November is a time for celebration in Northern India. The heat and humidity of the long hot summer
has dissipated and the first harvest has been gathered. One such celebration is the Sonepur Mela or fair. Billed as the largest livestock fair in Asia, the Sonepur Mela is an annual event held near the confluence of the Ganges and Gandak Rivers and is timed to begin on the full moon of the Hindu month of Kartik Purnima. Sonepur is normally a small rural hamlet, but comes alive every year with the arrival of tens of thousands of visitors and accompanying livestock. Located about 30km outside of Patna, the capital of Bihar, Sonepur belies Bihar’s reputation of being one of the poorest and most lawless states in India. This was my second attempt to get here; the 2006 plan came to naught when the Bihar tourist office in Delhi told me it was cancelled; not so as it turned out. This time I was not so easily fobbed off and negotiated direct with the Patna office to secure lodgings in the custom-built tourist village in the heart of the fair ground. First impressions of Bihar were not good. The drive from the airport went through the dirtiest, most litter ridden area I have yet come across in India; there was so much rubbish that it was being used to build causeways across the ditches flanking the road.
The tourist village turned out to be a collection of about 20 straw houses complete with attached en-suite in a secured
area on the edge of the main fairground. It was not well populated; on my last night I was the sole occupant! At this point I must stress that Sonepur is not somewhere to go if you are looking for a nice quiet relaxing experience. Resembling something like Glastonbury (open air pop concert in the UK) but with as many animals as people and no toilets, it is not for the feint hearted. The fair is a 24/7 intense sensory overload with no escape; the straw huts provide some respite, but not from the incessant noise, and come with the added bonus of being infested with mosquitoes. Despite all this it is an utterly compelling experience, unique and largely unvisited by foreign tourists, I came across less than a dozen in 3 days and found myself the object of intense, but friendly curiosity.
The livestock market is the main draw and the stars of the show are undoubtedly the elephants. About 100 of these majestic beasts, including young ones smaller then me to huge bulls with massive tusks, had been brought from all around the country to be traded at the elephant bazaar. Sunrise saw the elephants taking it in turns for an early morning dip in the river, mahouts in close attendance doing all the hard work – it takes about an hour for an elephant to have a proper bath. Going rate for an elephant is now about Rs100, 000 (£12,000), a significant hike on previous years I was told, or maybe they thought I was a serious buyer and had added a foreigner tax! Sadly they didn’t take credit cards or I might have been tempted.
As well as the elephants there were
thousands of buffalo, mostly with young calves dressed in old sacking to protect them from the nightly cold, bullocks in neatly matched pairs, a few camels and hundreds of horses. For those interested in buying a horse the routine is to test ride the animal by riding bareback along a narrow track through the trees lined by hundreds of cheering onlookers. One particularly adept horseman even managed to gallop whilst standing up. Tucked away in a corner away from the main livestock area was the pet market – an altogether sadder affair. Rose ringed parakeets, small finches and puppies crammed into cages with barely enough room to turn around – little surprise these traders were less than enthusiastic about photographs being taken.
Away from the livestock market the atmosphere
was like a traditional funfair; Ferris wheels, daredevil motorcycle riders, food and crafts of every description, disco’s and film tents to name but a few of the options on offer, and all overflowing with people. A big plus of being off the tourist circuit is that there is little if any hastle from people trying to sell you something, take you somewhere or show you something. After 3 days and three sleepless nights it was time to return to Delhi, sadly minus elephant. Another amazing and uniquely Indian experience successfully negotiated.