This last part, after exploring Bodh Gaya and Vaishali, we shall peek at the offerings in Muzzafarpur, Sitamarhi, Madhubani, Lauriya Nandangarh, Bhagalpur and Bihar’s sole wildlife reserve, the Valmiki National Park Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary.
Famous for its Shahi lychees and known as the Lychee Kingdom, Muzaffarpur is the fourth most populous city in Bihar about 72 km north of the capital, Patna. It is located on the banks of the perennial Burhi Gandak River, which flows from the Someshwar Hills in the Himalayas.
The current city was established in 1875 during the British Raj for administrative convenience, by dividing the Tirhut district and was named after an aumil, Muzaffar Khan; and the city came to be known as Muzaffarpur. Muzaffarpur’s significance is due to its position between cultural and spiritual influences and the city is a melting pot of Hindu and Islamic culture.
One of the city’s main attractions is the Baba Garibnath Temple which is home to the shivalinga of Lord Shiva known as Baba Gareebnath. Legend has it that the shivalinga was acquired from the peepal or sacred fig tree where the temple stands today and it is said the man who cut down the tree witnessed blood oozing out of the tree, revealing the shivalinga which compelled him to build the shrine that now attracts a large number of devotees. The Baba Gareebnath temple is especially crowded during the holy month of Shravan, which is in July-August according to the Gregorian calendar.
The Devi Mandir is considered a very holy temple, dedicated to the Goddess Durga. The temple is one of the 51 Shaktipeeth, which are small shrines and big temples dedicated to the Goddess Shakti in all her forms. The temple is actually called Maa Raj Rajeshwari Mandir, which is the form of Durga with 18 hands. The temple sees its largest footfall during the Navratri and Durga Puja time, usually falling sometime in October or November. It is often believed that one’s desires and wishes will come true if one visits and worships the Goddess here. The temple is open from 4 am to 11 pm daily.
Muzaffarpur is known for its lychees and lychee gardens and visiting this place especially in May and June when the lychees are ripe and in perfect taste is highly recommended. The most famous lychee gardens are the Mushahari, Jhapaha and the Bochaha gardens.
The Khudiram Bose Memorial was raised as a tribute to the 18-year-old freedom fighter Khudiram Bose who was executed along with Prafool Chaki in 1908 for throwing a bomb at Kingsford who was the then British session judge of Muzaffarpur.
The Ramchandra Shahi Museum, constructed in 1979 holds exhibits of ancient utensils, artefacts and intricate statues like the Manasa Nag and Ashtadikpal which are unique attractions.
An ancient town, Sitamarhi is the birthplace of the wife of Lord Ram, Sita. Bordered by Nepal in the North, Sitamarhi is a town of great historical importance and has a large number of tourist attractions. According to mythology, the Goddess Sita was born in an earthen pot under the land of Sitamarhi which is named after her. Sitamarhi has a rich culture of folk arts, dance and music and is well known for its lac bangles and the world-renowned Madhubani paintings.
A temple dedicated to Sita, known as the Janaki temple is located at Punaura Dham Sitamarhi. This is the spot where Goddess Sita appeared in an earthen pot. There were also some submerged building found here at this spot during the earthquake of 1934. Pupri is a village famous for the Baba Nageshwarnath temple of Lord Shiva. The Sita Temple, dedicated to Goddess Sita, has beautiful stone statues of Lord Ram, Goddess Sita and Lord Lakshman preserved in the temple. Haleshwar Sthan is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The Haleshwar Sthan is a pilgrimage site in Sitamarhi dedicated to Lord Shiva, which has an ancient Hindu temple and is located 3 km north-west of the town. According to local myth, King Videha founded a temple of Lord Shiva on the occasion of Putra Yeshti Yajna which was the Haleshwarnath temple. A rock-cut sanctuary from the great Mauryan period is found near Sitamarhi. Other places worth visiting are the Janaki temple at Punaura, the Baghi Math, Goraul Sharif, the Shukeshwar Sthan, Bodhayan-Sar and Sabhagachhi Sasaula. Most of the temples close by 10 in the night and open early in the morning.
An ancient city, Madhubani for the richness in art and culture that the place strives for. Mentioned in the Ramayana, the city is known for the world popular Madhubani paintings which originated here. The word Madhuban means a forest of honey from which Madhubani is derived, but sometimes it is also said to have been derived from Madhu meaning sweet and Vaani meaning voice or language. The district of Madhubani emerged from the Darbhanga district of Bihar in 1972 during the reshuffling of territorial boundaries. The town has multiple temples which are the main attraction points of the town.
On the road from Madhubani to Jaynagar, Saurath is a small roadside village, known for the popular Somnath Mahadev temple. Each year, all the Maithili Brahmins from the nearby villages meet here during the annual sabha to discuss and negotiate proposals which eventually terminate into weddings which is one of the reasons the temple is very famous. The Bhawanipur village is popular for its Ugaranath temple and its association with the poet Vidyapeeth. According to Indian mythology, Vidyapet was considered an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva, due to which Shiva began serving him as a servant named Ugana. The Ugana Mahadev Mandir is where Lord Shiva revealed his true identity to Vidyapeeth. On the western bank of Thumne river, stands the tall Bhagwati temple. According to historic stories, the goddess Bhagwati blessed the famous writer and poet Kalidas at this spot and it is said that the goddess was supremely impressed by the talent, skills and dedication of Kalidas. To the south-east of the temple is Kalidas’s pathshala. The temple is an ancient site and is built with an Indo Aryan of architecture. It is said that when years ago, the Maharajadhiraaj Shri Rameshwar Singh had insisted on reinstalling the head of the image of the deity, just a night before installation of the newly designed head, the goddess appeared in the king’s dream and asked him it was right for him to create the creator. The head was hence not installed and is still kept right next to the statue of the deity. 9 km from Madhubani is a small village called Kapileshwar which is known for having the Kapileshwar temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple is exceptionally crowded on Mondays especially during the month of Shravan. On the occasion of Mahashivratri, the temple hosts a huge fair in which the entire village plays the host celebrating the occasion with a lot of pomp and show.
Built by Maharaja Shri Rameshwar Singh, the Nagar fort is popularly known as the Naulakha Palace. Situated in Rajnagar on the eastern bank of River Kamla, the palace is an ancient royal palace which is a popular heritage building. The palace boasted of well-paved gardens, tinkering ponds, temple complexes and the like. However, it suffered a major loss and extensive damage in 1934 when an earthquake hit it. It has never been repaired and currently lies in ruins. The Navlakha Palace has a central tower which is seven storeys. Originally, it had a Durga Bhawan towards the north end of the complex. The Bhawan has a glittering pond in the front and a pearly white marble temple dedicated to Goddess Kali to its north. The Durga Bhawan is still in function while the other structures have been dismantled. It is made of ivory marble and resembles the Taj Mahal. The portico has four arches resting on cement elephants. There is a functioning family room in the building called the Gausani Ghar which houses the family deity. It is here that you can also find the oldest existing Mithila painting. Even in ruins, it boasts of an old world charm and brilliant architecture.
Jainagar, also spelt as Jaynagar is a town located situated on the holy Kamala River and is the nearest town to India’s border with Nepal. Jainagar is situated in the centre of Mithilanchal so visitors to this place can immerse themselves in the Mithilanchal culture.
Also known as Lauria Nandangarh, Lauriya Navandgarh, is a town in West Champaran situated near the banks of the Burhi Gandak River. The village draws its name from a pillar or laur of Ashoka standing there and the stupa mound Nandangarh about 2 km south-west of the pillar. Remains of the Mauryan period have been found here. Lauriya Nandangarh is also a site for about 20 archaeological banks organized in three rows. Forty pillars were built here by Emperor Ashoka originally but today only one pillar exists in complete form, at its initial position in Lauriya Nandangarh. The Ashokan pillar consists of the six Ashokan proclamations. The height of the pillar is more than twelve meters and the pillar has been inscribed with six Ashokan edicts, issued by the Emperor in the year 244 BC and the top of the pillar is adorned with a lion, in a crouching position. One of the main tourist attractions here is a large stupa, which is believed to be one of the biggest stupas in India which is 24m in height and has a circumference of almost 457 m. The Stupa with a polygonal or cruciform base; with its missing dome which must have been proportionately tall, the Stupa must have been one of the highest in India. The walls of the four cardinal directions at the base are each 32 m long and the wall between each has a zigzag course with 14 re-entrant and 13 outer angles. An extensive later restoration hid the four upper walls and provided new circular ones; the polygonal plan of the walls of the base and the first terrace were left unaltered. The top of each terrace served as a pradakshina-path or a south facing pathway, though no staircase to reach the top was found in the excavated portion. Lauriya has 15 Stupa mounds in three rows, each row upwards of 600 m; the first row begins near the pillar and goes E to W, while the other two are at right angles to it and parallel to each other. Less than half a km from the village and 2 km from the mound, stands the famous pillar of Ashoka which is a single block of polished sandstone over 32 feet high. The top is bell shaped with a circular abacus ornamented with Brahmi geese supporting the statue of a lion. The pillar is inscribed with the edicts of Ashoka in clear and beautifully cut characters. The lion has been chipped in the mouth and the column bears the mark of time just below the top which has itself been slightly dislodged. Signs of vandalism over the years are clearly visible.
Also known as the Silk City of Bihar, the historically significant city of Bhagalpur lies on the southern banks of the river Ganges and is the 3rd largest city in the state located about 250 km east of the state capital of Patna. The river Ganges at Bhagalpur is home to the Gangetic dolphin, the national aquatic animal of India with the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary established near the town.
Known to be one of the most prominent Buddhist learning centres during the Pala Empire, Vikramshila was established when the quality of education at Nalanda started declining. Founded by the Pala King Dharmapala sometime between the 8th and 9th centuries, Vikramshila was part of the network of the five important learning centres of that time, and it was home to more than 100 teachers and 1000 students. Information on the Vikramshila is mostly found in Tibetan writings of Taranatha, a Tibetan Monk of the 16th and 17th centuries and the subjects taught here included philosophy, metaphysics, grammar, Indian logic, tantra, etc. One of the most famous scholars of Vikramshila was the abbot Atisha Dipankara who also found the Sarma tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. Vikramshila taught its students for more than four centuries before it came to an end when Bakhtiyar Khilji destroyed it in the year 1193 along with the other Buddhist centres.
The Ajgaivinath Temple, located in Sultanganj, is a famous Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva with the idol in the main temple believed to be swayambhu or self-manifested. The temple has been associated with Muni Jahnu, as a belief says that the idol in the temple protruded in Jahnu Muni’s ashram. There is a story which says that when Muni Jahnu was meditating in his ashram, the Ganges on her way to the ocean disturbed Jahnu with the ripples of her waves. Muni Jahnu is believed to have swallowed the whole river, and Muni Bhagirath saved the Ganges by making an incision on Jahnu’s thighs to make way for the Ganges. Thus river Ganges is also known as Jahnavi. The temple is open from 9 am to 12:30 pm and then again between 5 and 8 pm.
The Budhanath temple is one of the main attractions of Bhagalpur and is located on the banks of the Uttaravahini Ganga or the northward-flowing Ganges, spread over three acres. The temple is one of the oldest temples of the region and Baba Budhanath is referred to in the Shiva Puranas as Bal Vridheshwarnath in the first of the eight segments. The Shiva Linga that resides in the temple is believed to have been self-manifested as it is not known about the birth of the Shivalinga.
The Champapur Digambar Jain Mandir dedicated to Vasupujya, the 12th Tirthankara is located in Nathnagar and is an ancient and historical Teerthkshetra. It is believed that all the five Kalyanakas of Vasupujya Tirthankara took place in Champapur which is said to have been the capital of the Anga Kingdom ruled by Karna. The Anga Janpada was one of the 52 Janapada established by Adi Teerthankar Bhagwan Rishabh Deo. Champapur also existed as Mahajanapada among the six Mahajanapadas during the time of Bhagwan Mahavira Swami. The main temple of Champapur is believed to be about 2500 years, adorned with five altars symbolising the Five Kalyanakas. There are two spectacular columns of fame or Keerti Stambhas that have survived among the four that existed on each corner of the compound. The most recent addition to the sculptures is the 31 feet tall statue of Vasupujya that was built under the guidance of a charitable trust based in Nagaland.
Situated beside Bhagalpur Railway Station and founded in 1577 AD, the Khanqah e Shahbazia is one of the most revered shrines of Bhagalpur, visited by people of all faiths every year. A mosque and a shrine of the Sufi Maulana Shahbaz Rahmattullah who is considered to be one of the 40 sacred Sufis sent to spread the message of Allah, the shrine is still being run by his 13th generation descendants. The Mosque was built by Aurangzeb and was frequently visited by him. Every Thursday, visitors assemble at the place to be blessed with most of the visitors from the eastern parts of India and Bangladesh. There is a belief that the water in a pond here has medicinal qualities that can cure illness and snake bites. The Archeological Survey of India has discovered some ancient manuscripts from the Basement of Khanqah-e-Shahbazia. The Khanqah is also famous for its library, which has a vast collection of Arabic and Persian theological texts, including a copy of the Qur’an transcribed by Murshid Quli Khan, the Nawab of Murshidabad in Bengal.
Mandara Parvat is a 750 feet high granite hill located about 48 km to the south of Bhagalpur. According to mythology, Bhagalpur was the place where Samudra Manthan took place, and the Devatas and the Asuras churned the ocean of milk using Mount Mandara to obtain the elixir. The Serpent King Vasuki is said to have offered himself to be used as a rope to churn the ocean of milk, and the faint impressions of a coil on the Mandara hill stand as a proof of this story. One of the Puranas says that Lord Vishnu defeated the demon Madhu and placed the hill, now known as Mandara, over him. The conch shell, Panchajanya, which marked the start of the war of Mahabharata is believed to have been obtained from the Shankha Kunda here. Kalidasa refers to Vishnu’s footmarks on Mount Mandara in his epic Kumarasambhava. The Hill happens to have numerous sculptures of Hindu Gods cut into its Rocks. A belief among the Jains depicts that the 12th Tirthankara, Vasupujya attained Nirvana at the peak of the same hill.
The Vikramshila Setu is 5th longest bridge over water in India. The 4.7 km long two-lane bridge serves as a link between NH 33 and NH 31 running on the opposite sides of the Ganges. This bridge has reduced considerably the road travel between Bhagalpur and places across the Ganges, like Darjeeling, Siliguri, Assam etc. Before the opening of this bridge, steamers were being used for transportation across the Ganga river.
Located 30 km west of the city, the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary is stretched for 50 km of the river Ganges, starting from Sultangunj to Kahalgaon. The sanctuary was established in the year 1991 to protect the endangered species of the Gangetic dolphins which were once abundant, but today is in danger of extinction. The Gangetic Dolphins were declared as the National Aquatic Animal of India on 5 October 2009 and classified under the IUCN Red List of 2006 as threatened and endangered species. The Sanctuary is also home for various other aquatic and wild animals that come under the threatened category such as the Indian otter, gharial, freshwater turtles etc and the best time to visit the Sanctuary is between October and June.
The Kuppaghat Ashram is located by the banks of the Ganges. Kuppaghat translates to cave by the banks of a river and has a cave which is believed to have been used by Maharshi Mehi Paramhans as a place for meditation. Kuppaghat has been transformed as Maharshi Mehi Ashram and has grown to be a pilgrimage for the Followers of Santmat. Every year on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Maharshi Mehi, Maharshi Santsevi who was Mehi’s successor and on Guru Purnima, the ashram is visited by many devotees which made the Ashram as the national headquarters of the Akhila Bharatiya Santmat – Satsang. The Kuppaghat Ashram has a well-maintained garden and an orchard with sculptures and paintings of scenes depicting Lord Rama’s visit to Shabari and also of Jatayu’s death in the hands of Ravana along with spiritual quotes.
Valmiki National Park, Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary
The Valmiki National Park, Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary is located at the India-Nepal border in the West Champaran district on the banks of the river Gandak and is the only national park in Bihar. The National Park gets its name from Valmiki Nagar, the adjoining town to the forests which is also the only possible entrance to the wildlife reserve. The extensive forest area of Valmiki Nagar, formerly known as Bhainsa Lotan was previously owned by the Bettiah Raj and the Ramanagar Raj until the early 1950s. One of the natural virgin recesses in east India, the Valmiki Tiger Reserve has pristine forest and wilderness which is an excellent example of the Himalayan Terai landscape and covers 899.38 sq km, which is 17.4% of the total geographical area of West Champaran and as of 2018, there were 40 tigers in the reserve. The park is divided into two sections: the wildlife sanctuary declared in the year 1978 covers an area of 545 sq km and the national park which was established in 1990 covers an area of around 335 sq km.
The Valmiki landscape harbours a vivid socio-cultural diversity. Tharu, a scheduled tribe, is the dominant community in the landscape with several theories on the colonisation of this community and maintain socio-cultural relationships with the Tharus of Nepal. Other tribes in the Valmiki landscape are collectively called Dhangar comprising of four tribes, the Oraon, Munda, Lohra and Bhuiya. Communities other than the tribes are called Baaji who are outsiders and involved in agriculture as well as small businesses in the villages.
Flaunting flourishing wildlife with extensive varieties of flora, fauna and avifauna, the highlight of the region is the Bengal tigers. The government further plans to convert 800 hectares of the forest area into grasslands to make it the largest grassland in the country.
The Valmiki Tiger Reserve stays open from 1st October to 31st May with the best season to visit the sanctuary between November to March. The place is dotted with temples, shrines and historical monuments. Some of the prominent and must-visit attractions of the national park include the Bheriyari Watch Tower which is located in the Bheriyari Grassland region and is ideal for bird watching several exotic bird species at play and viewing the herbivores in their natural habitat. Located exactly on the Indo- Nepal Border, the Bhikhna Thori at the northeastern end of the sanctuary is a popular route to Tibet across Nepal. According to local history, this was a resting place called thaur in the local language, for Buddhist monks and hence is called Bhiktchuk Thaur or Bhikhna Thori and is a popular picnic and leisure spot. Rohua Nala is a tributary of the river Gandak and is situated in the Mandalpur range which is a combination of wetlands, forests, swamps and canebrakes and the region has been declared as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Indian Bird Conservation Network. Kapan is a major perennial river originating from the Raghia Range. Walking northwards along the river, one can witness one of the most beautiful trails of the park with the forest on the side and the trailing river in the centre. Lalbhitiya is a beautiful vantage point providing a bird’s eye view of pure sal forests with mesmerising sunrise and sunset views. On clear days, one can also see the snow-white pearly peaks of the Himalayas. The Manor Trek is a comparatively easy trek of 1.5 km which can be done solo with the trail passing along the forest to the Manor watchtower which provides majestic views of the adjoining snow-clad Himalayas and beautiful panoramas of the river manor below. Parewa Dah is the most beautiful spot of the forest and a trip to the park is considered incomplete without a visit to this place. Parewa means pigeons and dah means water bodies and Parewa Dah means a place where both these factors co-exist. The water here is so clear that you can even see the fish swimming at shallow levels. Perched at an elevation of 2884 metres, Someshwar Peak is the highest peak in the region which can be reached through a trek of 14 km from the base camp. On the border the Someshwar temple dedicated to Shiva and Kali is located with the ruins of the hermitage of Baba Bhatrihari at the base of the temple, Valmikinagar is the adjoining tiny town with the Gandak Barrage offering magnificent views of the Triveni and iother places from here.
A Gypsy or Jeep Safari for 4 people for 2.5 hours will cost INR 600 per group while 8-person rafting for 3 hours will set your group back by INR 2000 and a 4 person boating will cost you INR 500 per group. A nature walk for a group of 4 to 6 persons for 3 to 4 hours is INR 100 per person and the Border Trek for a group of 10 to 15 persons for 10 to 12 hours is INR 500 per person. The Jungle Camp for 4 to 6 persons for a night will cost INR 200 per person and the Tiger Trail for 4 to 6 persons for 3 to 4 hours will set one back by INR 200 per person. If you like cycling, it will cost INR 20 per hour per cycle.
And with this we come to the end of our journey through the state of Bihar. I really enjoyed reading about this amazing state which has so much to offer, especially to students of history, religion and archaeology. We will soon explore more of what India has to offer and in times like this, armchair tourism is all that we can do!