Apparently, the Sonepur Fair has ancient origins back to the rule of India's first Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, who used to buy elephants and horses from it for his army. The Fair also commemorates the intervention of Lord Vishnu to end a great curse and long fight between elephant and crocodile in Hindu mythology. The elephant was saved, after bathing in the river and being attacked by the crocodile, by Lord Vishnu.
Traditionally known as a cattle fair, while still wonderfully off the beaten path, the Sonepur Fair now has a more commercial focus with the aim of attracting both domestic and international tourists. In order to facilitate this, Bihar Tourism took over its organization, including tourist accommodations, in 2012.
Elephants at the Sonepur Fair
While the Pushkar Fair in Rajasthan is famous for its camels, it's the elephants that are the star attraction at the Sonepur Fair. They're decorated and lined up on display in rows in an area known as the Haathi Bazaar (Elephant Market), and reportedly even raced. The special thing about it is that you can go up to the elephants and touch them, and even feed them.
Sonepur Fair Holy Bath: Must-See
However, what really made the Fair remarkable and memorable for me was witnessing crowds of pilgrims taking holy bath at sunrise on Kartik Purnima (a particularly auspicious full moon), where the Ganges and Gandak rivers meet, to purify themselves and wash away any negativity.
At around 5 a.m., head down to the river bank and hire one of the many boats that are lined up there. For 150 rupees (if you negotiate well), a boatman will slowly take you up and down the river for a couple of hours while you remain enthralled by the activities going on along the waterfront.
Pilgrims pray and bathe amidst a background of chanting and the heady aroma of incense. Yet, it's the presence of ghost slayers and tantriks (performers of black magic) that really make it other worldly. The tantriks carry out their captivating and rather disturbing rituals to the intense and rhythmic beat of drums, as their eyes roll back in their heads, to ward off evil spirits. I sat mesmerized, as they led one devotee after another into the water to rid them of their problems. Despite living in India for nearly seven years and traveling extensively, I'd never seen a tantrik before. And, I admit, what I'd witnessed left me feeling a little uneasy but in awe of yet another part of India's mystical culture. (Are the tantriks real or just acting? That's for you to decide!).
In my view, if you miss this riverside spectacle, you're missing out on the heart of the festival and may even find your festival experience to be unfulfilling. As an Indian photographer remarked to me, "It won't be possible to see these kind of rituals in 10 years, as India is modernizing at such a rapid rate."
Tips: While you may be tempted to simply remain on the river bank and view the bathing from there, don't. It's much more powerful if watched from the river! Elephants also have an early morning bath in the river with pilgrims, and is a sight to behold. The boatmen will take you to where it happens. (Unfortunately, I didn't see it when I visited the Fair, as a change in the course of the river sadly prevented it from taking place for the first time ever). Do be aware that the reality of India means that sanitary conditions are very poor near the river, so watch where you walk.
Devotees at Harihar Nath Temple
The Harihar Nath Temple in Sonepur, devoted to Lord Vishnu, is also popularly visited by pilgrims during the night and early morning of Kartik Purnima, after they've taken their holy bath. It's worth going there to see them flock to the temple with offerings of pots filled with holy water. So numerous in numbers, they're held back by police barricades.
In stark contrast to these pious religious activities, "theater" performances are the highlight of nighttime entertainment for men at the Fair. Scantily clad women (commonly brought in from Kolkata and Mumbai ) dance provocatively to music at various makeshift indoor stages across the fair grounds. Shows generally get underway from 10 p.m.
Sonepur Fair Location and Accommodations
The Sonepur Fair takes place in Sonepur, 25 kilometers north of capital city Patna. Bihar Tourism provides accommodations at the fair in the form of characterful woven straw huts with attached western bathrooms for 4,000 rupees per night. If this option is too costly (the huts are quite expensive for what you get and other options in the area are limited), you can stay in Patna and travel to the Fair. Depending on the amount of traffic, travel time can be anywhere from around 30 minutes to an hour and a half. While it may be possible to find accommodations in budget hotels and guesthouses around Sonepur, security is not guaranteed.
When is Best to Visit?
Most of the activities and animal trading take place during the first week of the festival. For the best experience, do be there on the first day to witness the sunrise bathing. A stay of a day or two is sufficient to explore the festival.
What About Safety?
Bihar, while suffering from a negative image for many years, has greatly improved in terms of law and order. It's become one of India's fastest developing states and a growing tourist destination. I traveled as a single female and didn't feel threatened or anymore uncomfortable than anywhere else in India (although I was sensible and took proper precautions, including not staying out alone after dark). There's a heavy police presence at the Fair, and security guards at Bihar Tourism Tourist Village (where the tourist accommodations are).