Elephants still the biggest attraction at Indian fair

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 November, 2003, 12:00am

The pachyderms on sale are seen as the ultimate status symbol for pet-owners

In the shade of a mango orchard on the banks of the river Ganges, the sale of elephants is under way at a fair that is the oldest of its kind in India.

Hundreds of elephants are sold and bought each year at Sonepur - a small, otherwise nondescript town in Bihar province.

Multitudes of Indians travel to the Sonepur fair, from peasants in Punjab looking for high-yield dairy cows and farmers from Rajasthan needing camels to wealthy feudal lords on the lookout for the ultimate status symbol of a pet elephant.

Centuries ago, traders from Central Asia used to come to Sonepur for elephants. Indian emperors used to buy elephants for their armies at this fair while maharajahs bought pachyderms for their palace ceremonials and horses for riding and hunting.

That royal era is over but the elephants are still easily the biggest attraction.

Young, healthy elephants sell for around US$20,000, mainly to forest departments and people involved with logging work, although sometimes private owners such as Ram Lakhan Verma, a former Uttar Pradesh minister, are buyers.

'I live in a small village and keep elephants as my pets. Just as in the cities people keep dogs as symbol of their status, I keep elephants,' said Mr Verma, explaining his pachyderm purchase.

Next in popularity are the horses. Polo players pick up ponies for their matches in New Delhi or Buenos Aires. This being India, even the horses traded are categorised and ranked in terms of the caste system.

Traders refer to their stock as brahmins (the name of the highest caste) if the steeds are tall, light-coloured and highly strung or shudras (meaning peasants) if they are short, stocky, dark and possessed of a less refined disposition.

The fair also attracts thousands of Hindu devotees who believe that a dip in the Ganges on Kartik Poornima (the full moon day), marking the beginning of the fair, is auspicious. Huge shopping marquees are erected, and everything from plants to furniture and clothing is sold alongside cows, bullocks, buffaloes, camels, dogs, monkeys, poultry and other birds.

Makeshift restaurants are built, and giant cooking pots and plates are trucked in. An entertainment area with sideshows, merry-go-rounds, and musical entertainment is always a big attraction.

Foreign tourists too have become regular fixtures at this annual fair. Previously, the nearest hotels used to be several kilometres away but there are now small thatched cottages near the site so that every November, tourists can sit under their umbrellas to take in the event.

The Wildlife Trust of India began holding health checkup camps for elephants two years ago. Most of the elephant-keepers, or mahouts, are mostly illiterate and rely on traditional herbal cures instead of using the services of a vet.

There are no vets in the villages and even in the big towns few have any experience of treating elephants.

The health camp turned out to be so useful - vets detected cataracts, blindness, wounds, toenail cracks - that it is now a regular feature.