Nobody had taught Chanda economy of movement. She moved from leg to plump leg in an ecstasy of uncoordination. She swayed side to side while her head bobbed up and down. Her trunk tried to scratch her legs only to find that the legs had moved elsewhere. In this functional world she was an autonomous, unergonomic universe with painted ears. "Jhoolan Hathi hai," explained her owner, basking in the glory of possession and trying to look oblivious to the crowd of star-struck gazers that had collected around his precious two-year-old."She’s a swinging elephant, only stops moving when she sleeps."
Held since the time of Aurangzeb, the Sonepur Mela—fittingly for one described in all guidebooks as the largest cattle-fair in Asia—is a gigantic kaleidoscope of primary colours and primary noises. Every year in November, at the occasion of Kartik Purnima, faith and commerce keep their annual appointment at this overgrown village at the confluence of the Gandak and Ganga, an hour away from Patna. "Immense crowds assemble, the number of which it is impossible to estimate... the roads leading to Sonepur are thronged for days…," said an awe-struck gazetteer in the early twentieth century, and the description holds good today. And in the crowds’ wake come the mendicants, the vendors of shiny objects, purveyors of food, sellers of religious paraphernalia, here a calendar with Aishwarya, there a copy of Satya Narayan Katha cheek by jowl with a ‘Murda Jaag Utha’, a fortune-telling parrot, a fortune-changing stone… but most of all the animals. Elephants, horses, bulls, oxen, goats, dogs, birds, and this year, a sad and solitary camel. But it is the elephant who has always been the focus of Sonepur’s attractions, and that is why Chanda is here.
Even in the heart of colourful India, Sonepur at fiesta time can claim to be the most hue-some of places. The saris are orange, the sindoor red, the roli-threads yellow, the sadhus saffron, the bangles a riot, and the tents indescribable. Glowing in the winter sun, they are the first thing you see of Sonepur, those tents, as you end a journey that mostly spans the six-kilometre-long Mahatma Gandhi bridge over Patna, over the Ganga, and over never-ending banana plantations. Sonepur generously gives itself over to anyone who wishes to set up camp, dig tents, install ad-hoc cane stalls, and, in the case of one sadhu, bury themselves in the ground. They come from "all over the world", as a proud local told me, "from Chhapra, Siwan, Hajipur, Arawal", but also from Bengal, UP and MP (not forgetting the TV crew from National Geographic). There is a purposeful but relaxed swirl and eddy as people make their way to and from the river ghats; there are bodies to be bathed, traditions to be observed, and gods to be propitiated. Moving along with the bodies is a world in brass and copper: bowls, spouts, plates, lamps, and lotas, make alliance with marigolds, threads, vermilion, and incense. They all add up to some secret agglomeration of faith, in their very juxtaposition creating a rite before the ritual begins.
Near the ghats, satsang camps, ashram outlets and even a gurudwara from Patna, take the shortest route to men’s hearts, through their stomachs, with bhandaras and langars of community food, and through their ears, using loudspeakers. Strolling from, say, Maheshwar Chowk to Kalighat, I am seduced, admonished, beseeched, sought, preached at, advised thus: "Ek din Sita ne kaha…" "Aisa surma nahin milega…" "SOCHO! Saath kya jayega?" "Arre, teen rupaiyya kahan se ho gaya?" The World’s Greatest Magician, O.P. Sharma, is here, as is the World-Famous Shobha Samrat Theatre. Their blandishments are irresistible.
The cut-out of O.P. Sharma dominates the chowk with the most satisfying of moustaches and turbans, and a Caucasian blonde in a bikini advertises the theatre with an enchantingly cryptic but unambiguous message: "Ram teri Ganga maili HO gayi". But I move on, away from an entire village-turned-fairground, to that distant point beyond the dust, the bales of hay, and the men combing their hair, where all the world’s energies converge on the point called Chanda.
Chanda’s owner had brought her to the fair not to sell but to get a microchip implanted in her and get a certificate of ownership by the Forest Department. Singh saheb was represented mainly by a pair of luxuriant moustaches. This was true of almost all the elephant- and horse-owners, and very fitting it was since the ownership was a resoundingly male phenomenon. Many of their tents had banners proclaiming a proud line of patriarchy: "XYZ Singh, son of so and so Singh, grandson of such and such Singh, village this, district that…" These were big landowners, their vans and Scorpios often parked behind their tent, well able to afford the 500-plus-rupees per day that the prestige of "keeping an elephant tied at the door" demanded. They would sit in the sun on their reclining chairs, right next to their pet, often hidden behind a newspaper, trying hard to project a studied indifference to the admiration of the passersby. Sometimes the moustaches would peek from behind the paper. "A chair?" offered the moustaches, "some tea?" But however friendly I became with her owner, Chanda couldn’t care less. She would nimbly step out of the camera frame with a flick of the wand that was her tail. She would toss her head away in magnificent haughtiness as I offered a besotted hand. She fairly broke my heart.
If Chanda embodied Himalayan calm, the horses, in a separate field, were pure kinetic energy. Theirs was a more exciting arena, constituted of tautness and muscle and something that was always ready to burst into a run. In fact, at any given time you could see a couple of horses being taken through their paces for the benefit of potential buyers. They ranged from prized stock that would run races, valued at a lakh or more, to smaller beasts of burden, who would end up pulling a cart or tumtums, and would fetch Rs 25,000-40,000. If the ghoda bazaar was exciting, the Chidiya and Kutta bazaar was positively hysterical. Not only because birds and dogs can be quite articulate at the best of times but also because, for some reason, the sellers of the birds and dogs were the same. A cage of petite red munias, setting the dusk-time sun on fire, would have had much to say for themselves in any case but with four snowy Pomeranians haranguing them they were like an unrehearsed and not very talented Greek chorus.
If carried out on Kartik Poornima day, when all transportation is banned in Sonepur, the simple event of a person returning from Sonepur to Patna becomes an epic Picaresque saga of a woman and a bag negotiating the Gandak on a rowboat, disembarking on the ghat opposite, taking cycle rickshaws to the local station, taking a six-seater to Patna station… Highly recommended! Back in Delhi, memories of a rising sun that bathes people before they have taken a dip, invests colours in the yawning lazy streets, and even momentarily turns pink the monochrome of the elephants permeates all mornings. The fair is over and the caravans are travelling into the sunset. Swing on, Chanda. The world has need of your singular grace. The tubelights in Singh Saheb’s house have gone out and it will be midnight soon. Tuck into your last banana and try out a new step in your inimitable dance. It’ll soon be time to sleep.
By air. Patna is the closest airport to Sonepur, about 25km away.
By rail. The nearest railway station is Hajipur, 10km from Sonepur. If you’re travelling from Delhi, the Swatantra Senani (leaves 8.40pm, arrives 2.50pm) has convenient timings. From elsewhere in the country, however, it may be best to arrive at Patna station and then do the remaining 25km to Sonepur by road.
Where to stay
Rajawat Singh’s Tent Retreats offer a luxury missing from the menu of most luxury retreats: they give you access to living heritage n the country’s heartland of UP, Bihar and MP. Till tent retreats were set up at Kalighat (only for the duration of the mela) your only real option was to stay in a hotel in Patna and travel to Sonepur every day. (Hajipur is closer, and it does have accommodation facilities, but safety may be an issue.) You can now stay in guarded tents with wash basin, western-style toilets, and hot water in buckets failities. The food is good -- bacon and eggs for breakfast! -- and the evening bonfire is very attractive. For bookings at the next Mela, contact: 0544-282535, 9415230887, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.
What else to see
Taking in all that the Sonepur Mela offers may not leave you with much energy to spare, but if miraculously it does, go visit a temple. There are several in this area, the confluence of the Ganga and the Gandak, considered holy ground by millions of Hindus. The best-known and most visited of them is the Hariharnath temple, which locals will tell you is ancient (“Ram built it”), but which was constructed in recent years by the Birlas. The Kali Sthan and Panch Devata Mandir are also popular.
When to go
The Sonepur Mela is held for two weeks in October, November or December every year. Check with Bihar Tourism in Patna (0612-222622).