The Haathi Bazaar
Sonepur Cattle Fair, the largest in Asia, attracts visitors and traders from all over Asia. But it is news to me that even elephants were once bought and sold in the fair. Normally the cattle fairs in India feature the bovines, the canines, the fowls with the rare camel thrown in to complete the scene. Believed to have originated in a Suryavanshi (forefathers to Lord Raam of Ayodhya) king’s time, the fair is referenced to have been held in Haripur during the reign of Lord Raam . The venue was shifted to present Sonepur at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Ghandak presently in the state of Bihar, by the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb. Elephants were part of the fair even as early as the Chandragupta Maurya period when the world did not have Islam. Sonepur cattle fair is one more ancestral ethnic chainlink in India that has been passed on through generations without a break, having survived since the Ramayan days beating all odds. It endured the invaders from the Middle east, Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan. It was celebrated with a flourish in the British Raj when it became a highlight with the trophy hunters of the wildlife and the exotic species. The tradition of the mela continues to the present. The mela was held in the year 2018 with all the fanfare associated with it.
Haggling over prices in Indian village style hands clasped under a piece of cloth with the finger count, is some custom that has thrived over ages as well! This is how rural markets in India operate when it comes to dealings in livestock. The animals brought to the fair include dogs, Persian horses, donkeys, ponies, rabbits, cattle, sheep, goats, buffaloes, camels and elephants.
Elephants were traded in for the revenue resources they were to their owners, serviced by devoted mahouts. Captured from the wild and domesticated, they were leased to circuses and temples and festivals if not sold outright. Their tusks made for the coveted ivory, hardest over metals. A pair of ivories always made for a grand and matchless mantel piece in aristocratic homes be it the princely palace of our maharajahs or the well appointed English estate. No wonder the tuskers fetched an astronomical price. I just googled ‘ivory price today’ and there were entries screaming ‘ivory prices treble in China.’
Elephants are strictly prohibited from being bought and sold in the Sonepur mela which is a good move. The last year the elephants were traded in was 2004. During British era, hundreds of elephants were brought to the mela to be bought or sold. The numbers fell with the independence. Now the elephants mostly parade for the show. But the old clippings of newspapers reveal how highly prevalent was the elephant trade practice at Sonapur and how interesting that might have been. The pachyderms were the showstoppers of the Sonepur mela.
The Sonepur Cattle Fair may be held about once in five years. The last two were held in the years 2013 and 2018. The mela’s tenure may run upto one month during November-December.
Here are some interesting pictures from the Sonepur Elephant Fair that was an integral part of the Sonepur mela until twenty years back.
The Sonepur Mela is happening Nov-Dec right this year 2022! A grand affair, the festival now is officially government sanctioned and sponsored, generating transactions worth crores of rupees. A tourist delight, the mela is a huge crowdpuller lacking nothing by way of entertainment. However I am limiting the scope of this post to the elephants that were the highlight of the fair from time immemorial to the turn of the century. Ban on elephant trade points to conservation efforts for protecting the natural habitat of the Elephas Maximus, with a view to checking the man-elephant conflicts, preserve the elephant corridors and see to that the Indian elephant belongs in the wild and not in the temples or in festivals or circuses. All these factors can contribute to pushing up the elephant population in the country. And India without the ubiquitous elephant is hard to imagine.