The eclectic culture of ancient Mithila

The ancient Mithila has had her distinct individuality and an eclectic culture. This is the land of King Janaka, whose capital was at Janakpur about 18 miles from Jainagar in Madhubani district.

The land is also known as a part of Videha and that is why Sita, the daughter of Janaka, is also known as Vaidehi. Being intersected by rivers and streams, the area is also known from the ancient days as Tirabhukti, the land of the river banks, by which name she has been famous for at least the last fifteen hundred years.

Surrounded on three sides by the three great rivers, the Gandak, the Ganga and the Kosi, and on the north by the Himalayas, Mithila has had the geo- graphical advantage of seclusion where learning and culture could flourish. No wonder the people of Mithila are insular and exclusive in their attitude and have an almost childish faith in there own traditions and culture complex.

Videha or Mithila or Tirabhukti was famous for deep scholarship. In the Epics and the Puranas, Buddhist and Jain literature we find frequent references to Mithila, which was both the capital city of the region and also the kingdom. The Ramayana immortalizes the name of Mithila. Rama and Sita are household words throughout Hindu India.

The lore of Rama and Sita has imbued the length and breadth of Mithila. The place where Sita is supposed to have come out from the bowels of the earth is Sitamarhi.

The cult of Sri Ramachandra and Sita, which has such a deep hold in Mithila, has taken aconcrete shape in numerous temples throughout the area A large fair celebrating the Rama- navami, i.e., the day of Rama's birth, is held at Sitamarhi, which lasts for a fortnight and is attended by about a lakh of people.

Sitamarhi has a tank known as Janaki Kund from where Sita is said to have arisen. There is a modern temple of Janaki at Sitamarhi. Apparently a very old site, it was covered up with jungle in course of time. It is said that about five hundred years ago a Hindu ascetic Birbal Das came to know about the site because of his devotion and intuition. He came down from Ayodhya and cleared the jungle.

He found the images of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana and built a temple over them. Janakpur, which is at a distance of 18 miles from Jainagar and 24 miles from Sitamarhi, has a number of big temples with images of Rama, Sita, Janaka etc.

There is a hoary tradition behind this region. The Aryans had migrated into Mithila from across the Sadanira, which has been identified as the Gandak river flowing into the Ganga near Hajipar. The river Sadanira is taken to have formed the boundary between the ancient Aryan kingdoms of Kosala and Videha. This tradition suggests the infiltration of the Aryans to the east of the Gandak and of the colonization of Mithila Desha.
Up to the time of the Buddha, Videha was the name of the region and later it also came to mean the distinctive family name of all the kings of Mithila, known as Janaka. History points to a large number of King Janakas in this area. It appears that Janaka was not the proper name of any particular king, but, like Videha, it was the family name, which knew every king of that family.

Mithila had become famous under one of the King Janakas and the Brahman sage Yajna- valkya. The Puranas recite the story of Yajnavalkya, his guru Vaisampayana, and their great contribution asphilosophers and thinkers.But the popular mind of Hindu India does not worry about the Adhyatma Vidya of Yajnavalkya and King Janaka, but thinks of Mithila as the land where the sublime Sita, the idol of Indian woman hood, was born.

The Ramayana shall remain immortal, describing the life of Rama and Sita, who was the daughter of the King of Mithila, also known as Janaka. As mentioned, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas have all immortalized Mithila.

In the later years Mithila played an important role in the history of Buddhism and Jainism. Buddha had visited Mithila thrice and Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara, was the son of a daughter of Mithila. Mahavira had frequented Vaisali and Mithila in propagating the creed of Jainism.

Still later, the Tantra Shastra had its grip on Mithila and the only temple of Ugratara, which is a Buddhistic deity imported from China through Tibet, is in Mahesi village, in Saharsa district, which was also a part of Mithila. Mithila's contribution to philosophy, poetry and arts has been unique but need not be dwelt on here. Vidyapati, the immortal bard, was a Maithil and was born at Bisafi in Darbhanga district.

Ahiari village in Darbhanga district, about two miles from Kamtaul railway station of the North Eastern Railway, has a temple of Rama and Sita. The temple commemo- rates the story of Ahalya, wife of the sage Gautama. It is said that when Gautama Rishi was away for a while, Lord Indra assumed the Rishi's shape and visited Ahalya. On returning, Gautama learnt from his wife of the trick played by Lord Indra.

The Rishi then cursed Ahalya, who turned into stone. She remained like that till Sri Rama's visit to the ashram of Gautama, while on his way to Janakpur. Rama removed the spell and Ahalya was revived.

Maharaja Chatra Singh Bahadur of Darbhanga built the present temple of Ahiari only in 1817. A mela is held there every year in the month of Chaitra on Ramanavami day. The mela lasts for several days and is very popular.
Vishwamitra, the guru of Rama, commemorated by a temple of Rama and Sita at Besaul, which lies about four miles from Phulher village. It is said that Besaul was the place where Vishwamitra Muni. Had his ashram and Rama and Lakshmana were his disciples at this ashram. The Girija temple of Phulher, although in an inaccessible place, deserves a special mention as it has a fine legend behind it.
This temple, situated at Phulher village about 40 miles north-west of Darbhanga railway station of the North-Eastern Railway, has an ancient, sweet and ennobling halo around it.

Janakpur is about 40 miles to the north of this temple. The Nepal-India border is only one mile from here. Harlakhi, which is 4 miles north, is the nearest market from here and has a post office, a block office and a police station.

The legend is woven round Sri Rama- chandra and Sita Devi. Sita, the daughter of King Janaka, who had his capital at Janakpur close by, used to come to Phulher village, collect sweet-smelling blossoms and offer them to the Girija deity at the temple. The tank nearby is still pointed out as the pool where Sita would have her bath, sit by and make thegarlands of flower for offering to the deity.

It is here that one day Sita had repaired with her Sakhi (companion) and Sri Ramachandra had also gone there with Lakshmana and was plucking flowers. The bashful Sita's eyes fell on Sri Rama- chandra and Sri Ramachandra too was captivated by the coy girl.

Both felt a great joy in seeing each other and they hurried back to their respective abodes. This was the first meeting of Sri Ramachandra and Sita Devi and it took place in the vicinity of the Girija Devi temple. The Balakanda of Ramayana depicts this meeting in a very fascinating manner.

Vishwamitra's ashram, where Rama was under training, is located at Besual village, nearly four miles from Phulher village. The former village has also a temple of Sri Ramachandra and Sita Devi. Girija temple faces the east. At the entrance, there is a verandah 10 feet by 12 feet. Then we come to the cell for the deity, measuring 8 feet by 10 feet.

The height of the temple is about 75 feet. The image of the main deity of the temple, the goddess Girija, is about 2 feet high and made of black stone. To the right side of Girija is a two feet image of Janaki, made of marble. To the left side of Girija are the images of Ganeshji (2 feet), Kaliji (2 feet), Durgaji (2 feet), Sri Vishnu (2 feet) and Lord Shiva (21 feet). All these images are of black stone. Excepting the Girija image, the other images were all installed later.

To the right side of the Girija temple, there is a temple of Bhairav and also a big tank. This is the tank where, according to legend, Sita took her bath daily before worshipping the goddess Girija in the adjacent temple.The priests of the temple are Vaishnavas. This temple is claimed to be their ancestral property. About 100 people a day come here to offer prayer. Visitors generally bring sweets, fruits and garlands to offer to the deity. The priest marks the forehead of the devotees with vibhuti (ashes) and he usually gets money from them as dakshina.

The devotees of Rama and Sita specially observe the month of Phalgun very religiously. As mentioned before, there is a string of temples in the neighborhood dedicated to Rama and Sita. In Phalgun, devotees undertake Panch Kosi Yatra and walk ten miles visiting the Rama-Sita temples at Janakpur, Ahalyasthan, Durgasthan, Kapileswarasthan, Besaul, Phulher etc.

The Girija temple at Phulher draws about a thousand persons daily throughout the days of that sacred month. This is, no doubt, indicative of the deep impact of the Rama-Sita cult on the people of the locality. Rather peculiar is the fact that the devotees all worship Sita as mother although they lovingly refer to her as a daughter (maiyah) and take pride in narrating about her triumphs and travails, joys and sorrows. Sri Ramachandra is fondly referred not only as the Lord and Master of the Universe but also as the son-in-law of the area.

As for the routine of the rituals, the deities are daily bathed morning and evening and offering Prasad and Arti follows this. So far as facilities for visitors are concerned, there are no dharmashalas or rest sheds near the temple and in the village. No one has thought of building them despite the relatively isolated nature of the locality. Visitors generally stay under the trees and in the huts of pandas, who charge money for affording shelter. The troubles of the pilgrims and visitors can well be imagined. It may be mentioned that a goodproportion of the pilgrims is from Nepal.

This Girija temple, with its immemorial tradition of Sita meeting Rama for the first time and the subsequent marriage of all the four sons of king Dasharatha of Ayodhya to the four daughters of King Janaka, prompts us to make a few observations on the enduring impact of the Rama-Sita cult which has permeated Hindu India through Mithila. It is said that the sage Vishwamitra took Sri Rama- chandra and Lakshmana to the court of King Janaka at Janakpur where Rama broke the bow and Sita garlanded him.

The Malyadan by Sita completed the marriage, though the father of the bride- groom was not present at the time. Later the formal invitation to King Dasharatha was sent and he came with the other sons. As Janaka and his brothers had threemore daughters, they were given in marriage to the three sons of King Dasharatha.
The quick way in which the marriages were settled and performed is still being perpetuated at Saurath mela, which is probably a singular institution of its kind in the world. At village Saurath, in Darbhanga district, every year a big mela is held only for striking marriage bargains.

The parents and guardians of boys and girls attend this congregation with horoscopes and pundits, on examining the same, give their opinion as to the suitability of the marriages contemplated between the parties concerned. Immediately on hearing their opinion, it is quite common for the boy's father, along with a few friends, to rush to the girl's place and the wedding will duly take place.

The lines of the Balakanda, dwelling on the touching farewell given by King Janaka to the bridegroom's party, evoke before us a scene full of pathos. Many are the songs that have been composed over this sad parting, which are still recited, along with passages from Tulsidas Ramayana, when a bride now- leaves her parent's home. Several of the songs that are recited by the ladies of Mithila now are woven round the lines in the Ramayana describing Sita's marriage

The courtesy and the hospitality extended by Raja Janaka to Rama and Dasharatha have become a tradition and example which are still followed throughout Hindu India as far as the means permit. Sita was married in the month ofAgrahayan and as Sita had her fill of grief and distress all through her life, marriages in the month of Agrahayan are not normallyencouraged.

Quotations from Tulsidas's Ramayana are very common on the lips of the older generation. There are thousands of Hindus in Mithila who still recite a few couplets of the Ramayana before and after taking their two principal meals. Portions of the Ramayana are read daily in a large number of homes. Not only do Hindus utter the name of Rama when in trouble, but it is also common among them to utter the sacred Rama Nama into the cars of the dying man.

All over Hindu India, during the occasion of the Durga Puja, Rama Lila parties have become pretty common. Rama Lila performances always attract thousands of people, who love to see the story of the Ramayana visualized before their eyes. Some of the Rama Lila parties have become well-known and are eagerly sought after to partake in the Vijaya dashami celebrations. The boys playing the part of Rama and Sita are held in high esteem and the sanctity of tradition is so alive that hundreds of the elderly folk even bow down before the actors. Garlands, sweetmeat (prasad) and coins are showered on them as a mark of respect.

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