In the last six months, one South Asian leader who has been grabbing accolades by the bushel is India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a short earlier visit to Kathmandu, his first order of business was to pay respect to Lord Shiva at Pashupatinath Temple. Those in the tourist business here say that, since then, there has been a dramatic increase in visits to this famous temple by Hindu devotees, particularly those from India. “For Indian tourists, a visit has now become mandatory,” says one travel operator. Of course, this most magnificent of pagoda style temples, and Nepal’s holiest Hindu shrine, has always drawn a continuous stream of devotees, but now, as they say, the stakes have doubled!
Well, the charismatic leader is coming back once again, this time to attend the SAARC Summit later this month, which is being held in Kathmandu. But trust him to do something news-grabbing once again! This time, he has announced that he will be coming by road, and that he wishes to visit Janakpur first before flying on to the capital. Janakpur is the birthplace of Goddess Sita (a.k.a. Janaki, daughter of King Janak). Janakpur, or Janakpurdham, was once the capital of the Mithila kingdom, and it is about 400 km from Kathmandu. The Janaki Temple is the focal point of the town, and the white plastered three-storied temple’s design is a mix of Muslim and Rajput architecture. It was made in 1910 by General Amar Singh Thapa.
Janakpurdham features prominently in Ramayana, one of the two most popular epics of Hinduism, the other being Mahabharata. This was where many princes once gathered from far and wide to try and win the beautiful Princess Sita’s hand. King Janak threw down the challenge that only the prince who could lift and string the legendary ‘Shiva’s Dhanush (bow)’ would be the one worthy of being his daughter’s husband. None of the strongly built powerful princes could as much as even nudge the fabled bow from its resting place. Finally, only the dashing young Lord Ram of Ayodhyaya remained. Not only did he lift it and string it without much effort, so strong was he that the bow broke into two as he was stringing it. Janakpurdham has many more such fantastic stories that have become part of the local culture. Well, not that it is not already a major site for pilgrims on a Hindu pilgrimage tour to Nepal, but expect it to get substantially added mileage now after Mr. Modi’s visit!
There’s more. After the Summit, he will be visiting Lumbini, birthplace of Lord Buddha, and then the equally revered Muktinath Temple in Mustang district. Now, Lumbini has developed into an international Buddhist pilgrimage site, with scores of Buddhist countries vying with each other to create the most beautiful stupas possible. Interestingly, it was PM Modi himself, who, by publicly stating in the Nepal Parliament that Lord Buddha was born in Lumbini, laid to final rest the controversy about Buddha being born in some other place in India. With this settled, efforts have magnified a hundredfold now to make Lumbini the world’s focal point of Buddhism.
As for his tryst with Muktinath in Mustang district, sad to say, tragic news has preceded his planned visit, the district having witnessed its most terrible loss of lives, both national and international, in an unprecedented blizzard in October this year that resulted in at least 39 deaths of trekkers, guides, and porters trekking on the popular Annapurna Circuit, of which Muktinath Temple is a part. Sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, Muktinath has been touted for its three ‘wondrous miracles’. First, the ever-flowing icy cold water that is believed to originate from the sacred Lake Mansarovar in Mount Kailash that is channeled through 108 carved spigots behind the Vishnu Temple within the complex. All pilgrims take a running shower under all the 108 spigots to cleanse themselves of sins committed in their lifetimes. Should be a great TV opportunity when PM Modi does the same!
The other ‘miracle’ is the presence of saligram fossils, which are regarded as sacred representations of Lord Vishnu by Hindus, and as the serpent deity, Gawo Jogpa, by Tibetan Buddhists. Saligrams are black ammonite fossils that date back more than 165 million years, when the Tethys Sea covered this entire area, and eons before the Himalayas were formed. The miracle is that such ancient sea-creature encrusted fossils are found so high in the Himalayan region. Hindus say that where there is a saligram, there will be Lord Vishnu. The third ‘miracle’ is the presence of two small fires in Jwalamukhi Temple, south of Vishnu Temple, that appear to burn naturally and continuously. One burns from the earth, while the other burns inside a tiny spring of water.
Before, one had to walk many days to witness these ‘wondrous miracle’, but now one can drive right down to Muktinath from Jomsom, so it’s become very popular with both young and old, the fit and the not-so-fit. After all, one is absolved and gets mukti (liberty) from all sins committed by going there, so why shouldn’t everybody? And, now with the TV channels most probably preparing to show the ruggedly built PM Modi taking the ritual showers, Muktinath will be getting a pretty stupendous fillip, that’s for sure! By the way, who knows, all those cold showers might invigorate him so much that he might even go on to have a dip in the frigid waters of Damodar Kund that’s situated high up at some 5000 meters and has an interesting part to play in the story of Lord Krishna. I wouldn’t put it past the robust Mr. Modi to zip up there in a helicopter and take a brave dip, even if it’s only for a second or so!