Nepal-India trans-boundary bonds

National borders do not just divide countries, they also join them

People freely pass across the border at Madar in Siraha district.

Borders do not just divide countries, they also join them. And few international borders are like the one between Nepal and India. Although the line on the map demarcates two sovereign nations, there is a shared history, culture and tradition that transcend the modern boundary.

Culture has its own history and geography. While the state is busy managing and defending its frontier, people on both sides live in a borderless reality. Actually, all international borders should be like the one between Nepal and India.

The boundaries among most European nations were erased with the Schengen agreement, but Europe itself has a hard border with those who are not members of this treaty kept out by Fortress Europe. Even the US-Canada border is not as open as the one between Nepal and India. 

The border pillars in the Nepal Tarai pass through rivers, farmlands and even cut across households. This frontier cannot erase the geography, religion, culture and lifestyle of the communities that live on either side that share surnames and family ties. 

It is to celebrate this trans-boundary bond that an annual मिथिला परिक्रमा circumambulation of the Mithila region is held. Pilgrims on this circuit travelled 107km in Nepal and 23km in India on the full-moon day of Phagu on 7 March. They start at the birthplace of Sita in Janakpur to the sites associated with Ram in Bihar state.

Rajwati Devi, 78, has been doing the holy circuit every year for the past 18 years. It is an honour to accompany Sita’s डोली on foot with song and dance by day, and taking designated night stops, she says. For thousands of pilgrims like Rajwati Devi, the border does not exist.

There are many festivals and traditions that bind Nepal and India, but the Mithila Circuit is perhaps the most meaningful in bringing together the peoples of the two countries on either side.

The Purnagiri Mela in India’s Uttarakhand state is similarly significant. It is only after pilgrims from India pay their respects at the Sidhha Baba temple in the border town of Mahendranagar in Nepal’s western Tarai that their religious observance is said to be complete. For centuries, this pilgrimage has happened in March-April between two auspicious full-moon days.

The most important cross border festival is, of course, Shivaratri, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from India join those from various parts of Nepal to congregate at Pashupati temple in Kathmandu.

Nepal-india transboundary bonds 1
A border pillar divides the village of Sirsiya of Parsa district in this view from India and Nepal. (Photo: Photo: Jiyalal Shah)

To be sure, every citizen has an attachment to their country. The importance of that sense of territorial belonging is not diminished by nationals of another country also sharing a link. Borders are geography, festivals like Mithila and Purnagiri are culture that has evolved organically over centuries before either of our nation states existed in their modern form. 

The Karatapur Gurudwara of the Sikhs fell on the Pakistan side of the border after partition in 1947. For the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak four years ago, India and Pakistan overcame bilateral tensions to form a pilgrimage corridor for India's Sikhs to visit the shrine. 

If even India and Pakistan could agree on a transboundary matter, there is a lot Kathmandu and New Delhi can do to better facilitate cultural and religious exchanges between the people of our borderlands. 

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Despite the open border between India and Nepal, travel, trade and communication can be streamlined even more for the people living on both sides. But their voices are rarely heard in bilateral meetings between Indian and Nepali officials when they discuss more ‘serious’ matters like hydropower, air routes or energy trade. There is still lot to be done to improve crossborder ties. 

One of the areas that needs urgent attention is the preservation of archaeological sites on both sides of the border. Ruins of ancients towns and monuments need to be excavated, relics like coins, religious objects that hold significance to both countries have to be preserved. These artefacts provide proof of the cross-cultural ties that existed before an international border divided us.

Archaeologist Ashok Kumar Sinha from Bihar says the Indo-Gangetic plains that Nepal and India share has been settled since early human history, and has as yet undocumented sites showing the origin and evolution of pre-Buddhist cultures. There is a lot more India and Nepal can do to cooperate in archaeology.

So far, most archaeological excavations have been done separately and in a largely ad hoc manner. This is a pity since the sites being explored are from a period when the civilization spread across the current territory of the two countries. 

The Simraungad kingdom spanned present day Bihar-Nepal, as did Kapilvastu. Mounds and buried ruins from ancient times lie waiting to be discovered so that we can trace back the origin of the Indo-Gangetic civilisation and the religions that evolved here.

These site are common to India and Nepal, there is no point arguing about ‘our’ and ‘their’ here. Ram Sharan Agrawal, 78, is an archaeologist in Bihar and a strong proponent of joint excavations of significant sites along the border.

But given the wave of ultra-nationalism on both sides, this may not be immediately possible. But it is precisely to dismantle populist nationalism that we need to dig into our past to find the common culture that unites us. Perhaps Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s forthcoming visit to India could be a start. 

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Chandra Kishore


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