At the centuries-old Sonepur cattle fair, animals are no longer the main attraction

About 30 km from Patna, in Saran district, lies the town of Sonepur. It’s the site of what’s dubbed ‘Asia’s largest cattle fair’ — the buying and selling of cattle here has taken place for centuries, spread across an area of 500 acres. Local folklore has it that the horses and elephants for emperor Chandragupta Maurya’s stables were bought here, after breeders travelled long distances to arrive at the site. Other historical figures believed to have visited the fair: Emperor Akbar, Lord Clive of the East India Company, freedom fighter Baabu Kunwar Singh.
Traders from west and central Asia would bring horses to the fair; until the ‘90s, a brisk trade in elephants would be conducted by those who’d travelled up from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Elephants, horses, cows, asses, even monkeys — there were a wide variety of animals sold at the cattle fair.

Indian Hindu devotees crowd to take holy dip in the waters of the river Gandak during a cattle fair in Sonepur near the eastern Indian city of Patna November 26, 2004. The annual fifteen-day long fair is more of a cattle-trading centre where incredible number of birds and cattle are brought from different parts of the country for trading. REUTERS/Krishna Murari Kishan AH/LA - RP5DRIAGHDAA

Devotees take a dip in the waters of the river Gandak during the Sonepur cattle fair in 2004. The annual 15-day long fair is a cattle-trading centre where an incredible number of birds and cattle were brought from different parts of the country for trading. REUTERS

Indian Hindu devotees take a holy dip in the waters of the river Gandak during a cattle fair in Sonepur near the eastern Indian city of Patna in this picture taken November 26, 2004. Picture taken November 26, 2004. NO RIGHTS CLEARANCES OR PERMISSIONS ARE REQUIRED FOR THIS IMAGE. REUTERS/Ravi. S. Sahani SD/SH - RP5DRIAGHFAA

Devotees take a dip in the river Gandak during Sonepur Pashu Mela in 2004. REUTERS

These days, however, the Sonepur Pashu Mela wears a different look.

Gone are the crowds of animals, and bargaining over them isn’t the first order of business on the minds of visitors. Instead, clothing and handicraft stalls, those selling sweetmeats, hawkers with knick-knacks, line the dusty fairgrounds. Hoardings that have celebrities peddling everything from hair oil to batteries vie for visitors’ attention. And then of course, there are the ‘dance theatres’ – no fewer than nine of them were put up this year – where women dance suggestively to Bhojpuri songs full of double entendre.

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At the Sonepur grounds, one section of the fair is devoted exclusively to the buying and selling of elephants. The ‘Haathi Bazaar’ was once the pride of the cattle fair, now it’s a reminder of ‘glory days’ gone by.
This year, as the fair wrapped up over the first week of November, not a single elephant was brought to the Haathi Bazaar. Visitors made use of the empty space – a cool grove of mango trees with open fields nearby – to rest, cook food and dry their clothes, after taking a dip in the river nearby. Old-timers like Ram Shakal Rai, who has been associated with the Sonepur Pashu Mela since the early ‘70s, think of this as the beginning of the end.

In 2016, 13 elephants had been brought to the Haathi Bazaar (only to be exhibited – the sale of elephants was banned by the government in 2004 under the provisions of the Wildlife Act of 1972); in 2015, there had been 14; 39 in 2014. A decade ago, in 2007, about 77 elephants had been brought to the fair, and 354 in 2004 – the last noted instance of their numbers crossing two digit figures.

The changing face of the Sonepur cattle fair. Photo courtesy MI Khan

Empty spaces at the Sonepur cattle fair, where the animals were once sold. Photo courtesy MI Khan

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A dance theatre at the Sonepur cattle fair. Photo courtesy MI Khan

“There isn’t a single elephant this time,” rued Rai, who sells jalebis and other dry snacks near the Haathi Bazaar. “Without elephants the fair won’t last long.”

Rai, who lives in a village just 2 km away from the Mela site, recalled his childhood years when hundreds of elephants would be seen at the Pashu mela. “Those days are gone now,” he said.

Till the early 2000s, the Sonepur fair was famous for the buying and selling of elephants. The 2004 ban (mentioned above) affected the tradition, as did the halt on transportation of elephants from Assam. But even today, when there are no elephants at the fair, it remains a talking point among local visitors and foreign tourists.

Shayam Bahadur Singh, a JD-U MLA, used to bring his elephant, Gaman, ever year to the Sonepur fair for displaying. “Until last year, I brought my elephant to Sonepur for the sake of the fair. If the elephants aren’t here, the fair is finished,” he said.

Elephants hold religious significance for visitors to the fair, and are also the brand ambassadors/symbols, in a sense, of the Sonepur Pashu Mela.

Mahouts gather as they wait for customers at a the Sonepur Cattle Fair, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar November 14. Over 100 elephants were put on sale at the Asia's biggest cattle fair. - PBEAHUMQQAL

Mahouts gather as they wait for customers at a the Sonepur Cattle Fair in 2004. REUTERS

The nearly two dozen tourists from Japan, the Netherlands, Italy and the UK at the fair this year were taken aback to find that there were no elephants here, and that numbers of other cattle too were small. There would be no sightings of elephants taking a dip in the river. “I am feeling cheated as my tour operator promised me I’d say an elephant bathe,” said Eshino Kajumi, a Japanese tourist. She wondered why the tourism ministry and tour operators were using photos of elephants in their brochures to attract tourists if none were present.

Others like Van Oorschot, here from the Netherlands, and John Kiddy, from the UK, admitted that while they missed seeing the elephants, the local colour and crowds were interesting. Tour operator Suresh Giri said tourists had complained that the fair had ‘no adventure’ since there were no elephants (the pachyderms taking a dip at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Gandak was a big draw), and few other animals.

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A vendor sells sweetmeats at the Sonepur cattle fair. Photo courtesy MI Khan

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The changing face of the Sonepur cattle fair. Photo courtesy MI Khan

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It isn’t just elephants though, the presence of other animals too is dwindling at Sonepur.

There were no camels this year; the numbers of cows, buffaloes and oxen was quite low. The ‘Gai Bazaar’ wore a fairly empty look – a place where 12,000-15,000 of the animals were once sold. In 2016, 81 cows were brought to the fair; half that number remained unsold. Old timers said cow politics had definitely hit Gai Bazaar hard.
Cow trader Kameshwar Singh said the next generation would only know about the Sonepur Pashu mela as an event on its deathbed. “Not long ago, the market for cattle including, cows, buffaloes, oxen and goats used to be big one, spread over a large field covering hundreds of acres. It has become thing of past. In the coming years, the fair will die.”

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The changing face of the Sonepur cattle fair. Photo courtesy MI Khan

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The numbers of cows and buffaloes sold here have dwindled too. Photo courtesy MI Khan

Only the horse market (Ghoda Bazaar) sees brisk business at Sonepur today. This year, about 5,000 horses were brought to the fair. It isn’t known how long the Ghoda Bazaar will remain popular.

A horse trader, Munna Singh, points out that horses are only kept as a status symbol these days. He feels they’ll go the way of camels and elephants, at the Sonepur fair, soon.

An official at the tourism department, who is part of the Saran district administration, said as society changed, the Sonepur fair too would have to keep up with the times. “It will slowly become a space for modern gadgets, vehicles, agricultural tools and rural arts and crafts,” the official said.


Updated Date: Nov 12, 2017 10:34 AM

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