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Ritual shift steals fair sheen

Sonepur (Saran), Dec. 1: Footfall from the West, Southeast and the Mediterranean at Sonepur Mela is on the wane, as the visitors want to see the ritualistic bathing of elephants back in the fixture of the largest cattle fair of Asia.

To add to the visitors’ disappointment are the shabby cottages that the Bihar tourism department has in place for them at the fair ground.

The tourism department, which is organising the fair for the first time this year, has now suggested making the “haathi snaan” (elephant bath) mandatory so that the age-old culture doesn’t die out and continues to attract tourists from the world across.

Of the 20 Swiss cottages, having two beds each, arranged by the department in coordination with Impact Communications, an event management company in New Delhi, only 23 had been booked by the foreigners. But all of them have already checked out, and the number of fresh booking has been one.

“There were around 12 tourists from Japan, six from France, and some from Belgium. They came on November 27 when the fair started and have checked out as well. Last year, the first week of the fair had seen as many as 40 tourists. The number of foreigners has reduced this time. The number of fresh booking now stands at only one. Last year, the total number of foreign tourists was 60. There is undoubtedly a decrease in the tourist flow this time. We hope the situation improves,” R.K Prasad, the transport manager at the department office in Saran district, told The Telegraph today.

Sources in the department said the shift in the ritualistic bathing of elephants was one of the main factors leading to the foreigners leaving early and the dip in new bookings.

“This time the bathing of elephants has not taken place till now, as the course of the Gandak has shifted. It was not possible to take the elephants all the way to the river through stretches of marshy land. Last year, the elephants could not be taken out in the morning for the ritual. Some elephant owners preferred to take the animals out in the noon for the ritualistic bath because of the shifting course of the river and the crowd. Tourists mainly visit the fair in the first week and they are very interested to see the ritualistic bathing of the elephants. Something has to be done. The state government can dig up the marshy area to bring the water to the surface and improve the infrastructure by constructing concrete slabs that can be used to take animals to the river,” a tourist department official said on condition of anonymity.

“Besides, the owners and the mahouts of the elephants should be asked to take their animals to the bathing spot at a specific time, preferably in the morning. Sonepur is famous for this ritual and we shouldn’t let it die like this,” he added.

The other factor that has dampened the foreigners’ spirit is the cottages meant for them. With no air conditioner or fans, the visitors certainly had a difficult time. Besides, the complimentary breakfast was not included.

“What do we do if we are just given 10 to 15 days to build these cottages? The order came in suddenly and we, and the event management company, had to built these 20 cottages in such a short time. There has to be better coordination between government departments if things have to be perfect,” the official said.

He added that the complimentary breakfast was removed because the tourists preferred black coffee or tea to stuff like aloo paratha.

“We have seen that the foreigners mostly want tea or coffee. Hence, we removed the complimentary breakfast this time. The rent for each cottage per night is Rs 4,110, including tax,” the official said.

Though all the cottages are made of hay, there was no sight of any fire-fighting mechanism anywhere.

“There are fire extinguishers in some of the cottages and we have preparations to douse the flames in case of a fire with the help of sand. Also, there is a fire tender ready,” an attendant told The Telegraph, though he refused to explain further.

Shopkeepers at the fair are also an unhappy lot. “It’s a dull fair this time and the spark is missing. With the management in the hands of a private party, the expanse of the fair has increased from nine acres to 25 acres. As a result, the shops have got scattered,” Ghanshyam, a sweetmeat seller said.


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