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The Terai
In the south of Nepal lies a zone that stands much in contrast with the rest of the country - the Terai plains. With an average elevation of 100 meters, this flat land is the transitional zone between the Gangetic plains of India and the hills and mountains of the Himalaya . Stretching through almost the entire southern fringe of Nepal, the Terai, in some cases, enters as much as 40 kilometers inland.

Earlier, the entire expanse used to be covered by thick forests. Malaria was rampant in this area and this acted as a natural barrier and assisted in the more than century-long isolation that was imposed on the country by the Rana rulers. The forest cover has greatly diminished now. With the introduction of quinine and DDT in the 1950s, the Terai became malaria-safe and huge tracts of jungles were cleared for settlement for the land-hungry hill people. It is now the food bowl of the country. Endless fields of wheat and paddy fields including other cash crops like mustard, jute, tobacco and sugarcane can be seen on either side of the highway as one drives through the otherwise unremarkable landscape.

Although much of the forest has been lost, the Terai still has large areas of tropical forest. Five of the country's national parks and wildlife reserves are situated in the Terai, providing and preserving a natural home to a variety of wildlife among which, the Royal Bengal Tiger and the One Horned Indian Rhinoceros are the more famous.

Close to half of Nepal 's population lives in the Terai and the major highway linking the eastern and western borders of Nepal passes through it. If you are trekking or rafting in the eastern or far-western regions you will get a chance to pass through this area.

Most of the Terai's towns and cities evolved either as bases for agriculture, industry, or simply as bus terminals after the clearing up of forests. And except for the wildlife sanctuaries there is not much that will interest the tourist in this region of dirty and unattractive towns teeming with flies and smoke-belching lorries.

There are, however, two places that the Terai can be proud of - the pilgrimage sites of Janakpur and Lumbini. Janakpur is the birthplace of Sita, wife the Hindu warrior-god Ram, while Lumbini is the birthplace of the Buddha.

Janakpur stands out as the cleanest and most attractive among all the towns of the Terai. Named after the legendary King Janak, Janakpur was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Mithila that existed around 700 BC.

The most sacred sites are the Janaki Mandir- dedicated to Sita; the Ram Sita Bibaha Mandir- built over the spot where Ram and Sita are said to have been married; Ram Mandir- dedicated to Ram, and the holy pond Dhanush Sagar.

Apart from the town's religious importance, Janakpur is also the center for the revival of the ancient Mithila arts and crafts. As a tradition, Mithila women have always decorated the walls of their houses with paintings depicting figures from the Hindu mythology in abstract forms, sometimes resembling a mandala. Although Mithila art has found recognition in India and the international art world, it is hardly known in Nepal .

To overcome that shortcoming, the Janakpur Women's Development Center , a Mithila Art training base that includes a cottage industry, has been set up. The Center provides employment for the economically disadvantaged women of that region, and also markets the finished products. In Kathmandu, Mithila art and handicraft are available at Hastakala and Mahaguthi shops, both of which are across the Bagmati Bridge on the road going to Patan.

Getting There
Janakpur is around 200 kilometers from Kathmandu and it will take the better part of the day getting there via road. An easier way out is to fly directly from Kathmandu .

Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, is situated 250 kilometers south-west of Kathmandu . A broken pillar erected in 249 BC by the first major Buddhist ruler of India , Emperor Ashoka, proclaims in a now-extinct script that the Buddha was born there and that the emperor made three pilgrimages to the holy spot. Lumbini's status as a garden of peace has been recognized the world over and its development is being undertaken by Buddhists from everywhere. In the same spirit, the Nepali government formed the Lumbini Development Trust in 1985 to oversee the development of the entire Lumbini area as a religious and pilgrimage center, although the Trust's work has been most marked by its inaction.

Around an hour's drive north-west from Lumbini is the interesting archeological site of Tilaurakot. This has been identified as the ancient Kapilvastu, the capital of King Suddhodhana, Buddha's father, and where the Buddha himself as Prince Siddhartha spent the first 29 years of his life.

Getting There
Bhairahawa, the nearest airport from Lumbini has regular scheduled flights coming from Kathmandu and Pokhara. From the airport the surface transfer is 21 kilometers and will take about an hour. One may also go there directly overland from Kathmandu via Narayanghat in around eight hours by bus or car.

A suggested itinerary for an overland excursion to Lumbini from Kathmandu is best by beginning with a Chitwan wildlife program and then proceeding to Lumbini for a night's halt. From Lumbini, the next overnight halt would be the charming hilltop town of Tansen , and finally winding it off at Pokhara the day after.

The Tharu People
A little-known aspect of the Terai is the Tharu people. What the Terai makes up for its lack in places of interest, it more than makes up by its indigenous Tharu. Visitors to Chitwan generally see some aspects of the rich Tharu culture. But that is only part of the unique Tharu life. Tharus are spread out over the entire stretch of the Terai, from east to west.

A wide variety in lifestyles has evolved among the Tharus over the years. Anyone traveling some distance along the highway will be able to see, even at a casual glance, the difference in Tharu attire from area to area, which is a telling indication of the Tharus' colorful heritage. A closer view of the Tharu is more than worth it, for those so inclined.

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