My immersion back into the madness of India came earlier than expected, as Janakpur is an Indian town in all but geography. Sitting inside Nepal, just a few kilometres from the Indian border, the town is a pilgrimage site for Hindus, and is a bustling market town that feels Indian in everything from the smell to the scenery.
It was glorious walking through the mayhem again. I explored on foot, as is my wont (people rarely sidle up to you and start crazy conversations when you're hurtling along on two wheels) and soon found myself wandering through fields, past pools and around temples, all brimming with people washing, hawking, doing laundry, carrying large bundles on their heads, and generally getting on with life. And in the middle of it all is a mighty strange sight: the Janaki Mandir.
Imagine a big palace with turrets, towers and gates that's been dipped in white marshmallow and painted with joyous abandon in a clash of colours that Jackson Pollock would have thought garish. Although a modern building (built in 1912) this celebration of vitality denotes the spot where Sita, Rama's wife, was born, back in the days of the Ramayana (another name for Sita is Janaki, after her father Janaka, hence the name Janakpur); round the corner is the Rama Sita Bibaha Mandir, a tacky little building that marks the spot where Rama and Sita were married, and which contains a Disney-esque collection of figures acting out the marriage ceremony. And surrounding this construction of confectionery are stalls selling everything from sarees to sweets, adding yet more colour to the scene; if I needed reminding of the rainbow quality of India, this was it.
The area outside town is delightful, too. To the northwest of the centre are three tanks, big man-made lakes with steps leading down to them (known as ghats) where people wash themselves, their clothes, their rickshaws, their cows and just about anything else that needs cleaning. It seems that these tanks are also the social equivalent of the shopping mall, for no sooner had I plonked myself down on the banks for a rest than half the population dropped by for a chat, which was no mean task given my lack of Nepali and their lack of English. Luckily a well-spoken medical student turned up to break down the barriers, and Nazir and I talked for quite some time, him telling me about the temples in the area, and me telling him that no, western women are not easy and sex isn't a free-for-all in England. As with most towns that haven't been tainted by tourism, the people of Janakpur were genuine, courteous and friendly.
I also managed to time my visit to coincide with the celebrations of Sita's birthday, which of course is an excuse for a big party in the city which houses Sita's birthplace: seven days of partying, to be precise. Tuesday 5th May was the last day of the celebrations, which explains why I kept being accosted by mumbling sadhus who would put a couple of petals into my hand, smear a mark on my forehead in red tika powder, mutter a few words in whatever language they were speaking that day, and then hold out their hands for a few rupees. It was quite entertaining, and the reaction from the locals as I walked the streets was not unlike that in Bijapur when I got stained purple by the Holi mob; I guess they don't get too many white people in Janakpur, especially ones with tika marks.
The celebrations that night were worth the effort, too. I watched a melee of sights and sounds go past; there were crazies smothered from head to toe in tika powder, sadhus chanting mantras, bands dressed in clothes that bore a striking resemblance to Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, floats carrying petal-smothered images of Rama and Sita, loudspeakers proclaiming loudly, horns blaring, bicycle bells ringing and, above all, a real sense of carnival. Everyone smiled, everyone celebrated and everyone seemed genuinely pleased to have a foreigner witnessing the scenes. What happy Hindus they were, and what a contrast to the reserved peoples of the mountains. I guess that's what living a few kilometres from India does to you...