Saturday, October 24, 2009

SONEPUR FAIR- fair of fairs

Sonepur Mela/ Fair is one of largest cattle fairs of the world. It is a historical and ancient event celebrated every year on bank of pious confluence of Gandak and the Ganges river, on the back drop of Harihar Nath Temple. On Kartik Purnima lakhs of devotees flock to offer prayer at this temple after taking a holy dip in the river. It is one of the biggest and most colorful cattle fairs in the region. During the month-long fair, visitors travel from miles around to view, barter and trade cattle, horses and elephants. Melas or fairs in Bihar are a common sight. The big fairs in Bihar include the melas of Rajgir near Patna, mela in Patna city, the melas in Jahanabad, in Gaya, Buxar and Sasaram in Shahabad, Revelganj in Saran, Bettiah in Champaran, Sitamarhi, Darbhanga and of course the Sonepur mela. Among all these, the Sonepur mela is the most famous and the oldest not only in Bihar but probably the whole of Asia. The Sonepur mela is held here on a sprawling 200 acres of land for a period of 21 days from Govt. side, but continue upto one and half month by the private stakeholders.

Historical Importance: The Sonepur mela has a profound historic grandeur. It was here at Sonepur in 1888, the first meeting of the “Indian Association of Cow Protection” seminar took place. It was here at the Sonepur mela that the freedom fighter Veer Kunwar Singh took the occasion of the assembly to actively recruit and inspire the people for fighting against the British imperialism both before and during the First Indian was of Independence in 1857. The cover of Sonepur mela led to the main launch of the struggle movement against the British in Bihar. The Provincial Congress Committee of Bihar and the Bihar Kisan Sabha also used this mela and the gathering as a recruitment ground. That is why Sonepur mela was considered a political hotbed during the colonial rule by the British and kept a watchful eye. According to the travelogue of a British administrative officer, W W Hynter, in 1919, the Sonepur mela used to be held in over 43 villages in the past. As per sources, the mela venue in the past also used to serve as a prime place for freedom movement. In fact, the fair was for the first time held on the Hajipur side around the 16th century. Later, the mela was shifted to the Sonepur side at the initiative of the then British officials to suppress the freedom movement.

Tracing the Roots: Sonepur mela has its origins during ancient times. This is where Chandragupta Maurya used to buy elephants and horses across the river Ganges from Patliputra (Patna of ancient times). The Sonepur Cattle Fair once used to attract traders from places as distant as Central Asia. Now Sonepur mela is one of the biggest and the world’s greatest fair. It takes place annually, 35 kilometres from Patna, the capital of Bihar. Sonepur mela is held for 21 days in the month of November (from around 5th-6th).

It even has a legendary tale attached to it. Many believe that a struggle took place at this spot in Sonepur between the ruler of Gandharva, Huhu and Indraya muni; ultimately Lord Vishnu helping the weaker latter. That is why there is a vast gathering of devotees gathered at the confluence for the two holy rivers for the blessed dip at the adjacent “Harihar Nath temple” on the full moon day (Kartik Purnima). Many believe that Lord Ram established the temple on his way to Lanka.

The temple of Harihar Nath is believed to have been originally built by Lord Rama, on his way to the court of King Janak to win the hand of Mata Sita. It is further said that Raja Man Singh later got the temple repaired. The Harihar Nath temple, as it stands today, was built by Raja Ram Narain, an influential person during the late Mughal period. Gajendhra Moksha legend is associated with the temple in Sonepur. It involves the story of king Indra Yamuna and the Gandharva chief Huhu, who were turned into an elephant and a crocodile respectively by the curse of great sages Agasthya and Dewala Muni. One day the elephant's leg was bitten by the crocodile. It is said that both of them fought hard for many years with their herds. But ultimately the King Elephant lost his strength and prayed to the Supreme God Vishnu (Hari) to save him. Vishnu heard his prayer and cut down the crocodile with his Chakra. But the touch of the chakra released Huhu from the curse. Vishnu also released Indra Yamuna from his curse and took him to his aboard Vaikuntha.

As per the tradition, lakhs of people assemble at different ghats of Harihar Kshetra at Hajipur and Sonepur on the eve of "Kartik Purnima" and take holy dip at the confluence of the Ganga, the Gandak and the Mehi rivers. The devotees offer "Gangajal" to the Hariharnath temple and this ritual marks the beginning of the Sonepur mela. The locals regard that a dip here at this confluence of the 2 rivers is equivalent to giving away of 100 cows. However, it now attracts people from all geographical and religious diversity from the Punjab and Kashmir to Bhutan and Kerala. During the British Raj, merchants from Afghanistan and Britain used to attend. Originally, the venue of the fair was Hajipur and only the performance of the puja used to take place at the Harihar Nath temple of Sonepur. However, under the rule of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, the venue of the fair got shifted to Sonepur.

Major Attractions: The sprawling mela ground here with the pulsating market has the widest possible range of cattle and commodities. At the Sonepur mela one can buy almost anything. The array of shops sells all sorts of merchandise. Numerous stalls and movable shops/ exhibitions are also set up at the Fair. Temporary shops selling household goods, local and branded clothing and commercial merchandise are also up for sale. You will find a wide variety of goods in these stalls, ranging from garments, to weapons and furniture to toys, eatables, mainly the loca delicacies of Papdi, Khazoor and Halwa, utensils and agricultural implements to jewelry and handicrafts. Not to forget the food lovers, it’s absolutely divine.

But don’t panic if you’re not in the market for a new animal as there are plenty of other attractions and entertainments on offer at this pulsating festival; visitors can simply browse through the many market stalls or enjoy live music, traditional dancing, storytelling, carnival acts and regional food and drink specialities. Various folk shows, games and jugglers can be seen in the fair. Handicrafts, paintings and pottery not only from famous Madhubani but all over India can be seen here. All varieties of horticulture can be admired; this is a particular feast for the people of Bihar as it’s a major opportunity to enhance their gardens.

Many entertainment programmes are also organized alongside, by the Govt. / district authorities/ Mela Committee and the private persons. 3-4 Circuses, 5 night theatres, local folks and song & dance shows, death well/ Maut ka Kuan, swings and much more can be relished not only by children and teenagers, but also the adults. One can enjoy the mela 24X7, as even the whole night the theatres shows/ are on upto the sun rise. The theatres, Gulab, Shobha, Gulab-Vikas etc are my favourites. The performances are favulous and the dancers are well professionals to the core.

In recent years, government and several companies have started installing their shops to promote their products and services. It even runs health camps for the wellbeing of animals specially elephants. Animal farmers, circus entertainers, traders and individuals come for a bargain. Some come for the sheer entertainment and a family day out that it provides. Alogside, the Mela, Krishi mela is also organized to educate and expose farmers about new and emerging product and services in agriculture. Govt and private players exhibit their products and services to the masses, so the fair is not only animal fair in itself, it means beyond a world for the regular visitors. The Sonepur fair become a very part of life of the local people, either from the town / rural areas.

Another major attraction is the sight of numerous elephants, beautifully decorated for the purpose of sale. The area that attracts all, however, is the one where elephants are lined up for sale. The Sonepur Fair is the only one where such a large number of elephants are sold. These are purchased mainly by forest departments and people involved with logging operations. Apart from elephants, a large number of cattle and horses are also brought to the fair for sale. Nearly all animals can be seen at the Sonepur mela from all breeds of dogs to camels to buffaloes, donkeys, ponies, monkeys, chimps, Persian horses, sheep, rabbits, bears, cats, and guinea pigs. All varieties of birds, poultry and fishes are also available. The Sonepur mela specialises in the sale of every type of bird and animal, big or small.

Organizer : The Mela is administered by Chhapra District Administrator with due support from Vaishali administration and Govt. of Bihar. The promotion of Mela is done by the Tourism Ministry of Bihar. The administration arranges sanitation, drinking water facilities, health and welfare camps for the visitors. The fair is well supported by BIHAR Tourism ministry to give its wide coverage among the foreign tourists and domestic travelers/ fair-goers.

The Magical Feast : Even special arrangements are made for the accommodation at the sandy riverlands/ diara with royal ecstasy made of crop stubbles and other residues following pucca desi format. With the riverside breeze blowing gently at night, make the atmosphere very serene. Open fooding facilities/ restaurant and boating & swimming is encouraged during the evening and night. Its not less than a Brazil/ Australian Beach or, even our own Goa Beach counterpart for the duration.

Coverage: Sonepur Mela gets very wide publicity in media world wide. Foreign news agencies provide good coverage of all the activities. A good number of foreign tourists flock to catch the show and visiting the nearby places of importance like, Vaishali; Mahavir’s Birthplace and Buddha’s too stayed here, Rajgir, Nalanda University ruins, Bodhgaya and many a lot to mention here. During my childhood (early 90’s), when I used to visit the fair, a good number of foreign fair-goers, not less than 4-5k, visits here. But, with the time the changes in administration and the local Govt., things were not at the same as it was earlier. However, recently with the change in command with Mr. Nitish Kumar at the helm, everybody expects the turnaround of BIHAR and the Mela as well.

How to reach Sonepur Mela: Sonepur is 25 kilometers from Patna, the capital city of Bihar and well connected by all the routes of air (Patna), trains/ railways (Hajipur- 5 kms/ Patna- 25kms) and road via Patna/ Chapra the UP and Delhi route. By Air you have to reach Patna airport. By Rail you have to board a rail to Patna or Hajipur station. From Patna or Hajipur you can hire taxi/auto for Sonepur Mela. Many buses are also plying between Patna and Hajipur and Rickshaws / Auto etc are available at the very reasonable rates. It will take just 20 minutes ride to reach the mela and on the way you can catch the small township of HAJIPUR, beautiful bank/ ghats of Gandak river and the more than 150 year old British made Steel bridge.

Air: Take a flight to Patna airport and book in a hotel.

Rail: Alternatively get to Patna Station and stay at one of the below hotels.

Also could go to Hajipur that is the nearest railway station.

From Patna you could hire a taxi (autos, the famous 3 wheeler) from the railway station or board regular plying buses connecting the towns anywhere, that will take you across the Ganges to the Sonepur mela.

Some good hotels include;

Hotel Maurya: South Gandhi, Maidan Patna, Patna, Bihar (5 star)

Samrat International: Fraser Road, Patna, Bihar (3 Star)

Patliputra Ashoka: Beer Chand Patel Path, Patna, Bihar (2 Star)

Chanakya: Bir Chand Patel Path, Patna, Bihar (4 Star)

Kautilya Vihar: Beer Chand Patel Path, Patna (Govt. owned)

Hotel Republic: Exhibition Road, Patna, Bihar (2 Star)

Hotel President: Frazer Road, Patna, Bihar (2 Star)

Or, if you prefer you could check in some smaller hotels in and around the Patna railway station, such as Marwari Awas Griha (Near the D-Lal retail shop near Dak Banglow), Hotel Bhagwat, Station road, Karbighaiya or, many smaller ones at Hajipur/ Sonepur.

Challenges: The Sonepur mela is losing its sheen gradually due to the rapid urbanization, rise of local permanent markets, mall couture, apathetic attitude of the state government and no support from the GoI, particularly the Ministry of Tourism. It can be declared a heritage, seeing its glorious history and bonds with the local populace and fair-goers. The arrival of cattle, particularly, elephants is going poor over the time. The ban on sale of elephants has badly affected the fair. Some relaxation over regulations needed to keep alive the traditional and ancient pomp of the fair in this time of Malls and television. When, people like to stay in and enjoy the dull and moron life. Hopefully, the time you visit the Sonepur fair, it may kindle some of the things, I scribed here. So, overall the fair is a lifetime experience, if you go and visit there with a positive mindset and a good company, one who knows the place well. It will surely prove a treat to your eyes and savour to your heart.

- Abid Hussain-