Indian animal fair is losing its sheen

As federal law on the sale of fauna is amended and governement dwindles, the festival is slowly becoming a relic of a bygone era.

Mahouts look after elephants in the morning sun as they wait for business during the Sonepur festival.
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Sonepur, India // Krishna Kanhai Singh sat on his front porch in this rural Bihar village last weekend watching the kick-off of the Sonepur Mela, an age-old religious festival and animal market that suddenly seemed unfamiliar. "It's sad, our festival is shrinking and changing," said Mr Singh, 53, whose family has lived for a century in a rickety wooden house on the grounds of the event, long known as Asia's largest cattle fair. "The government is not funding the animal market and the people don't care." A series of conditions - new federal laws on animal trade, shifting societal and governmental interests, rampant lawlessness and the impact of a summer flood - have conspired to stifle the animal market and transform a revered, centuries-old festival into something more foreign to locals. As lowing cows, bathing elephants and straggly bearded holy men have in recent years given way to sleek advertisements, tractor display rooms and high-end gadgets, Mr Singh's stoop has served as a front-row seat to the changing face of India. "All these changes are bad for the fair and bad for Biharis," said Mr Singh, surrounded by a dozen children and grandchildren. "I don't know if it will die, but I almost wish it would." For aeons, Hindu pilgrims have gravitated to Sonepur on the first full moon of November for a visit to the Vishnu temple and an auspicious bath at the confluence of the Gandak and the Ganges, Hinduism's holiest river. Animal traders, meanwhile, trace the festival's market back to the ancient king Chandragupta Maurya, who is said to have bought horses and elephants here. Historically the festival stretched across more than a dozen villages, but by the mid-20th century it had settled into a grassy expanse at the meeting of the two rivers. Earlier this week barkers droned into microphones as Hindi tunes blared across muddy, meandering bazaars lined with kitchenware, noodle stands, sweetmeats and a dizzying selection of knick-knacks, like a shrivelled plant, dubbed "the one that brings dead to life", that blossomed in water. A family of gypsy musicians roamed the animal stalls, plopping down in the dirt to play traditional songs amid gathering crowds. And a warren of caged parrots and parakeets, white rabbits, Dobermans, dachshunds and a lone Rhesus monkey watched the passing human circus. Yet from the millions-strong crowds in the mid-1990s, the fair, which continues into December, will welcome an estimated 150,000 visitors this year, most of whom arrived early and departed quickly. Two decades ago a visitor could contemplate the spectacle of 50,000 cattle, up to a thousand elephants and the same number of horses. This year there were less than 1,000 cattle, about 500 ponies and horses and no more than 50 elephants. "Success is not in how many cattle came, that's just one component, there are other things like markets, jeeps, and the religious aspect," said Ashok Kumar Chouhan, the festival organiser and local government commissioner. He said the festival budget, at six million rupees (Dh442,700), had risen in recent years. Ramjanam Diwari, 58, an elephant seller, had a different perspective. He swept his arm across a stretch of recently built homes and explained how the festival had in the past 20 years lost three-fourths of its acreage. "The government has failed us," said Mr Diwari. "They used to fix up the roads, add street lights, construct temporary roadside inns, but now there's nothing, maybe five per cent of the facilities that were here. They are gradually and systematically killing the mela." Death may not be imminent, but the contraction of the animal market is likely to continue. Fewer animals are arriving from other states because of increasing transport costs and a recent law banning transport of for-sale cattle across state lines. Corrupt officials ask for increasingly large bribes, according to traders, both during transport and to secure a stall at the fair. And as the state government pushes development and industrialisation, Bihar's younger generation seems more interested in iPod's and Levis than traditional pastoral pursuits. Hetukar Jha, a retired Patna University sociology professor who has studied regional animal husbandry, pointed out a few more reasons. "Because of increased lawlessness in rural areas, people find it less safe to move around with lots of money or with valuable goods, like livestock," he said. "Horses are not used for transport anymore, nor elephants or camels. And because so many people are moving to urban areas, they don't have room to keep these big animals." The Indian government banned the sale of elephants in 2003 because of a rise in unauthorised sales that led to mistreatment and illegal ivory procurement. But a loophole was quickly found: sellers now hand over the elephant as a "gift" and receive a large "donation" in return. Thus B B Singh, a wealthy landowner, donated nearly 2.5m rupees in return for the gift of two elephants. "We have had an elephant in our family for 150 years," said Mr Singh, as his mahout, chief negotiator, assistant and bodyguard looked on. "Other people have jeeps and SUV's, I have an elephant; in Bihar it's still a status symbol." It might not be for long. According to the fair organiser, the shift away from animals is by design. "Last year I had to learn a few things," said Mr Chouhan, the organising committee chairman for the past two years. "Now, instead of putting the focus on cattle we are trying to convert the mela, to rebrand it as a rural auto-expo and create a modern, industrialised fair." The latest edition presented more than a whiff of modernity, with ads for mobile phones and powdered cappuccino. Locals peered into shops hawking major appliances and large vehicles like John Deere tractors and Tata conversion vans but few stepped inside. "I'm not sure how effective government implemented change can be," said Mr Jha, the sociologist. "It was always the people's mela, and that's the way it will stay." For many people the outlook was grim. With declining attendance, merchant revenues have drooped. One samosa seller tried to charge two Dutch tourists 10,000 rupees (Dh 739) for four of the snacks, which typically cost three rupees each. The cow dealer Mundrika Prasad Yadav, a 72-year-old from the state capital Patna, had been coming to the fair for 30 years and said the steep decline began around 2000. "My business is 10 per cent of what it was a decade ago," he said. Mr Diwari, the veteran elephant seller, was keeping close watch on his prized animals, which were co-operatively owned by members of his village. "Whatever I get in donations from these two will be distributed to all the villagers," said Mr Diwari, from Taribara village in Uttar Pradesh. "But there's not much interest this year." Jimhi Lal Rai, a 48-year-old cattle trader from nearby Hajipur, sold 20 cows last year, but this year had sold only two. "Right now I've lost about 70,000 rupees on this festival," he said. "If I don't sell the rest of my cows I will have to start working as a labourer." However, Mr Jha sounded a hopeful note. "Meals will change with the times, the items on offer will shift. But because the religious aspect will always be there, the festival will never die." * The National