| An elephant being bathed at the Sonepur Mela on Sunday. Picture by Nagendra Kumar Singh |
The gaja (elephant) has reclaimed its territory on the banks of the river Gandak at Sonepur.
After a year’s break, the centuries-old tradition of elephants being bathed in the Gandak on the auspicious occasion of Kartik Purnima at Sonepur Mela resumed on Sunday.
Elephants have been coming to Sonepur since ancient times. According to the legend of Gaja-Griha in Hindu mythology, Gajendra (the king of elephants) was crossing the Gandak at Sonepur when a crocodile caught its legs in its jaws. This led to a fight between the two during which Gajendra prayed to Lord Vishnu for help.
Lord Vishnu came to Gajendra’s rescue by taking on the avatar (incarnation) of Baba Hariharnath. He beheaded the crocodile and saved Gajendra.
The ritualistic elephant bath that marks the celebration of gaja-griha legend could not take place last year, as the river had shifted away from the bank, making it difficult for the animals to walk on the marshy land. Though the elephant bath took place this year, the ritual was not held in its original form, as the administration did not allow it to happen at the crack of dawn.
“Though we had taken the elephants to Naulakha Ghat for the ritualistic bath in the morning, the sub-divisional magistrate asked us to take the tuskers back because a large number of people were present at the ghat at that time. We were asked to come again after 2pm for bathing the elephants,” said Rameshwar Singh, an elephant owner from Gopalganj, who has come to the Sonepur Mela with three jumbos.
A total of 32 elephants and their owners have come for the fair this year — three less than last year’s count.
The ritualistic elephant bath is also a major attraction for foreign tourists at the month-long cattle fair. “The holy bath of elephants at Sonepur fair is a rare feat. It is done here only. Most tourists from Europe and US come to Sonepur primarily to witness the majestic bath of the tuskers,” said John Carlo, a tour operator based in Italy.
Apart from the elephant bath, the footfall of devotees for the holy dip on Kartik Purnima was also low.
A section of people attributed the decline to the serial explosions in Patna on October 27 and a subsequent alert sounded by the district administration at the fair.
“People started taking the holy dip post-midnight. However, contrary to the expected five to seven lakh people, the actual footfall today (Sunday) must have been around three lakh only. The alert regarding possibility of a terror strike must have created a fear psychosis among people,” said Ravindra Das from Samastipur, who has been coming to Sonepur Mela on Kartik Purnima for the past 12 years.
The Sonepur Mela, held around 25km north of the state capital, is unarguably Asia’s largest cattle fair.
Many animals, too, can be bought at the Sonepur mela ranging from dogs, buffaloes, donkeys, ponies, Persian horses, rabbits, goats and even the occasional camel. Many varieties of birds and poultry are also available.
Numerous stalls are also set up on the grounds of the Sonepur cattle fair.
The fair is held for 21 days starting Kartik Purnima at the confluence of the Ganga and the Gandak at Sonepur, around 25km north of Patna. The origin of the fair can be traced to the era of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya.