FRIVOLS AND FERVOUR AT THE SONEPUR FAIR
The Maut ka Kuan or Well of Death is a special attraction. A select company of remarkably skillful and daring bikers zips around the astoundingly steep wall of an improvised velodrome.
I stagger from my tent and merge with the flow of visitors that is heading to the river beneath the still-dark sky – the full moon barely paints the crowds with a dim glow. The morning has not yet announced its arrival – it is only 5 am – yet stalls already line the way. The few light bulbs adorning some of them provide some meager illumination while vendors offer various hot refreshments and flowers for the faithful. The marching throng includes people of every sort and age. Some process quietly while others are animatedly talking and laughing as if in defiance of the stubborn darkness. Mothers pull along children whining about interrupted sleep, older men huddle down in coverings hung about their shoulders as protection against the brisk November air. Some people chant and sing, reminding me of the religious occasion of this predawn parade.
It is the morning of Kartik Purnima (Full Moon Day) at the Sonepur Mela in Bihar. The Kartik Purnima is the last important religious festival in the Hindu calendar. Pilgrims come in hundreds of thousands from all over India and as far away as Nepal and invade a normally unremarkable town 40 km north of Patna. They are here to cleanse their souls in the cold waters where the Gandak river flows into the Ganga.
Kartik Purnima is one of Hinduism’s most important celebrations. On this day, Lord Vishnu assumed his first bodily form as Matsya – a huge fish – to preserve mankind from a great flood. On this day as well, Shiva let loose one arrow that destroyed the three sons of Tarakasura – a demon that had brought down the gods and gained dominion of the world. On this day, therefore, rivers, temples, and festivals all over India celebrate and worship Vishnu and Shiva.We wind our way past the Hari Harnath Temple. Long lines of the faithful are already there patiently waiting to squeeze themselves into it. We continue on. As we draw near to the river, the pressure of the throng increases as people edge down the narrow bamboo chutes that lead to the ghat where we will enter the waters. Loudspeakers broadcast praises of the gods and extol the local government for its excellent preparations for the holiday. Regular announcements urge worshippers along. After some considerable effort, we reach the Kali Ghat just the first glow of the sun appears on the misty horizon, illuminating a remarkable scene.
Besides the river, one can see almost nothing but people – everywhere. Thousands crowd the ghat, which is little more than a muddy bank in some places. People push forward and slide down the mud to the river. People in the water are engaged in various forms of ritual. Some are repeatedly immersing themselves in the chilly stream to cleanse themselves of years of accumulated impurities. Women streaked from nose to hairline with orange sindoor are holding lamps, shoving sticks of smoking incense into the bank, and worshipping the sun god and the river. The waters flow slowly past and gleam with the early morning light, illuminating the sindoor. The thronging multitude and chaotic activity, the incessant chanting, lamp-lighting, and smoking incense – all seem unable to dispel a remarkable sense of calm that prevails over the scene. It is something I never fail to notice when I am overtaken by my faith.
As is inevitable at such rural fairs in India, the Sonepur is not only a place of devotion. It also an occasion for some rather strange goings-on.
You will probably catch sight of a boy undergoing a kind of mundan. That is a hair-cutting ceremony that ends with the shorn hair being bound in an old sari, adorned with coins, paper notes, flowers, and a Prasad (religious offerings). The bundle is then set afloat on the river. A transvestite male howls all the while, seemingly a part of the ritual. This ritual is conducted in order to guarantee the boy a happy childhood, a long and healthy life, and an excellent wife.
I pause in thought for a long moment. Did my parents once gather my cut hairs and float them down a river? I wonder what impact that could have had on my life.
Where are you from? I got that question fairly often in Bihar. Foreign appearances seem quite noticeable and attract some attention, even among the seething crowds at the Sonepur Fair.
I answer that I want to experience the holy days and document the ceremonies on film. I ask how many people will visit. People answer by trading looks and shrugging. Some direct my gaze to the ghats teeming with bright hues and fervent activity.
One person points to a spot on the ghat above us. “That’s a Tantrik. Take a look” he suggests, almost as an afterthought.
A Tantrik? I knew that they cast spells and concocted potions that could variously drive out a malevolent spirit or even introduce you to one, as long as you are willing to provide adequate compensation for their services. Tantriks have been around as long as religion. In recent times, the Internet’s plethora of available offers has proven too stiff a competition for many. But some Tantriks are still around. Those visiting the Sonepur during the Kartik Purnima are from Nepal and the tribal lands of Jharkand and Bihar.
Well, I just have to see this! I make a path through the crowd towards the spot the man had pointed out. I can barely believe what I see. Three women are sitting around a small fire and a number of lamps. A drum is sounding steady as they tremble and chant to the beat in some language I cannot understand. I do not know Bihari or any tribal dialect, so that is in itself not unusual. Yet this intrigues me even more. One of the women rises to her feet with a stick in one hand and sways, apparently in the grip of a trance. The drum now beats faster. The woman’s swaying keeps pace and takes on a sense of urgency. The Tantrik comes to his feet as well while speaking some incantation, and then he starts to spin with amazing speed. The whole mood there increases until the tension becomes almost unbearable – and then it all ceases within an instant. The woman is seated again. Her eyes are shut and she calmly sways. The Tantrik turns and fixes his eyes on me for a long moment that unnerves me. Anxious to escape his gaze, I exit the circle.
Elephants & Horses
Once the river ceremonies conclude, attention shifts to the fair’s main attraction. The cattle fair at Sonepur has a long and storied heritage. Depending on whom you ask, it dates back to the Mauryan empire or the reign of Aurangzeb. According to tradition, the finest horses came there from as far away as central Asia to provide the imperial armies with worthy mounts. Despite the history, however, horses are not what the fair is most famous for. It is the elephants that are definitely the stars of the show.
Sonepur, the Mela and elephants are mentioned as far back as the Gajendra Moksha, a story preserved in one of Hinduism’s 18 great texts. The tale recounts an episode when Gajendra, the king of elephants, made to ford the Gandak at Sonepur. As he crossed, the crocodile Gandharva clamped onto his foot. For days, Gajendra and Gandharva strove against each other. Finally, in despair, the elephant Gajendra called upon the Lord Vishnu for aid. Lord Vishnu thereupon took on the form of Hariharnath, killed the crocodile. This tale is reflected in the traditional elephant bath on Kartik Purnima that begins the Sonepur Mela.
At least that was true until recently. In the 1980s, loggers, temples, and individual elephant owners brought hundreds of elephants to Sonepur from all over Bihar, from neighboring Uttar Pradesh and even from Assam. Today, however, only a very few come. Regulations now prevent the trade in elephants, and only a few owners continue to bring their pachyderms to the fair.
The Sonepur Mela is a yearly festival that lasts a whole month. It begins on Kartik Purnima, a day in the Hindu lunar calendar that normally falls sometime in November. It is widely regarded as Asia’s largest animal fair and once included a wide variety of animals, including elephants, horses, buffaloes, goats, dogs, and even birds and rabbits. An estimated 25,000-30,000 people visit the fair each weekday and even more on weekends. The Mela is a lively country fair and a venue for sexuality, spiritual devotion, animal commerce, and weird entertainments. Visitors are confronted with a whole spectrum of sights and wares. Magicians, Tantriks, and gurus appeal to crowds of pilgrims. Visitors can enjoy rides, watch performances given by circus acrobats, martial artists, and dancing girls and enjoy the wares provided by snack stands and stalls offering handicrafts and other articles. The carnival atmosphere there is surpassed by none other in the world. Mela Bihar Tourism also organizes cultural events that include dance, music, and even traditional sports competitions such as wrestling.
There are also the horses in thousands, as is a tradition at the Sonepur Mela. The 2017 Pushkar Mela in Rajasthan suffered an epidemic scare, which prevented owners from exhibiting and selling their horses there. They are now particularly anxious to do good business at the Sonepur Mela. At the Ghoda Bazaar (Horse Market) one can see rows upon rows of horses stretching into the distance. The scent of fodder and odour of dung floats through the market as horse aficionados and owners bargain and strike deals. Some owners come with more than 20 horses and set up their own tents, while others bring fewer and are content to make quick sales before departing.
In the mornings and evenings, owners promenade on their horses along a stretch of the market. They call out, hoot, and raise dust to attract and entertain onlookers. There is some danger of getting kicked by one of the horses galloping by the crowds along a narrow run. It is all meant to give potential buyers a chance to get a good look at the best that owners have to offer.
I am eagerly looking at the horses speeding by when I fall into conversation with a horse trader from Uttar Pradesh. I want to know how the horse trade works in that part of the world. He has come from the holy town Mathura and it is his first visit to the Sonepur Mela. He usually went to the Pushkar, but that fair was no longer as attractive as it had once been. So, how much should one expect to pay for a good horse, I want to know. Ramlal gives me some quick tips as to what to look for in a horse. The value of a horse can depend on a number of traits – size, the sheen of a horse’s coat, its gait, and certain auspicious properties. White horses are regarded as being the most select while those from Bihar are the best trotters. The price finally agreed between buyer and seller remains confidential. In order to guarantee this, bargaining is conducted according to a long tradition. The parties clutch hands that are covered with a dupatta. They then grasp hands and propose a price bid by squeezing a specific number of fingers. If one wants to offer 90, one squeezes the first five fingers and then four more. Well, I think, that kind of price is a bit out of my league!
A Festival of Fun and Frenzy
At its core, the Sonepur Mela is a rural festival that draws lakhs of visitors over the course of the fair. Once the religious rites and animal trade is done, people turn to more entertaining activities. The items and events on display here – as well as at other fairs – give one a real sense of rural India. It is almost easier to list what you will not find there – the list of attractions is so long! There are stalls selling rings that cure nightmares or will turn around a suffering business. Food stands offer to oversweeten jalebis and deep-fried river fish. Yet it is undoubtedly the entertainments that are the real crowd-pleasers. Only here can you experience what Biharis call ‘theatre”, which consists of a crowd of sparsely clad women shaking their bodies to the rhythm of popular local tunes. These women, typically from Kolkata and Mumbai, sway and prance suggestively on temporary platforms indoors to local Bhojpuri music, typically played at an extreme volume. These ‘theatre’ performances usually begin at 10 pm.
Next to one of these theatre tents, the renowned Jadugar, a village magician, gives performances. He has been to Sonepur four times now, and his show endures despite television, youtube, Netflix, and streaming. The noise level of his performance vies with the ‘theatre” next door. But I am more eager to move on the Maut ka Kuan.
From far away I could hear the boy screaming from a couple of loudspeakers, “Dekho, khel maut ka, maut se khelne wale Jabaanz! (See, the play of death, daredevils defying death) Only 25 rupees, 25 rupees!” The temporary, round walls of the well of death are constructed of wooden planks joined together and are about 50 feet high.
My feeling of excitement rises to an almost unbearable height of anticipation. I am about to see the ominously named Maut ka Kuan or ‘Well of Death’. Here, unbelievably skilled – and insane! – drivers get on motorcycles or antique Maruti cars and speed around what is in essence an incredibly steep – and ramshackle – velodrome. These acrobats begin firing their motors almost in tune with the frenzied shouts of the boy on the mike. I hand over 25 rupees and sprint up the stairs to secure a prime location. The viewing area is soon crowded with onlookers standing two or three rows deep. Finally, the show starts! The performance is begun by one biker who is sporting a red helmet that looks as if it is meant more for show than protection. He revs his well-worn Yamaha and drives it onto the inner wall. As his speed increases, his machine climbs higher, and soon he is zooming around the wall almost parallel to the ground. A second biker, and then a third mount the wall until all three are speeding along. Their motors roar so loud that one can barely hear the noise of the crowd and fair outside the wall.
But that’s not all! Now the motorcyclists begin doing stunts like riding side-saddle and standing on their seats. Then all three bikers ride next to each other and link arms, riding the wall in a joined row. I’m tempted to shut my eyes, so I won’t see them crash! But it soon gets even more insane. Maruti cars now join the bikers on the deadly wall. The old Maruti 800 cc car is uniquely suited for the Maut ka Kuan because it is practically the only one that has a power-to-weight ratio high enough to get it up on the wall.
The three motorbikes and two cars now begin the rattle the well. The five vehicles compete in performing ever more daring stunts. The car drivers sit on the car windows and fold their arms as if it is nothing at all. The bikers loop up to the very top of the wall close enough to grab banknotes held out by excited spectators. They even forego taking a note if it is too small. The whole scene is insane – the operators of five old, battered motor vehicles zooming about in seeming defiance of the laws of physics. And all that at a ‘country fair’ in Bihar. Finally, the show – and the vehicles – power down, and I join the spectators as they exit the venue. As I head away to look for some refreshment, the microphone boy starts hawking again as a line grows at the entrance.
Just another show at the Mela, I guess!
Where to Stay at the Sonepur Mela
Charming straw huts with western bathrooms, provided by Bihar Tourism, make for pleasant and fairly affordable accommodations. During the first week, they run at about 100 USD a night (not including food or tax). Rates go down to about 40 USD starting the second week.
I chose accommodation at Patna, which is about 30 to 60 minutes’ drive from the fair (depending on traffic). You can take a shuttle provided by Bihar Tourism from the Hotel Kautilya in Patna, but I personally suggest that you hire a car and take along an English-speaking guide for the sake of convenience.
How Safe is It?
Bihar has had a negative reputation for some years now but is one of India’s fasting growing states, Bihar has a great interest in promoting tourism has therefore made great strides in increasing public safety. Just take sensible precautions and don’t wander about alone at night. The police are out in force at the fair, and the Bihar Tourism Tourist Village has security guards on duty.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Sonepur is about 40 km from Patna. As the capital city of Bihar state, it offers direct air and rail connections to all major Indian cities. The quickest and most convenient way to travel to Sonepur is by taxi, which costs about 20 USD.
WHERE TO STAY:
Sonepur usually does not offer much in the way of accommodation, but during the fair Bihar Tourism operates a Tourist Village with comfortable, woven straw huts with western bathrooms attached. Patna itself offers has a good selection of hotels at all price ranges.
WHERE TO EAT:
The Tourist Village includes a restaurant that offers basic Indian cuisine, but you will probably take most your meals and the numerous food stands that populate the Mela. They offer a wide variety of fares, from jalebis, masala boiled eggs, and freshly fried river fish to Bihar’s renowned litti chokha. A caution for foreigners visiting the fair – find out what is in the food before ordering.
Some Images From Our Trip To Sonepur Fair