Sonepur is a small town in district Saran, situated on the banks of River Gandak and the Ganges. This town is significant for upholding an ancient event in the state of Bihar. For centuries, Sonepur is prominent for organizing the largest cattle fair which is held on Karthik Poornima (full moon day).
Sonepur cattle fair is also known as Harihar Kshetra Mela which usually lasts for fifteen days to one month. It is held in the months of November and December, attracting tourists from all over the world.
This fair has been dubbed as Asia’s largest cattle fair to ever exist, even bigger than the famous Pushkar cattle fair. To this date, animals and humans meet at Sonepur to celebrate the distinct culture and traditions of India for generations.
History of Sonepur cattle fair
According to local folklore, it all starts with the temple of Harihar Nath which was built by Lord Ram. This temple, thus, became a holy place of much significance, especially among the locals.
The cattle fair is also organized to remember Lord Vishnu’s intervention between a conflict involving a crocodile and an elephant. Hindu mythology states that while an elephant was bathing in the River Gandak, a crocodile attacked it. The elephant prayed to Lord Vishnu who resolved the matter by defeating the crocodile.
Since the sacred rivers of Gandak and Ganges are situated in Sonepur, people have regarded it as a holy site. Aside from visiting the fair, devotees take a dip in its water to pay their respects to Lord Vishnu.
However, the real cattle fair started during the reign of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, dating back to the 4th century BC. The traders traveled long distances across the Ganges river and brought horses and elephants for King Chandragupt Maurya. Various renowned historical figures such as Emperor Akbar, freedom fighter Baabu Singh and Lord Clive of the East India Company have visited the cattle fair.
Spread across an area of 500 acres, buying and selling of cattle has taken place at this site for centuries. The most famous animals were elephants and horses.
Traders from central and west Asia would bring horses while elephants were usually traded by people coming from South India. Along with these, a wide variety of other animals such as cows, donkeys, and even monkeys were sold in the fair at Sonepur up until the 90s. It was a primary place where trading of birds and animals took place for a long time.
The present Sonepur cattle fair
Where cattle were once sold and people flocked in numbers to watch the fair, today Sonepur’s most famous events look different.
Instead of seeing crowds of animals and people bargaining over them, you will find shops starting their business in its place. Various clothing and handicraft stalls, hawkers selling sweets, theatres, and knick-knacks can be found.
There was once a section where elephants were exhibited and sold, known to be the ‘Hatthi bazaar. Now, it is observed as a large ground for people to rest and relax. Many visitors who have been making trips to Sonepur’s cattle fair regard this change as the beginning of an end to the fair.
According to the Wildlife Act of 1972, the sale of elephants was banned by the Indian government in the year 2004. Up until the early 2000s, the Sonepur fair was known solely for exhibiting elephants and their trade. After the ban was implemented, the trade of elephants in the fair declined steadily.
Elephants hold religious significance for visitors and are a brand of the Sonepur’s fair. Therefore, their existence was highly regarded by locals.
Today, there are no elephant on display which has affected the long-lasting traditions of the fair. Even those who would bring their elephants to boast about have stopped coming at all.
Nevertheless, you can still come across cattle on display such as cows, buffaloes, donkeys, and horses.
International tourists from various parts of the world are intrigued and interested in the cattle fair and the cultures surrounding it. Aside from seeing the few animals exhibited, watching the puja and devotees taking a dip in the river Ganges enhances their experience of visiting Sonepur.
Other major attractions in Sonepur
There are other attractions in the Sonepur cattle fair that are just as enjoyable:
1. Hariharnath temple
This temple can be taken into consideration while tracing back the fair’s origin according to folklore. The present structure still stands strong which was built during the Mughal era by Raja Ram Narain.
On the day of the full moon or Kartik Poornima, devotees from all over the country arrive to offer their prayers to the deity, Lord Hariharnath.
Amid temples and cattle, there is a section in Sonepur’s cattle fair that is active in sports. Several games are organized for people that mainly include wrestling, cricket, volleyball, football, kabbadi, and many more.
These activities are inclusive of both males and females so if you are keen to participate in them, you are expected to enroll before the fair begins.
3. Ganga Aarti
In the evening when the sun sets, the Ganga Maha Aarti begins with lit lamps and diyas. This is a beautiful sight to see near the Ganga and Gandak holy rivers.
The ritual is performed by Hindu priests accompanied by devotional songs, praising Mother Ganga. This is an important ritual for many people and holds a very strong and spiritual meaning to it.
Ganga Maha Aarti is a spectacular part of India’s culture which must be seen while visiting Sonepur’s cattle fair.
Sonepur cattle fair in 2021
In the year 2021, Sonepur cattle fair will start on 21st November and conclude on 22nd December.
Tips for visiting Sonepur Cattle Fair
Before visiting the fair, keep these important tips in mind to enjoy your visit without any discomforts.
- It is recommended to stay in groups and avoid crowded areas.
- Since you will have to walk around the fair for a long period, wear appropriate footwear.
- Avoid carrying or flaunting any valuable items such as mobile phones, cameras, and wallets.
- Book your tickets for the fair in advance as you may not get hold of them later.
Where to stay while attending the fair:
There are various camps located near the fair that are attached to basic facilities. There are also several dormitories and rooms provided by the BSTDC (Bihar State Tourism Development Corporation).
For a fancier stay, you can head to Swiss cottages in Tourist Village which comes with complimentary activities like a free elephant ride.
How to reach Sonepur for the fair
- By air – The closest airport to Sonepur is located in Patna called Lok Nayak Jayprakash Airport. It is 31 kilometers away from the town and a taxi is recommended to reach the destination
- By train – There are several direct and indirect trains that can be easily be booked to reach Sonepur Junction Railway station.
- By car – Sonepur can be reached by car via NH 31 road which is connected to nearby cities as well.
Sonepur cattle fair is one of the most unique and ancient events that still uphold the traditions. Not strictly adhering to animals, the fair is still enjoyed by locals and tourists alike who would like to witness the vibrant culture of India.
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