Darbhanga literally means a gateway to Banga or Bengal. So, if you are traveling east, this is where the ancient Bengal started. This region was also known as Tirhut, besides the more popular name – Mithila.
Darbhanga is the main city in the Mithila region of Bihar. Thanks to its royal patronage, it was one of the earliest cities to have its own airport, way back in 1938 CE. Thankfully, it has been revived and you can fly directly to Darbhanga from all major cities in India.
Its railway connectivity also dates to the late 19th CE – since the early days of Indian Railways. It has three railway stations in close vicinity, one for British officers at Lahariya Sarai, Darbhanga station for common people, and a special line that connected to one of the palaces for the king.
Mithila has been on my wish list for a long time. In fact, twice I planned a trip and had to cancel it last minute. Finally, this was the time to visit it.
History of Darbhanga
It is probably one of the oldest cities in India.
In the recent past, it was ruled by the Khandwala dynasty, popularly known as Raj Darbhanga. They came here from Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh towards the end of 16th CE & ruled for almost 400 years.
Technically, they were Maithili Brahmin Zamindars who controlled large sections of land. They were never given the status of princely state though their dominance was larger than many who had that status. Did it mean they did not give a tribute to the British or Mughals and were independent? Probably yes.
It is their footprints that you see everywhere in the city. Most of their palaces and royal abodes have been converted into colleges and universities. The city is home to two universities – Lalit Narayan Mithila University and Kameshwar Singh Darbhanga Sanskrit University.
Ponds of Darbhanga
Mithila as a region is known for ponds. So, no wonder that the place is also dominated by many ponds.
Three large ponds next to each other, stand out on the city map.
Apart from these wherever you go, you will see a big or small pond. I found them close to temples, as part of palaces and forts, and just about anywhere.
We also found people fishing in most of these ponds. Yes, fish is a favorite food here. Makhana plants are also grown in these shallow ponds but to see that you must visit at the right time of the year.
I just wish the city and ponds were clean enough to enjoy walking around. Darbhanga is the dirtiest city that I have seen in India.
Temples of Darbhanga
Shyama Mai Temple Complex
At the heart of Darbhanga is the Shyama Mai temple complex surrounded by many temples. What makes this temple complex unique is that this is a royal crematorium. Temples, mostly dedicated to different forms of Devi, are built on top of cremation pyres of different kings and queens.
Temples like Shyama Kali have gained immense popularity despite being a part of cremation. The same goes for other temples in the complex surrounding a square pond.
We visited this temple complex early morning and saw many people visiting these temples. We were told that most of these temples have an underground chamber where the Tantrik path worship is performed.
Some of the temples of this complex are, as you move clockwise around the pond:
Madhaveshwar Mahadev Temple
This is the only temple here that is not on top of a cremation place. This was built by Maharaja Madhav Singh in 1806 CE. This is a Shiva temple and gets its name from the person who built it.
It is a small temple in white with red highlighting it. The three-door entrance leads to a Bengal Chala-style mandapa that leads to Garbhagriha which houses the Shivalinga.
Shyama Mai Temple
Shyama Kali Temple is the most famous temple of this complex as well as Darbhanga. People visit her for the fulfillment of their wishes.
Built on the Pyre of Maharaja Rameshwar Singh in 1929 CE, after his death, she is also called Rameshwari Kali. Temple stands tall in bright red color. In the garbhagriha, stands an overpowering Murti of Ma Kali in standing pose. She has four hands, but what you would remember for long is her upper left hand holding the sword and her lower one holding a head. The other two hands are in benevolent mudras – Abhay and Varada.
A Kalash or metal pot is kept in front of the Murti.
Lakshmeshwar Tara Temple
Lakshameshwar Singh ruled in the second half of 19th CE. The temple built on his pyre has a bright pink low wall around it. We entered the temple after a flight of steps.
This Samadhi temple has the Murti of Tara, Lakshmeshar Singh’s Ishta Devi. The Murti here is relatively smaller but still large enough. Tara holds weapons in her two upper hands.
Close to it is a small temple dedicated to Queen Laskshmiwati.
This is a small temple in a bright red color.
Rudreshwara Kali Temple
This is the oldest temple in the complex and it was a relatively clean one. In fact, the Pujari was cleaning the premises when we visited. It is a fairly large temple, located bang opposite Shyama Kali temple across the pond.
It is built on the Pyre of Maharaja Rudra Singh. Devi here is in the form of Ma Kali, holding two swords in her upper hands.
Kameshwar Shyama Temple
This temple belongs to the last Maharaja of Darbhanga – Kameshwar Singh. This has the Devi in the Swaroop of Shyama, another name of Kali.
Apart from these temples, there are spaces that may have belonged to other departed members of the royal family.
This is a small and beautiful temple dedicated to Hanuman ji. In pristine white marble, this looks like a miniature temple in Jain style. You need to take some steps to reach the temple.
To enter you will have to bend yourself quite a bit. Most people just sit in the open area outside the temple.
We saw some young boys chanting Hanuman Chalisa here. We too joined in.
A small stall sells Hanuman Ji’s favorite laddoos for Prasad.
It is a fairly large temple located close to Nargona Palace. Built in a typical Indo-Saracenic style, the Shikharas are in the form of gumbads. Inside, the architecture takes you to Rajasthan. The wood and stucco work is exquisite but the temple seems to be abandoned though it looks like a family lives inside it.
Garbhagriha has Ram Darbar with all four brothers, Ma Sita and Hanuman Ji. There is also a small temple dedicated to Radha Krishna.
Kankali Devi Mandir
This temple is located inside the Darbhanga Fort, dedicated to Kankali Swaroop of Devi. It is similar to temples in the Shyama Mai temple complex. It reminded me of Kankali Teela in Mathura.
Museums of Darbhanga
For a small city, the number and size of museums are amazing. I wish I could say the same about the upkeep of the place.
Lakshmishwar Singh Museum
Run by the Department of Youth and Culture this museum is located next to the large Dighi Lake. Apparently, the museum has been recently renovated and restored.
It has a decent collection of ivory items from the royal family. This includes furniture and sculptures. An elephant Hauda is said to be of Tipu Sultan though there is no documentation of it.
Located close to the Lakshmishwar Singh Museum this museum has a huge building but a limited collection on display. The maintenance is disappointing, to say the least. Paintings are in a dilapidated state, some of them may be rare yantra paintings used for rituals.
Many Vishnu Murtis from the region indicate that Vaishnava worship was predominant in the region.
Mithila Souvenirs to buy
Madhubani Paintings is an obvious choice. But, I could not find any options to buy them in Darbhanga or Madhubani, unless you meet the artists directly.
There are a few artists who are painting on Saris and have studios like Madhubani Paints.
Makhana is the best thing to buy from Darbhanga. You can easily find it in the market and it costs about 30-40% of what it costs in bigger cities. If you are interested to know more about this wonder nut, you can visit the Makhana Research Center in the city.
Sattu – the ubiquitous drink of Bihar comes in many packaged forms here. Buy it and enjoy the tasty and healthy drink of Bihar.
Palaces of Darbhanga
Being a royal city, it is bound to have royal palaces and forts. What I appreciate about Darbhanga’s palaces is that they have converted the royal palaces into educational institutes. This keeps the heritage alive and well-maintained.
Earthquake Resistant Nargona Palace
This simple palace in white carries the trademark symmetry of the colonial era. It is a part of the Sanskrit University now. Boards with Sanskrit verses welcome you to the campus.
What makes Nargona Palace unique is that it is one of the earliest earthquake-resistant buildings in modern India. It was built after a ravaging earthquake hit the region in 1934 CE. You can see the hollow space left in the basement that provides insulation from shockwaves. It did survive the next big earthquake that happened in 1988.
We met people fishing in the pond in front of Nargona Palace. Canopies and chessboard flooring give a glimpse of its heyday.
Lakshmi Vikas Palace and Anandbagh Palace
Both these now operate as the two universities in Darbhanga. A large Murti of Raja Lakshmishwar Singh stands in front of the palace in red, with a clock tower in the backdrop.
Inside the palace, there is wonderful woodwork that can be seen in some of the offices.
A darbar hall in this building is full of exquisite woodwork in dark Burmese teakwood. European-style flying maidens can be seen as the brackets holding the upper parapet. The chandelier and tilework have survived while the stage has given way to an ugly replacement.
On the campus, you can groups of students studying and enjoying their best years.
Mahatama Gandhi Sadan
What used to be a European guest house to entertain the colonial guest is now a university guest house. This building has a room on the ground floor where Mahatma Gandhi stayed for a night. It has now been dedicated to his memory. Functions are held on his birth and death anniversary here.
A lone building in white stands in the middle of a vast empty ground. This is a place where Indra Puja used to happen with elephants and horses. However, it no longer takes place and the building is lying abandoned.
This is a rare place where the tradition of Indra worship remains, even if just as a remnant. Hope someone studies and documents this for posterity.
A fort wall in red and a decorated gateway lead you inside the fort. This is just a part of the city and walls are just a reminder that this was once a fort. This is the filthiest part of the city. We literally drove through 2 feet of water full of water hyacinth to see the main door of the fort.
There is nothing much you can see, except the crumbling walls and Kankali Devi Mandir.
This palace of Vishveshwar Singh, the younger brother of Kameshwar Singh is the best-maintained building here. Since 1966, it has been the Postal Training Center of the Department of Posts. So, it carried their color – white and red.
The gardens are well maintained. You can walk along the gardens, orchards and ponds.
- The city is well connected by Air, Rail, and Roadways.
- There are a few mid-range hotels to stay.
- Radhe-Radhe is the only restaurant chain where you can sit and eat. Else, there is ample street food for Bhuja and Sattu.
- Auto Rickshaws are easily available.
- You can see most of the Mithila region with a base in this city. The city needs 1-2 days to see in detail.