It’s 11 am and as a breeze blows across Sitamarhi in Bihar, a flex banner rising from the boundary walls of the Punoura Dham flutters in the air. Put up by the Bihar Public Relations Department, the banner declares the shrine as the “birthplace” of Sita.
Besides the banner, visitors stroll in and out of the shrine, some talking about importance of the pilgrimage centre and others emphasising Sita was “born” here. Inside the temple premises, a group of people are having a serious discussion, sparked by the recent remarks of Union Tourism and Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, who told Parliament the belief that Sita was born in Sitamarhi “is a matter of faith” and has no historical evidence.
“How can one raise doubts on the birthplace of Sitaji? We are hurt,” says Shravan Kumar, a functionary of the temple that’s spread across 12.96 acres. Apart from the main shrine, the temple land houses a wedding hall, a Shiva temple and the Sita Kund, a pond which, according to legend, is where Mithila King Janaka found Sita, while he was ploughing the fields as an act of penance hoping to lift the drought in his kingdom.
Just besides the main temple, with the afternoon sun having reduced visitors to a trickle, Mahant Kaushal Kishore Das, 70, is resting on a wooden cot. The Punoura Dham’s chief priest, wearing a white vest and dhoti, laughs off doubts cast on the temple being the “real birthplace” of Sita. He says he is not bothered by what “mere mortals” think as, he adds, poet Tulsidas himself had credited Punoura as the birthplace of the Ramayana’s principal woman protagonist.
While the chief priest admits that teams from the Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI) have visited the site in the past but never initiated excavations, he dismisses Sharma’s statements about lack of proof. He points to the Sita Kund, saying the pond never goes dry. “We have tried to completely dry the pond to clean it but we have never succeeded. Also, if you pour milk into the pond, it does not mix with the water but settles at the bottom,” Das claims.
It is nearly 12.30 pm, time for recess as the temple is shut for devotees, when Das gets an audience — a group of visitors who sit down to listen to his version of “facts”.
Over the next nine minutes, Das tells the small crowd that King Janaka travelled 50 km from his capital at Janakpur to present day Sitamarhi, which, he says, was earlier known as Sitamadai. During the course of his discourse, the priest touches on another aspect of the Sita saga in Sitamarhi — the dispute with the Janki Sthan, a temple located 3 km from Punoura Dham, which also claims to be her birthplace.
Sita, Das says, was born in Punoura but was taken to Janki Sthan to celebrate chhathi, a ritual on the sixth day of a newborn’s arrival. As more locals join the animated discussion, one youth pulls out his mobile phone and opens Wikipedia, saying it credits Punoura as Sita’s birthplace.
While Punoura Dham has official backing in the Sita genealogy stakes, the popular vote, it seems, goes to Janki Sthan, which not only draws more devotees but also rakes in more donations.
The Sthan gets monthly donations between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1.5 lakh as against the Rs 20,000-Rs 40,000 that the Punoura Dham garners. The Sthan temple management, which doesn’t fall under the Bihar Rajya Dharmik Nyas Parishad, earns another Rs 2 lakh from the 10 shops it has rented out for the sale of vermillion and other puja essentials to devotees, most of whom are from the neighbouring districts of Sheohar, Muzaffarpur and East Champaran.
Temple authorities claim they have been doing puja here since 1599 when black stone statues of Ram, Sita and Laxman were found here. “This is the place, not Punoura, where Sitaji was born. King Janak had only stayed a night at Pundrik Ashram on his way to plough land here,” claims Janki Sthan’s chief priest Triloki Das.
Like at Punoura Dham, the ASI has not carried out any excavation here. And Janki Sthan too has a pond, Urvija Kund, where Sita is said to have been found in a pitcher.
For devotees such as Saroj Kumar, a Sitamarhi resident, the controversy doesn’t matter. He says he offers puja at both places and appears to agree with what the minister had to say. “It is more a matter of faith, less of history. All religious places cannot be excavated for proof,” Kumar says. Rajmani Devi from Sheohar, who has been visiting Janki Sthan, too says the controversies don’t bother her.
Ramesh Kumar, who runs a sweets shop near the temple, says, “Anyway, it is matter of religious faith. And who is stopping the government from gathering evidence?”