Text by Hardika Dayalani | Photos by Ritayan Mukherjee

A fortnight after Diwali, on the day of Kartik Poornima, a village in Bihar named Sonepur, located at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Gandak, hosts Asia's largest cattle fair. It attracts traders from as far as Central Asia, and goes on for close to a month. The cattle fair is held in commemoration of Vishnu, who, in Harihar Nath avatar, rescued the devout elephant Gaj Grah from being maimed by an attacking crocodile, while the former was paying him obeisance. Hence, the temple of Harihar Nath, along with activities like taking a holy dip in the rivers, and ceremonial bathing of elephants are central to the carnival.

The fair is also historically significant, as Chandragupta Maurya is believed to have bought elephants for his army from here. Besides elephants, various breeds of dogs, donkeys, ponies, Persian horses, goats, bulls, buffaloes, as well as a large variety of birds (some illegal) can be seen at the fair.


Above photo: A boy observes a fortuneteller machine outside Sonepur station.


Thousands of devotees gather at the bank of the Gandak river for a holy dip on the day of Kartik Poornima.


Horse owners from near and far assemble at the fairground. Horses are among the major attractions at the fair.


Villagers who believe their family members to be possessed bring them to the priests at the fairground for cure.


Above image: A boy and his newly purchased horse on their way back home.


Elephant owners bring their elephants for bathing at the fair. Bathing elephants at the Gandak river is considered auspicious. However, unfortunately, as the Gandak has changed its course, this ritual is now a rare sight.


In this image: The crowd eagerly awaits the start of 'Maut ka Kua' (The well of death), a game where bike and car drivers perform dangerous stunts.


Seen here: Not very far from the fairground, a transgender person offers blessing to a kid.


Cattle traders and villagers flock to the makeshift theatres. There are around 12 to 15 theatre performances held at the fairground, traditionally known as Nautanki. Each theatre comprises anywhere between 50 to 70 girls, who dance and entertain huge crowds from 5 pm to 11 pm.


In this image: A horse is seen relaxing on the ground after winning a race.


A devotee awaits her relative's arrival at the fairground.


On the last day of the fair, a man stands next to the empty river bed.

Banner image: Scene from a morning at the fair ground.