Janakpur Women’s Development Centre

Not sure this is all it could have been…

Letter from Nepal: old love story

I was in Janakpur to collect a painting by Gangawati Das, a 45-year-old Maithili woman who works in the Janakpur Women’s Development Centre, an organisation set up in 1989 to promote the work of female artists. Maithili women are among the poorest and most marginalised people in the Terai plains of east Nepal.

India‘s oldest love story began in Janakpur. It is where Rama, Prince of Ayodhya, came to marry the beautiful daughter of the King of Mithila, the lovely Sita. Their story is told in the most popular of the Indian epics, The Ramayana, written around 500BC.

It is also why Janakpur boasts 120 temples, including the fantastic Mogul-inspired Janaki Mandir, one of Nepal’s most picturesque. Next door to its elegant stucco facade is a hideous modern brick-and-glass building that commemorates the spot where Rama and Sita married. Thousands of pilgrims visit every day.

Fortunately, the JWDC where Gangawati works is surrounded by green paddy fields and shady mango groves. The artists work sitting cross-legged on the floor painting on Nepali lokta paper, made from the bark of Himalayan shrubs.

In Maithili culture it is only the women who paint; on the freshly plastered mud walls of their houses, they celebrate marriages, births or Hindu festivals such as Deepawali.

The paintings usually depict some of the pantheon of Hindu gods. Nowadays, the artists have a more modern repertoire: recent commissions include posters that highlight the danger of HIV or the need to register for elections.

When I visit Gangawati, the outside of her simple, mud-plastered house is adorned with a large painting of Hanuman, the Monkey King who helped Rama rescue Sita after she had been abducted by the evil King Ravana.

Gangawati ushers me in for a cup of tea served by her daughter-in-law, who hides shyly behind her. Gangawati was married to her husband at the age of 16.

I look at my painting. In the folk style of Maithili artists, Gangawati has painted all the birds around her home: tiny screech owls, a crested hoopoe, a colourful openbill stork and a dazzling blue peacock.

The celestial lovers are here as well, eating a cob of corn while Hanuman watches discreetly over them.

From the Guardian >

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