This year brings hope to many people in Bihar. Sonepur in northern Bihar is set to host the Sonepur Mela (fair) in a multidimensional sense. As the stage is set for the Sonepur Mela, expectations are shooting for the sky. Every year on Kartik Purnima (the full moon day) in November or December, according to the Hindu lunisolar calendar, visitors from all over Asia come to Sonepur. This year, after a long gap of three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fair seems to reinforce the lost enthusiasm for the mass gatherings.
A lot of things have changed over time, so has the Mela. According to historical records, Mela seems to have been first organised by the great Bais Kings of Suryavanshi clans, who ruled at that time in the area that is known today as the Vaishali and Saran districts of Bihar. Some sources claim that the Sonpur Mela was the choice for dynasties to get the best of the elephants for their fourfold army. King Ashoka of the Mauryan empire, the Mughal emperor Akbar, and the leader of the 1857 revolt, Veer Kunwar Singh, purchased their elephants from Sonepur Mela. So, we may conclude from multiple sources that this mela was a very significant place for the political ambitions of different dynasties. This was “Blissful Bihar,” a market that attracted traders and buyers from as far away as Central Asia. But what it meant to the common people and what has changed over time, let’s have a look.
Sonepur Mela (the “fair”) was a mass gathering where artisans, peasants, and many sellers of different animals and birds used to meet shoppers at the confluence of the Ganga and Gandak rivers on the auspicious full moon day in Kartik month (November-December). The day also marked devotees practising rituals at Hariharnath Mandir, situated there. Culture and religious beliefs have carried themselves in the same manner to date. But over time, changing political and social structures introduced a new version of Sonpur mela in the 21st century.
I remember my last visit to Sonpur, in 2019. Sonpur Mela used to be organised over a very large area of 15 square kilometers. But that year, Mela was organised into roughly 4-5 square kilometres. Localities such as Nakhas, the Hariharnath Mandir area, Meena Bazar, and Kalighat were well-crowded but easily accessible. Of course, I planned my visit for a less crowded day so that I might be able to observe the mela as much as possible without getting exhausted. When I spoke to the local community, they told me about the pain of the shrinking area and the glory of the Mela. The Sonpur Mela, which used to supply horses and elephants to the armies of popular dynasties, has a very small presence of these animals now. Selling many wild birds and animals was banned in Sonpur. The Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 bans the sale of wildlife in India. Still, there were loopholes that were fixed in 2016. Humane Society International/India and the Animal Welfare Board of India made efforts to stop wildlife trafficking. HSI exposed the cruelty and mafias of bird trafficking, and as a result, Chidiya Bazaar was completely shut down. On the instructions of the Honourable Patna High Court, the Bihar government created a task force to protect the interests of animals. Now one can only find domestic animals there for themselves.
The image of Sonepur Mela has to be restored. So the government made further efforts to enhance the opportunities and potential for Mela. Multiple ministries and executives year after year have made this fair magnificent. 31 departments will put on an exhibition to inform the public about government initiatives and recent developments this year. 300 scout guides will assist people in need, and 40 changing rooms have been made for changing clothes after a holy bath. 220 permanent or temporary toilets have been arranged for sanitary purposes. For drinking purposes, 65 hand pumps and 220 stand-post water supply units are functional.
Sonepur Mela App 2022 for all information on a click, a 24 hour medical facility, Niyojan Mela (10,000 jobs) for youth by Surendra Ram (Minister of Labour Resources Ministry), a half marathon race with “Liquor Free Bihar” as the theme, 24 hour uninterrupted power supply, eight outdoor sports to be organized, and a Swiss Cottage by BSTDC for foreign tourists are some key developments to keep up the spirit of Sonpur Mela.
The responsibility of Mela included providing entertainment for the community as well. In the days when there was no internet access, the mela invited vocal artists and singers here, and people used to watch live performances. Gulab Bai, known for his performance in Nautanki, was a well-known figure. Before the advent of Bollywood (the Hindi film industry), Nautanki was the biggest entertainment medium in the villages and towns of northern India. The current government has made similar arrangements, but it has a blend of modernity and tradition. The stage performance of the epic Ramayana, Ganga Aarti twice per week, Braj Holi, folk dances (Bihu, Chhau, etc.), star performances by singers such as Shabbeer Kumar, Indian Idol fame Salman Ali, and the modern voice of Bihar, “Maithili Thakur,” comedian Raj Soni, will be key attractions this year.
Sonepur Mela started yesterday on November 6, and will run for 32 days, ending on December 7. It was inaugurated by the Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar, Shree Tejasvi Yadav, in the presence of Ministers Jitendra Ray and Alok Mehta and a special guest, “Harivansh Narayan Singh,” who is currently Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Indian Parliament).