Our little ship lay at anchor on the darkening Ganges. The moon rose through a smoky sky and candles flickered on the ghats, the steps leading to the water.
“More and more will come,” said Kunal Singh, our host, cruise manager of the MV Sukapha; “there will be hundreds of people at four in the morning.”
It was the eve of Kartik Poornima, the most auspicious full moon of the year, and the dimming horizons were thronged with the devout. Each candle marked an individual shrine. Just upstream, the Mahatma Gandhi Bridge was so clogged with people and candles that it resembled a three-mile strip of light and voices across the sky. We were all drawn here, to Patna, where the Gandak and Ganges converge, by a tradition that goes back to the third century BC: the full moon also marks the first day of the Sonepur Fair.
Patna was an important city even before Alexander the Great was born. Under the name Pataliputra, it ruled the subcontinent from Madras to Kandahar. As capital of the Mauryan empire under Chandragupta, the city’s walls were crowned with 570 towers and defended by 9,000 war elephants.
Those walls and towers are gone. One of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited places is now crowded, jangled and not beautiful. But thanks to Chandragupta, who liked to buy his elephants near his capital, a market that started in his time still thrives today, elephants included. And, thanks to the Assam Bengal Navigation Company, the fair, the river, and an entirely untouristed side of India can be explored in style.
Though beguiled by our luxurious boat, I felt more circumspect about the fair, which draws one of the biggest crowds in Asia. From my wood-panelled cabin, with the dark tumult on the ghats framed in the window and half a river between me and the merest speck of discomfort, I contemplated the prospect of animals, dung and devotees. I feared that by morning, I’d understand why Sonepur was absent from the tourist map.
With the clank of the anchor chain came a grey dawn, bodies blazing cheerfully at a waterfront cemetery and the river lined with a thousand people. They queued across sandbanks for ferries to the fair. Navigating upriver to join them, the Sukapha ran aground twice, despite having a flat bottom and two river pilots.
“The sandbanks are always moving,” Singh said. But nobody minded. There is much to see along the Ganges: the doings of Bengal jackals, fabulously guilty-looking; and bar-headed geese, grey francolin and gadwall. One of the ship’s crew was an expert naturalist, so you could point to any part of the view and learn about it. Often the sky and river reflected each other so perfectly that there was no seam and you seemed to float in pearly infinity. A surge in the surface that looked like some beast’s green knuckle turned out to be a Ganges river dolphin. The dolphins swim on their sides while trailing a fin through the mud to stir up edibles, and are all but blind. The thick sediments of the Ganges admit no visibility.
As we boarded our “country boat” – a diesel tender controlled by a broom handle and a skipping rope – swallows from beyond the Himalayas flitted by. Prehistoric-seeming river creatures flashed their flanks. Dhow-like barges crammed with pilgrims and fair-goers chugged across bronze-sheened waters and a hot November sun reddened the air. I felt rather like a half-blind dolphin, dimly discerning the surface of the extraordinary. The expressions on the dozens of turned heads on the barges ranged from delight to disbelief. No one expects tourists here.
The Mela, as the fair is also known, takes place on a wide headland between the Gandak and the Ganges, at the spot where a king in the form of an elephant received help from the God Vishnu during a fight with a demon in the form of a crocodile. Taking a bath here today is thus doubly blessed, because real elephants are bathed in the same place.
Men in loincloths and garlands of marigolds charged past carrying pots of river water, and shouting “Bol bam! Bol bam!” in praise of Shiva as they rushed their offerings to the Harihar Nath, the fair’s central temple. Bodies thickened around us. Yet it was not claustrophobic, partly because so many of the fair-goers were not tall. We were swept along, marvelling at the rush of life like a child at its first circus. Thousands of Bihari farmers and their families seemed to feel the same way.
We took a bludgeoning in the avenue of the “self-made gods’, as my guide, Nivaran Nongmaithem, described them. These gurus sit silently in marquees as their assistants harangued us through screeching speakers, proclaiming the powers of their man. The crowds here were dazed, whether by insight or volume it was hard to tell.
Hundreds of men formed a corridor under mango trees. Bareback horsemen galloped past, shouting at spectators, who had to sidestep the flying hooves. Nearby a thick circle of silent men were mesmerised by a snake charmer, as they must have been for 2,000 years. The 21st century’s equivalent marvel was a nonchalant 12-year-old girl driving a family car around the inside of a “Wall of Death”.
In a quiet shady spot, horse dealers reclined on cushions. I asked one of them, Arun Kumar Singh, about the secret of his success. He toyed with his phone while explaining that he owned a brick factory and a cold storage business; trading horses was a hobby. He had just sold a bay mare for Rs100,000 (£965).
“Everything depends on how clever you are,” he said, with a hawkish grin. His answer might have been his only unrealistic assessment of the day, given India’s caste system, the multitudinous crowds, the way the farmers gaped at a VIP with two armed bodyguards – and my guide’s laugh when I asked if rich and poor fair-goers were equal before the law.
Singh’s remaining mare stood quietly nearby. The livestock areas were nothing like the panicked pens at a European market; here they were spread over acres. Each seller had his beasts tethered in space, often in the shade.
Pairs of beautiful white Krishna cows from near Hyderabad, perfect for ploughing or drawing carts, sold for £900 a pair. Prices were poor this year, their herdsman said, frowning.
The money was in birds and dogs. This section was wild and packed, crammed into small courtyards where buyers and sightseers eddied and flowed in a tumult of overexcitement. In towers of cages were birds, dogs and monkeys. Budgerigars huddled together in shivering green rafts of terror. Parakeets – plum-headed, Alexandrine and blossom-headed – were traded rapidly, with triumphant buyers swinging their cages over the heads of the crowd. A flock of black-headed munias from the Himalayas had their pale bellies spray-painted vivid yellow, orange and green. The dogs were overwrought. At least one large mutt had lost his bark.
“Well, it’s a gesture,” said Liz Hamilton, as she rescued six birds by buying them, so they could later be released. She and her husband Peter, fellow guests on the Sukapha, are well-travelled British retirees. Every winter, they construct their own itineraries around India and, except for the conditions of the birds, they were delighted by the fair.
The magic, the point of it all, stood quietly eating bundles of sugar cane, prepared for them by their mahouts. As recently as the 1970s there were 2,000 elephants at Sonepur. Now there were thirty five.
Bijil Prashad – whose name I was told means “Lightning Offering” – was the first I met. His mahout, Allau Din Khan, said he had not yet got around to his own sacred river ablutions. “Wash him, oil him, feed him, paint him – no time!” he cried, folding faggots of sugar cane that Bijil steadily downed, regarding us with his little opal eye. He was decorated with white, pink and orange chalk swirls. A veteran of many weddings and parades, he seemed infinitely tolerant: the forbearance of elephants is humbling.
Khan said it took three days’ walking to bring Bijil to the fair, and that the main trick was route-planning. “No cities or highways or you stop all the traffic,” he said. Bijil functions as his owner’s status symbol, rather like an antique car. He costs at least £9,000 a year to run, requiring vast quantities of food and constant care from Khan. But then he and his 34 surviving fellows do take some beating as status symbols: whenever one went to the river, the crowds parted with alacrity. The mahout was suddenly a mythic warrior, floating over the heads of the crowd. Everyone wanted to follow the elephant and no one wanted to impede it. The sight of 9,000 of them arrayed for war must have stopped their opponents’ hearts.
We made three trips to the fair, retreating to the luxurious Sukapha, a sanctuary anchored midstream, for food, rest and refreshment.
After dark, Sonepur becomes something more familiar, with stalls offering everything for 10 rupees, and piles of Chinese teddy bears, shawls and blankets. Nevertheless, the only vendors who seemed to be counting any money were those selling the farmers’ essentials: vermilion, for the wife’s hair, and rice for supper.
The main nocturnal attractions were racy shows. Hundreds, if not thousands of young farmers, their expressions glazed with the effortful suppression of excitement, queued to see dancing girls.
On the third visit I encountered an elephant named Mothi, who was blessed with tiny tusks. Beasts with long ones are at a disadvantage, according to Abhijit Bhawal, Mothi’s vet, their ivory being extremely sensitive – breaking one can be agony.
“They are a curse,” he said. “The elephant is always worried that it will hurt its tusks.”
I found myself standing and staring, rather like Mothi, at the passing crowd, trying to fathom the charm and singularity of Sonepur. “You cannot buy an elephant,” Bhawal said. “Trading them is illegal here.”
As I joined the flow of people, I felt part of a pageant through time. It was more like visiting a tiny universe than a great event, and perhaps Sonepur’s secret goes beyond the worldly. For all that we were harangued by “self-made gods” and by the 10-rupee shops, and by phone companies and manufacturers of detergents and baby products, Sonepur really is not about the money, nor the winning or losing of deals. It is about the taking part.
Horatio Clare travelled as a guest of Natural High Safaris, Culture and Wilderness Travel (naturalhighsafaris.com). It offers a week’s tailor-made trip including three nights on board the new ABN Rajmahal from £1,350 per person. The next Sonepur cattle fair cruises depart on November 1 and 5
This story has been amended since original publication to correct the spelling of Mahatma Gandhi Bridge