Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Siddarth Jain

As with other small towns that come suddenly alive for annual festivals, Sonepur, 30 kilometres north of Patna, is more or less somnolent the rest of the year. But as pilgrims and animal traders begin to congregate in early November for the month-long Hariharnath Kshetra Mela, the annual cattle fair, this town at the confluence of the Ganga and Gandak becomes a true wonder to behold. Naturally, a dip in the waters on kartik purnima, the (generally) November full moon and one of Hinduism’s most auspicious days, is believed to be of immense spiritual value. But these days it is the incredibly broad spectrum of domesticated animal life, which regularly congregates at the 200-acre fair grounds, that receives most of the attention.

The Sonepur mela is renowned for being the largest cattle festival in Asia, and probably the largest animal fair in the world. Indeed, the spectacle goes beyond the endless masses of bovines to include an astounding variety of domesticated fauna, all of which are up for sale: dogs and cats; camels, buffaloes, donkeys and ponies; monkeys and chimpanzees; poultry and fish of all kinds; sheep, rabbits and guinea pigs – even bears can be bought and sold here. Of course, such throngs are not without their human counterparts: a recent survey put the number of annual visitors to the Sonepur fair at more than 600,000.
The mela is also the only place in India where large-scale trading of elephants takes place, with most purchases made by forest departments across India, for logging operations and other activities. So intrinsic is the elephant to the mela, that the pachyderm has also long been the subject of an important legend associated with the fair, particularly with the nearby Hariharnath temple in Sonepur. The so-called Gajendra Moksha legend centres on two characters, King Indradyumna and the Gandharva chief Huhu. Due to a curse that originated with the ancient sages Agastya and Dewala Muni, Indradyumna and Huhu were said to have been turned into an elephant and a crocodile, respectively.
According to the legend, Indradyumna, now in the form of Gajendra the elephant-king, one day went down to the Gandak in present-day Sonepur to cool off. Suddenly, he was grabbed by a giant crocodile, Huhu. The two animals began to fight an epic battle, in which their respective herds took part. The fighting continued for years, until Gajendra began to weaken and prayed to Vishnu to save him. Vishnu heard the prayer, and chased off the crocodile and his horde with his chakra. But the touch of the chakra was said to have released Huhu from the curse, and likewise with Indradyumna. The god then took Indradyumna with him to Vaikuntha, his heavenly abode, and thus did the former elephant-king attain moksha.

A significant draw of the Sonepur fair is the merriment that accompanies the annual pilgrimage: local music shows, mountains of street food, joy rides, and row after row of handicraft stalls. Naturally, all of this takes place amidst a staggering commotion, with the Sonepur mela eventually churning into an exhilarating mix of emotion and action. Perhaps for this reason, coupled with the sheer numbers who show up, the centuries-old fair was an important meeting place for colonial-era independence fighters.
On top of everything else, the Sonepur mela is a fascinating study in contrasts. This is perhaps best illustrated by the bridge that links the festival grounds with the cremation grounds – a striking dualism that emphasizes an age-old acceptance of death alongside life, somberness alongside gaiety.