairpin turns are sometimes not navigated best in the thickness of night, nor while blindly passing other traffic.

But in the impulse and rush of the moment, we decided to take the bus anyways.

How many people can you fit into that bus?

Bus stations in Nepal (this one in Janakpur) - chaos, only slightly organized. These were like the bus Marlon and I took from KTM to Janakpur.
Bus stations in Nepal (this one in Janakpur) – chaos, only slightly organized. These were like the bus Marlon and I took from KTM to Janakpur.

And so began the next memorable 12 hours of my life. Marlon and I got to the Kathmandu bus station at 4:45 p.m., and were promptly intercepted by half-a-dozen scalpers trying to sell us overpriced bus tickets. Marching up to the ticket counter, giant backpacks in tow, we bought the last two tickets on that night’s single bus to Janakpur. There was just one thing: those last two tickets were to sit up in the driver’s compartment of the bus. Whatever, we thought, as we exchanged ‘should we do it?’ glances. We were just happy to make it on board.

Marlon, all smiles at 6 p.m. The man you see on the left is the bus driver.
Marlon, all smiles at 6 p.m. The man you see on the left (yes, the one on his phone..) is the bus driver.

(At this point, knowing that I’m alive, here is an excerpt from Lonely Planet: “Road safety can be an issue, particularly for night travel. To maximize safety, travel in daylight hours and avoid the front seats.”

Well.

Our local bus ended up being what the Nepalese call a “deluxe” bus, which basically just meant it has fabric covering the seats and is a little less run down-looking than the colourful “Bob Marley” buses that prowl the roads. Boarding the bus, we were initially thrilled with our seats. There were a couple of Nepali men sitting there, and a big pillow of a seat where the bus’ gear shifter was. That’s where I sat, sprawled out lazily, wide eyes watching the road from the wind shield. Then, the sliding door to the driver’s compartment opened. And then it opened again. More and more men piled into that front portion of bus, and Marlon and I were soon relegated onto a small wooden bench directly behind the metal driver’s seat. In total there were nine of us, including the driver, squished into that tiny space. My knee was sat on for nearly the entire night by our bus DJ, the Nepali teenager who blasted a range of Bollywood and Top 40’s tunes (including an extended Akon playlist) without pause throughout the ride. Halfway through the night, Marlon and I gave up on sleeping (every time I dozed off I would bump my head on either the driver’s seat or on the chest of my teenage knee sitter), and joined in the singing, as the DJ and driver sang Aqua’s iconic “Barbie Girl” song as a duet.

We pulled into the dusty bus station in Janakpur at 7 a.m. the next morning, stiff, sore and swearing never to sit at the front of a Nepali bus ever again (for what we did for the rest of the day, see a later post, about Mithila art).

How many people can you fit into that temple?

The entrance way of Janaki Mandir, decorated for the festival.
The entrance way of Janaki Mandir, decorated for the festival.

On our second day in Janakpur, Marlon and I got a full dose of festival. Our plan for the day was to basically wander the centre of the city absorbing the atmosphere, take photos, and see what this Sita and Rama marriage celebration was all about. The city was just teeming with people; men and women selling offerings for puja, vendors dousing samosas and honey batter in bubbling oil, pilgrims informally sprawled out and camping on blankets, and holy men, who pursued Marlon and I around Janaki Mandir (the main temple), wanting to “bless us” by tying pieces of red string around our wrists in exchange for money.

Some of the sights and colours found around Janakpur.
Some of the sights and colours found around Janakpur.
Janakpur storefronts
Janakpur storefronts

The mind-numbing sound of the festival did not stop for the entirety of our time in Janakpur. The music played all night through megaphones around the city, the sound occasionally broken up by the crackling of a pilgrim yelling into a microphone.

Our alarm, our sleep depriver.
Our alarm, our sleep depriver.
I loved this - informal Bollywood movie-watching sessions in front of local shops.
I loved this – informal Bollywood movie-watching sessions in front of local shops.

The women looked stunning in their best saris, and their other clothing was draped over fences, rooftops, and balconies. It was a rainbow of an experience, one that smelled like street food and feet and human excrement. I have never watched so many people squat in public as I did in those two days.

Danush Sagar, the largest ceremonial tank in Janakpur, where the pilgrims went to bathe.
Danush Sagar, the largest ceremonial tank in Janakpur, where the pilgrims went to bathe.
Festival street food.
Festival street food.
One of my favourite photos from the day. Pilgrims hang clothing to dry from a balcony in Janakpur.
One of my favourite photos from the day. Pilgrims hang clothing to dry from a balcony in Janakpur.

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Entering Janaki Mandir to visit Sita’s temple was insanity, plain and simple. As Marlon and I stood at the outskirts of the temple, my eyes grew wide. The religious fervour was electric. Pilgrims were pushing and charging into the temple, throwing marigold petals and beaten rice as offerings to the giant idol at the front.

Pilgrims (and us) making their way to the Sita temple.
Pilgrims (and us) making their way to the Sita temple (can you spot Marlon in the second photo?)

A young Nepali boyscout took pity on the two of us, and led us into the mass, where the backs of our bodies were pelted with the aforementioned offerings, making me smile and laugh, until an entire offering of water was thrown onto my head and camera. After we left the swarm, Marlon and I were accosted by pilgrims, some of whom asked, some of whom didn’t, that we pose for photos with them. Westerners are not a common sight in Janakpur.

Later that evening we experienced our second swarm of the day, as we followed the wedding procession parade back to Janaki Mandir.

Parade scenes, as seen from the balcony of a rooftop restaurant along the main road.
Parade scenes, as seen from the balcony of a rooftop restaurant along the main road.

The streets around the temple were gridlocked with people, everyone thrusting impatiently forward, wanting a coveted spot within the fence of the temple. At this point, the crowd was about 10 per cent part fun and exciting, and 90 per cent scary.

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I legitimately thought I was going to be trampled by the hordes of people. I was being grabbed and pushed in every direction, both literally and sense-wise. I looked up, and saw a group of men and woman standing on the rooftop of one of the shops, staring down at the crowds. I made eye contact with one of the men, pointed at myself and Marlon, and then up at where they stood. Luckily, the gesturing and panic in my eyes was enough, and he motioned for us to join them on the roof. From there, I could finally breathe, as well as attempt to capture in photo the madness below.

Crowd and comfort: on the ground versus on the roof.
Crowd and comfort: on the ground versus on the roof.
A bead seller peddles his wares amidst the crowd of pilgrims.
A bead seller peddles his wares on the street by Janaki Mandir.
Janaki Mandir is spectacularly beautiful.
Janaki Mandir is spectacularly beautiful.

Marlon and I left Janakpur on another local bus the next morning – the same time when the thousands of pilgrims were making the journey back to India, via bus and on Nepal’s only train. We were grateful to have two real seats this time, but our laps were piled high with bags that were not our own, and personal space was a term that existed only in theory. We spent seven hours on that bus to a place called Birtamod, bound for a sleepy tea-growing town, Ilam. The bus rocked perilously back and forth as the driver swerved around slower traffic, playing chicken with opposing trucks and motorbikes.

Janakpur bus station
Janakpur bus station

How many people can you fit in that jeep?

Once we arrived in Birtamod, Marlon and I decided to take a jeep the remaining three-hours to Ilam. Fourteen of us were piled into that jeep, and I was grateful to have a window seat as we zoomed around sharp switchback corners, up 2,000 metres into the mountains. If I sound defeated by the Janakpur + transportation situation, it’s because I partially am. I have never realized how much I value that idea of a “personal bubble” until said bubble was popped by the efforts and energy of tens of thousands of people. The noise (and I hate using the term ‘noise,’ but I felt like things reached that level) of those 48 hours meant I wasn’t able to process and reflect on what I was encountering, so I was pretty much just overwhelmed and culture shocked the entire time.

Janakpur was an experience. I’m glad I went, but at the same time, I’m glad I’m not caught up in those moments anymore.

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