The curious case of Madhubani: Bihar’s unique tourism product you may have never heard of

Madhubani is one of Bihar’s districts that borders Nepal. It is home to unique art forms, heritage and culture, which have not yet been adequately identified, let alone promoted. As we go ‘vocal of local,’ it is time to revisit this long-neglected national treasure and firmly establish it on the global tourism map.

Why Madhubani?

The mighty Ganges divides the thirty-eight districts of Bihar into two distinct regions – North and South. Madhubani is part of North Bihar (literal meaning ‘the forest of honey’ or perhaps ‘sweet language’) and is now dubiously known more for its dense population and impoverishment. Before this forgetful infamy, however, the district grabbed headlines for its truly unique art form called the ‘Mithila Art.’ There is more. The region is home to ancient Indian history and folklore – home to Goddess Sita and King Janak and age-old rituals and traditions that accentuate our civilisational continuity. Let us briefly understand what makes Madhubani unique and why it deserves your attention:

  • For the history enthusiasts, Mithila or Madhubani Art is an ancient art form – the region of Mithila was part of the erstwhile Videha Kingdom, which was ruled by King Janaka, the father of Maithili Princess and Goddess Sita. Such long-term lineage means the art form has existed since millennia, and, oddly enough, has changed very little. The process involves using everyday items, such as twigs, brushes, matchsticks, nib-pens, even fingers, to draw geometrical patterns. The underlying theme of these paintings/drawings are celebrations. Therefore, these are often drawn during weddings, birth celebrations, sacred thread ceremonies, Chatth Puja or other such occasions. The use of natural colours is what makes this art form genuinely distinct. For instance, vermillion is used for red, crushed leaves for green and turmeric for yellow, and so on. The art form has been genuinely ‘environmentally-friendly,’ long before the jargon acquired mainstream status.  

The actual art form was practised on the newly plastered walls and floors of the mud huts as decoration, offering a distinct look to monotonous structures. The drawings are now also made on paper and canvas as mud huts are steadily giving way to pucca houses. 

  • Suarath Sabha: Saurath is located within the administrative precincts of Madhubani district and witnesses a peculiar tradition. Thousands of prospective Maithili grooms, flanked by their fathers and ghataks (middlemen), converge each year for fifteen days during an auspicious period to find their brides. Sounds like a make-belief story but it is true, and the tradition of the annual meet on a six hundred thousand sq. ft compound has continued, with slight variations, for close to 800 years. The Maharaja of Mithila had asked to identify 14 villages to hold such sabhas. They included Saurath, Khamgadi, Partapur, Sheohar, Govindpur, Fattepur, Sajhaul, Sukhasaina, Akhrarhi, Hemnagar, Balua, Baruali, Samsaul, and Sahsaula. Saurath is the only village that continues the tradition; all other villages have unfortunately discontinued the practice.
  • Janaki Temple: The kingdom of Mithila stretched far and wide and included part of the modern-day Janakpur in Nepal. Madhubani shares its borders with Nepal and continues to share an umbilical cord with the Himalayan State in the form of matrimonial alliances. The Janaki Temple is also known as Nau Lakha Mandir as it cost the exchequer nine lakhs of rupees to construct it, and is a tentative UNESCO site since 2008. The Temple was construed by Queen Vrisha Bhanu of Tikamgarh in 1910. A golden statue of Goddess Sita was found in 1657 and legend has it that she lived here before marrying Lord Ram and moving to Ajodhya.

Despite negligible state support from both sides of the border, the Temple attracts faithful Hindu pilgrims from across South Asia, including Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

Then and Now:

Madhubani is a pale shadow of its former self. The district is often ravaged by floods, given its geographical location, and proximity to Nepal, and has seen sustained large-scale migration for livelihood. There has been considerable change in the demography too. 

The continuity of the Mithila art form has been more dependent on some non-governmental organisations, mostly based out of India, and patrons who continue to support a handful of artists to ensure the art form is not lost forever.

Saurath Sabha too is waging an existential battle, and the ongoing Corona crisis has amplified it. Times have changed and so have preferences. The lack of government support to continue the tradition has not helped either.

Some parts of the Janaki Temple were reportedly damaged during the 2015 earthquake, and the structure has since been renovated. It has sadly not yet been included in the coveted UNESCO Heritage list, which could have accorded it the much-needed global exposure.

However, these and more, cumulatively, create a formidable tourism product. Bihar’s tourism has been known primarily for its Buddhist heritage, with Bodh Gaya and Nalanda as epicentres of attraction, domestic and international. While Buddhist heritage must and is rightly celebrated, Madhubani has been ignored by successive state governments, irrespective of their political ideologies.

Madhubani and the entire Mithalanchal (the Mithila region, including Darbhanga), are considered economically backward areas. Their regression is firmly entrenched because of extremely fragmented land holdings, which does not allow for any large-scale farming. Sustenance agriculture on small landholdings means farmers don’t make notable sums on their products; it is only enough for their families. The lack of land and skilled workforce has kept industries away – the only noteworthy mention here are the cottage industries, producing foxnuts and betel leaves. Sustained migration and demographic changes have compounded their miseries.

This is a sorry tale and yet presents a beautiful opportunity for a tourism-led growth. Madhubani’s tourism offerings provide a deep connect with India’s ancient past, civilisational continuity and art forms that are unique and represent the deep-rooted ethos of Indian culture – festivals, rituals, the celebration of nature and gods. These are times when ‘experiential tourism’ has gained popularity and tourists wish to sample truly Indian products, offering them a perspective that has thus far eluded them.

Upcoming airport may provide the much-needed pivot

That connectivity and accommodation are critical to creating demand for any tourism product are given. What may be a ray of hope is that Darbhanga’s dilapidated airport, used exclusively by the Indian Air Force, is now being upgraded for commercial operations. The talks of its reversal in fortunes have been on for some time now, but this may finally fructify, with the state’s assembly elections round the corner! As airlines commence operations, we may expect momentum in commerce and perhaps new hotels and accommodation. Bodh Gaya is a case in point: International connectivity, albeit seasonal, has worked well in attracting international footfalls.

These will create the base of tourism to grow, but the actual pull would have to come from the state government, which would have to demonstrate the will and a long-term growth roadmap for the region.

These national assets are far too exquisite to be left languishing or at the mercy of NGOs, no matter their intent and laudable interventions thus far. They require state support, both at the state and the central level. Old hands in the tourism sector still vouch for Madhubani and talk of how it was once expected to take the nation by storm in the early 1970s. We lost that opportunity. This may be the last chance to redeem these treasures for posterity, for they are lost forever to development and changing contours of society.

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