Towards the latter part of the Vedic Age, the kingdom of Videha emerged as the new center of Vedic culture. King Janaka is attributed to be the ruler under whom Videha rose to its prominence. This prominent kingdom was referred to in both the Mahabharatha as well as the Ramayana. In fact, in the Ramayana Sita is the daughter of the King of Videha and her marriage to Rama creates an alliance between the Videha and Kosala kingdoms.
The geographical region covered by the Videha kingdom was a region called Mithila comprising Northern and Eastern Bihar as well as Eastern parts of Nepal. In fact, the name Mithila is often used to refer to the Kingdom of Videha as well as the territories that fell within the ancient kingdom’s boundaries. This distinct geographical location is bounded by the Mahananda river in the East, the Ganga in the south, the Gandakiriver in the west and the foothills of the Himalayas in the north and was also known as Tirabhukti, meaning bound by rivers. The region is a vast and fertile plain watered by seven rivers that often flood causing damage to this otherwise richly endowed region.
The seclusion of the Mithila region caused it to become a center and seat of learning without much outside interference. King Janaka was known to be a philosopher and his court patronized poets and philosophers during the time. Today there is a remnant of the ancient shrines, temples, monasteries and cities that flourished during this golden era. Mithila produced some of the greatest philosophers and thinkers like Gautama Buddha and Vardhamana Mahavira and thus birthed two major world religions – Budhism and Jainism. One of the greatest kings in world history Emperor Ashoka hailed from Mithila, too.
It is interesting to note that in Mithila, two sub-cultures have co-existed at times in conflict and other times in harmony. Both together comprise Mithila culture. One is known as the ‘great tradition’ belonging to the upper caste Brahmins while the other known as the ‘little tradition’ belonging to the lower castes, muslims and other tribal people. This contrasting culture shows up in the various aspects of Maithil culture like paintings, music, language, dialects etc.
In art, for instance, the theme and basic source depends on the origin of the tradition. The ‘great tradition’ paintings are based on various religious scriptures like the Vedas, Puranas etc. The ‘little tradition’ paintings are based on popular stories and mystical figures in folk legends. Interestingly in both traditions, it is the women who were the painters whether Brahmin women making paintings to adorn their walls or tribal and Muslim women making paintings to protect their homes from evil. Music and Dance too is intimately connected with the associated religious practices and beliefs of the people – Maithil music drawing from religious texts or ancient folklore depending on the origin and tradition of the composer.
Legend has it that Madhubani paintings or Mithila Paintings originated at the time of the Ramayana, when King Janak commissioned artists to do paintings at the time of marriage of his daughter, Sita, to Lord Ram. The modern world was introduced to Madhubani paintings after the drought in the 1960’s when the local population had to look at occupations other than agriculture to sustain them. To read more, click here.
While many may not remember the glorious socio-cultural legacy of this region, none can deny that some of the greatest paintings and craftwork originates from this region. Today Mithila has turned to regional handicrafts as a source of income as floods continue to interrupt the agriculture in these otherwise fertile plains. Madhubani paintings (also known as Mithila paintings), Bhagalpur Tussar silks and Godda silks are well-known in India, a little window into the culture that set much of Indian history on its course.