India is a land of festivals and cultural events. Some fairs (or melas, as they are known in north India) have been part of the pulse of the subcontinent since ancient times. “Mela” in Sanskrit means “gathering” or “to meet,” and most have a religious fervor and over time metamorphose into pilgrimage sites like the Kumbh Mela. Others mark and celebrate the change of seasons or signal the beginning or end of an agricultural cycle. Melas are worlds within a world, a microcosm that overturns the monotony of everyday life and facilitates socializing, religious tourism, sporting activity, as well as brisk commerce in cattle, poultry, and other animals besides trading in different items of daily use like food grains and clothes at affordable prices.
Moreover, the melas are also a great source of fun and entertainment for people of all ages and includes circuses, a “Disneyland,” toy train rides, wrestling matches or dangal, and the famous Maut ka Kuaan or Well of Death with its nail-biting dare devilry and stunt on bikes and cars that spin around in a velodrome like structure at great speed.
This photo essay is about the Sonepur Mela (also known as Harihar Kshetra Mela or Chhattar Mela), which is known for hosting the largest annual cattle fair in Asia. It has become an outing for friends and family excursions, mostly for people from from dehaat (the rural areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh) and the outlying and peri-urban areas. The Sonepur Mela plays a vital role in the lives of ordinary folks especially those living on the fringes of Bihar’s capital city, Patna. The photos above depict how a rural fair turns into a surreal terrain and provides a symbiotic ecosystem where love and longing, religion and desire, magic and politics jostle and subsist alongside the margins of a bustling city while impacting the lives of those who have a “deep immersion” in this spectacle. It is also a visual reminder of the traditions of life, once taken for granted but now so disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sonepur is located 25 kilometers from the capital city Patna and has a population of around 38,000 inhabitants. The Mela is held every year in November at the confluence of the sacred rivers Ganga and Gandak in Saran district or Harihar Kshetra and opens on the full moon of the month of Kartik, considered to be the most auspicious according to the Hindu calendar. The place turns into a holy site where Hindu devotees gather for Ganga-snan or a holy dip in River Ganga and pay their respects at the Harihar Nath Temple.
The history and popularity of Sonepur Mela stretches back to the later Vedic age, when it used to attract buyers and traders of exotic items as well as daily items from places as distant as Central Asia. It is said that Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya empire, used to buy horses and elephants from its Haathi Bazaar (Elephant Market). Indeed, until 2004 elephants, along with many other animals, exchanged hands at the Sonepur Mela. There are various other narratives coupled with interesting events about the mela site, including its popularity as a hotbed for militant and revolutionary activities against colonial rule.
The mela combines religion, pilgrimage, and tradition and promotes history, heritage and cultural folkways. This annual event has undergone profound changes since its inception. Many of these historical events are described in detail in a late 19th century memoir titled Sonepur Reminiscences: Years 1840-96 by an indigo planter named Harry E Abbott. This memoir gives a stellar chronological and anecdotal account of the horse races for which it was best known as well as other sporting events like cricket, polo, gymnastics and ballroom dancing, all of which took place at Sonepur Mela in the later 19th century.
Sonepur Mela has been organized officially by the government of Bihar since the 1990s. Sonepur’s singular attraction, distinguishing it from other popular South Asian fairs, was the elephants, but due to the enforcement of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 in 2004, the sale of animals or birds was rendered illegal. Angrezi Bazaar, the once-famous market for displaying exotic and rare animals, became a piece of history.
One of the popular reasons for visitors to throng to the month-long Sonepur Mela is the folk opera, tamasha or nautanki as it is referred to in north India. Once considered to be a fun-filled medley of humor, music, dance, and melodrama to beat the hardships and monotony from the lives of rural folk, it became a source of popular entertainment on special occasions like marriage and childbirth. However, in the last few years, the form and content, connotation, and practice of nautanki has undergone drastic metamorphosis and globalization has only escalated the speed with which this change has taken place.
The theaters have become nocturnal affairs and today are the urban equivalent of a cheap source of visual pleasure, mixed with sleazy comments, lewd gestures, and cabaret performances by young girls who are put on the stage to try to indulge the crowd through their “item numbers,” performances of Bhojpuri and Hindi songs. Those who want to make the most of the sleaze and peep show and “interactive” sessions have to pay a heavy price for the front seat. Although violence used to be a normal occurrence at the theaters, these activities have been controlled at Sonepur Mela to a large extent due to the strict enforcement of law and order in the recent years.
Sonepur Mela also serves as an arena for exhibiting political power and machismo; the event serves as billboards for the state government to advance its political agenda by advertising, educating, and spreading awareness among the rural masses about the different policies and flagship programs of the government aimed at targeted groups and communities. Different state departments like the railways, agriculture, small cottage industries, health, education, handicrafts market, culture and youth affairs departments, National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), and other flagship initiatives like the Skill Development Program and many others put up stalls in order to make outreach to the rural populace.
Today, despite the Mela’s altered complexion and its diminished size, its place in the lives of the people of north India in general and Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in particular hasn’t faded. Its importance can be gauged by the fact that the government of India released a stamp in 2007 featuring the Mela to honour the annual event.
Subir Rana is a doctorate in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and currently works as an independent researcher in Bangalore. He documents the everyday life around him and tries to interpret the unfolding of events through a sociological and anthropological lens.