No one has taught Chanda economics of movement. She moves from leg to plump leg in an ecstasy of incoordination. She swings back and forth as her head bobs up and down. Her trunk tries to scratch her legs only to see that the legs have gone elsewhere. In this functional world she is an autonomous, unergetic universe – with painted ears. “Jhoolan hatehi hai,” declares her owner, basking in the glory of possession and trying to be oblivious to the throng of star-studded gazers that have gathered around his precious two-year-old. “She is a swinging elephant; only stops moving when she sleeps.”Kept since the time of Aurangzeb, the Sonepur Mela – fitting for the one described in all travel books as the largest cattle fair in Asia – is a giant kaleidoscope of primary colors and primary sounds. Every November, on the occasion of Kartik Purnima, faith and commerce hold their annual appointment in this overgrown village at the confluence of the Gandak and Ganga, an hour’s drive from Patna.
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“Gathering immeasurable crowds, the number of which is impossible to estimate… the roads are full for days…” said a bewildered newspaper in the early 20th century, and the description holds true today. And in the pious crowd those who are the life of this event awaken: the mendicants, the sellers of shiny objects, the suppliers of food, the sellers of religious paraphernalia… Here is a calendar with Aishwarya on it, there is a copy of Satya Narayan Katha cheek to cheek with a Murda Chase Utha! There is the sadhu who has buried himself with his head in the sand, with an eloquent plaque with a few coins beside him. There is a fortune-telling parrot and a fortune-telling stone. But above all there are the animals. Elephants, horses, bulls, oxen, goats, dogs, birds and this year a sad and lonely camel.
Over the centuries, the mela was especially famous for its elephant trade, involving an ensemble of forest wards, lumberjacks, temples (especially in South India), circus owners, traders and just individuals who wanted to “tie an elephant to the door” for prestige have been the main buyers. It is the elephants that are always at the center of Sonepur’s attractions and that is why Chanda is here. Even in the heart of colorful India, Sonepur during fiesta time can claim to be the most hue – some of places. The saris are orange, the sindoor is red, the roli threads yellow, the sadhus saffron, the bracelets a riot and the tents indescribable.
Glowing in the winter sun, it’s the first things you see of Sonepur, those tents, when you finish a journey that usually spans the 6km distance Mahatma Gandhi-brug over Patna, over the Ganges, and over endless banana plantations. Sonepur generously surrenders to anyone who wants to set up camp, dig tents, install ad hoc reed sheds or, as in the case of our sadhu, bury themselves in the ground. “They come from all over the world,” as one proud local tells me, “from Chhapra, Siwan, Hajipur, Arwal.” But they also come from Bengal, UP and MP, not to mention the National Geographic TV crew and the French tourists with their impressive cameras. Throughout the mela there is a purposeful but relaxed whirl and whirlwind as people make their way to and from the river ghats: there are bodies to bathe, traditions to observe and gods to propitiate.
Moving with the bodies is a world in brass and copper: bowls, spouts, plates, lamps and lotas join marigolds, threads, vermilion and incense. They all contribute to a secret agglomeration of faith precisely in their juxtaposition, creating a rite before the ritual begins. Close to the ghats, satsang camps, ashram outlets and even a gurudwara of Patna, take the shortest route to the hearts of men – through their stomachs – with bhandaras and languages of communal food, and through their ears, with the help of loudspeakers. Walking from, say, Maheshwar Chowk to Kalighat, I am tempted, admonished, begged, sought, preached, advised thus: “Ek din Sita ne kaha…,” “Aisa surma nahin milega…,” “Socho! Saath kya jayega ? “,” Arre, teen rupaiyya kahan se ho gaya? “and so on. The world’s greatest magician, OP Sharma, is here, as is the world-famous Shobha Samrat Theatre. Their denial is irresistible. OP Sharma’s cutout dominates the chowk with the most satisfying mustaches and turbans, and a white blonde in a bikini advertises the theater with an enchantingly cryptic but unambiguous message: “Ram teri Ganga maili ho gayi.”
There is talk of turning the dances, as the evening progresses, into local striptease shows and I am advised to stay far away. But I move on, away from an entire village – turned into a park, to that far point beyond the dust, the bales of hay and the men combing their hair, where all the energies of the world converge at the point called Chanda. Chanda’s owner brought her to the fair not to sell, but to have a microchip implanted in her and get a certificate of ownership from the Forest Department. Singh Saheb is mainly represented by a pair of luscious mustaches. This applies to almost all elephant owners and horse owners, and it is also very appropriate since ownership is a male phenomenon. Many of their tents have banners proclaiming a proud line of patriarchy: “XYZ Singh, son of so-and-so Singh, grandson of so-and-so Singh, village this, district that…” These are the landowners, their vans and Scorpios often parked behind their tent, able to afford the 800-plus rupees a day that the prestige of “keeping an elephant tied to the door” requires.
They sit in the sun on their reclining chairs, next to their pet, often hidden behind a newspaper, trying hard to project a studied indifference to the admiration of passersby. Sometimes the mustaches peek out from behind the paper. “A chair?” Offer the mustaches. “What tea?” But no matter how friendly I am with her owner, Chanda doesn’t care. She deftly steps out of my picture frame with a flick of the wand that is her tail. She tosses her head in beautiful haughtiness as I offer a pampered hand. She pretty much breaks my heart. It is always possible that Singh Saheb is sparing with the truth about not selling Chanda. Given concerns about the declining numbers of the Asian elephant, the use of elephants for logging and commercial purposes has been banned for years, and the sale of the animal has been banned. And yet a curiously large number of them have gathered here. Is it for the animal health camp, especially elephant, that is run here?
Much more likely it is considered unusual for companies. The sale of your elephant can be banned, but no one can stop you from gifting or donating, so the mela now sees many elephant-like ‘gifts’ worth several lakhs. It’s a favorite topic; stop to chat with a mahout or stall owner, and they’re full of how an elephant was sold that very morning, and for how much. The elephants, meanwhile, look at the buzz they’ve created with an air of someone who’s literally risen above it all. Looking patient, thoughtful and a little sad, they are incredibly photogenic in the morning and at dusk. Watching them bathe is pure pleasure. Thus can a god relax, unencumbered by his standing and watching, by his monumental existence and weight on his shoulders, cheerful and happy and light in the water. But they are equally god-like and patient to the call of the world when goaded by their mahouts to get out of the river and climb up the steep mud banks, back to painted, fed, stared and exhaled. The horses, in a separate field, are pure kinetic energy.
It’s a more exciting arena, made up of tightness and muscle and something that’s always ready to run. In fact, at any time of the day, I see a few horses being rounded up for the benefit of potential buyers. They range from a prized stock that would run races valued at lakhs to smaller beasts of burden, which would eventually pull a cart or tumtum. I see them emerging through the dust, their own hooves shot up, and often their necklace or even an anklet flashes by in the winter sun. If the Ghoda Bazaar is exciting, the Bird in dog market is positively hysterical. Not just because birds and dogs can be quite articulate at the best of times, but also because, for some reason, the sellers of the birds and dogs are the same. A cage of petite red munias, setting fire to the twilight-time sun, would have had a lot to say for themselves anyway, but with four snowy Pomeranians chasing them at the ready, they sound like an untrained and not very talented Greek chorus.
Performed on the Purnima day when all transportation is prohibited in Sonepur, the simple event of a person returning from Sonepur to Patna becomes an epic saga of a woman and a suitcase negotiating the Gandak on a rowing boat, disembarking to the opposite, take cycle rickshaws to the local station, a six-seater to the Patna station…. Back in Delhi, memories of a rising sun – bathing people before taking a dip, investing color in lazy yawning streets, and momentarily turning pink in the black and white of the elephants – pervades all my days. The fair is over and the caravans travel off into the sunset. Swing, Chanda. The world needs your singular grace. The tubelights in Singh Saheb’s house go out and night falls. Tuck into your last banana and try another step in your inimitable dance. Soon it will be time to go to sleep.