Introducing: Sita Bibiha Festival in Janakpur, Nepal
In a corner of Nepal otherwise unknown to tourists, well to the east beyond the biggest mountains and so far south it’s nearly India, once per year the anniversary of a legendary marriage bring visitors streaming in from several countries. It may be offbeat and out of the way to Western visitors, but locally the marriage of Sita and Rama is the biggest event on the Janakpur festival calendar.
Introducing: the Sita Bibiha festival.
Legends surrounding the ancient kingdom of Mithila disagree on the provenance of Sita, whether she was tilled from the fields by King Janak’s prayers or born of a blood tax exacted on local holy men. These stories all agree, however, on the fact that Sita was the most beautiful girl in all of Janak’s kingdom. Even Lord Shiva was so impressed with her strength and beauty that he presented King Janak with a gift: an archer’s bow. King Janak, struggling to find a suitable suitor for his daughter’s marriage, used the bow as a test of worth: only the man who could string the giant bow and break it into two would be given the hand of the beautiful Sita in marriage.
Worshippers today gather annually to celebrate the marriage of Sita to Ram, a young holy man’s apprentice who (much to the surprise of the royalty and nobles who had gathered from near and far) was the only man to rise to the challenge and break the Shivan bow. Revelers at the modern festival concentrate on the Janaki Mandir temple in Janakpur, offering prayers to and decorating the statues of Sita and Ram in traditional Hindu wedding dress. Each year, local children are chosen to play the roles of Sita and Ram and paraded around the city as throngs of festival-goers line the streets to celebrate the ceremonial marriage.
In the nights leading up to the festival, crowds arrive to the city from across Nepal and India – many simply sleeping in the central plaza directly in front of the Janaki Mandir. Each morning, many gather on the steps of a nearby sacred pool to wash away both dirt and sins in the holy water.
Throughout the festival, a party atmosphere pervades with shopping and street food and general revelry in abundance. Be sure to visit the upper quarters of the Janaki Mandir temple, where Hindu ascetics known as sadhu often congregate throughout the festival to offer blessings to visitors.
The Sita Bibiha festival is celebrated annual based on the Nepali traditional calendar, so the date changes each year. The 2015 festival will take place on Dec 10, and in 2016 the festival will be held on Dec 16th.
Janakpur is far away from the many touristic highlights of Nepal, but can be reached in a short flight or an agonizingly long bus ride from Kathmandu.
If you go, be prepared for Holi-style powder throwing on the streets and make sure to keep your camera safe! Crowds are huge and often extremely dense, so it’s also a good idea to leave valuables back at the hotel as much as possible.