Our tour of Bihar, supposedly the most illiterate Indian state, continued
with Patna – which we used as our base for Sonepur Mela, the largest livestock fair in Asia. After reading another travel blog on the matter, I was excited to see elephants bathe in the Ganges alongside chanting witches, performing rites with their eyes rolling into the backs of their heads. Whoever wrote this should have their poetic license suspended, as the fair wasn’t quite like that…
Said blog suggested casually strolling down to the Ganges for 5am when some of the ceremonies kicked off, which wasn’t so easy considering Sonepur was an hour drive from Patna. The less said about the time we woke up the better. I suppose the blog got one thing right, sunrise was the best part of the day as we were the only westerners there to watch the ceremonial bathing. However, at times our boatman took us awkwardly close and we struggled for places to look. And disappointingly, not an elephant in sight!
A lot of the locals found us more interesting than the fair itself. After finally finding a place to sit and eat breakfast, we drew a crowd of over 20 people, who stood an arms length away not even trying to conceal their dead-pan staring; such was the novelty of us being there (or perhaps the levels of their ignorance). And I don’t exaggerate when I say this weird staring continued for over half an hour, without any hint of boredom or even blinking.
The strange fair continued with only one sighting of elephants, amongst varying levels of animal cruelty and the strange feel of an Indian take on a travelling carnival. Alongside bartering for elephants and camels, you could also buy a new set of pots and pans, or pass the time spinning at a moderate pace on a mid sized ride and then cool off in the shade, watching a young girl ride a hoop across a tight-rope with plates stacked on her head.
I am glad we went as we experienced something completely authentic and not put on for show for the tourists. And you don’t get much more authentic than vast open fields used for the one purpose of mass pooing; you could frequently catch the distant site of two or three men squatting awkward distances apart. And we thought porter loos were bad…
Patna itself was again interesting to observe, as it had no tourist industry whatsoever and boasted KFC as the third highest rated restaurant on trip advisor. I would describe it as a fair attempt at a commercial city, with malls and supermarkets, and was even slightly more pleasant than Delhi. Despite the city having a reputation for lack of education, we were defended by members of the public more than anywhere else. The most special of which being a young lady, completely unprompted, shaming some boys in front of the whole restaurant for taking pictures of us eating dinner without our permission. This act was incredibly encouraging in many ways, especially as the defender in question was a young lady who wasn’t afraid to stand up to a number of males and came after being stared at like animals at the fair. So despite Bihar’s bad reputation, there’s definite signs of progress…If you can see past the people staring at you and the bewildering, organised pooing in fields.
(Apologies if any of the pictures are poor quality – having Internet connection issues)