Touchdown in Janakpur - a vibrant and sacred city in the southeast of Nepal with a distinctly Indian feel.
Typified by bright onion domes from local temples and holy ponds, striking Mithila artwork and the wasp-like swirl of scooters and tuk-tuk horns, Janakpur is awash with colour and action, despite being relatively small.
Birthplace of Sita - a Hindu Goddess and leading figure in the Hindu epic, Ramayana - the city, sometimes known as Janakpurdham (Dham denoting a sacred place), also sits on hallowed ground, with its central temple, Janaki Mandir - where the golden image of Sita is believed to have been discovered in 1657 - a keystone destination for Hindu pilgrims.
It's a dynamic city with rich cultural history stretching back millennia, and longstanding traditions that many of its residents continue to uphold today. But Janakpur is also fraught with challenges, overlooked and treated as a pariah by the Nepalese government. Situated in the recently named Madhesh province (formerly 'province 2') in the Terai (plains) region of Nepal, the city is less than 10 miles from the border with India and lies in a notably flatter region than our previous destination, the country's hilly capital, Kathmandu.
Not forgotten by those in power, deep-seated racism, greed, and self-interest from policymakers mean that Janakpur - and the Terai region as a whole - is ignored and exploited, Dev Narayan Mandal, founder of Mithila Wildlife Trust, partner of Pipal Tree, and all-round firebrand of community action tells me on the upper terrace of Janaki Mandir.
It's a fitting venue to reveal this bleak reality. Each year, the temple generates more than 30 million rupees in revenue, which the government duly takes, failing to then reinvest a penny back into the region. In fact, the holy site only remains open at all because the local community fund it.
So profound is the neglect of Madhesh Province, its six million inhabitants - the largest provincial population in Nepal - are unable to claim citizenship, open a bank account, or register property in their own name.
Just hours into our visit, Dev's reveal is a difficult and upsetting introduction to the area. But, in the large courtyard at the front of the colourful palatial building, our spirits are lifted by friendly locals and a festival showcasing Mithila artwork - a striking creative tradition stretching back millennia.
Deriving complex patterns from Hindu myth and folk tales, women, using techniques passed down from mother to daughter, create striking artwork as a form of storytelling and meditation.
The latter motive is perhaps the most intriguing. Mithali paintings adorning the walls of Janakpur and, as is tradition, the bedroom of newlyweds, never remain in place for long. Painting is a form of catharsis and prayer. Once the work is complete, it has served its purpose and will be washed away forever.
Tomorrow, we'll be visiting the Dhanusha District in Madhesh Province to be introduced to the various conservation projects Dev is running.
- Linked here is our fundraising page. Numerous kind and selfless people have sponsored our journey, and we'd love to be able to repay even a fraction of their generosity. If you are able, a donation would be much appreciated. Any amount, large or small, will help the organisations you will read about in this blog create real and positive change.
Much love, Dan and George