Try India's Elephant Fair Need a Top Tusker?

For centuries, people have gone to Sonpur to talk and trade pachyderms.

Meet Lakshmi. Nine feet tall, hard-working, highly intelligent, and at 500,000 rupees ($13,500) a real bargain, according to Chedi Singh, her proud owner.

Lakshmi is one of more than a hundred elephants who have come to Sonpur in Bihar State for India's largest and oldest haathi bazaar.

Haathi is the Hindi word for elephant, and for anyone willing to spend up to a million rupees ($27,000) for a mature male tusker, this dusty fair ground on the banks of the Gandak River is the place to go.

"An elephant's feet must be very beautiful to look at, like the trunk of a banana tree. Its ears must be as perfect as the half moon," says Mr. Singh, listing the attributes of the perfect pachyderm.

Keeping elephants has been a tradition in Singh's family for generations. A zamindar or landowner from Shyampur village, a 10-day march away, Singh has four elephants and has been coming to Sonpur since he was a boy.

"Yes, they are expensive," concedes Singh, who could afford to buy two compact sedans with the money he gets for 30-year-old Lakshmi. "But elephants are productive. They are strong and can go where no motor car can reach."

Elephants are also auspicious. Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, is the symbol of wealth. No businessman in India will start the day without making a small offering to Ganesh's pot-bellied statue or picture. And no major marriage or temple festival would be complete without the presence of caparisoned elephants and their bare-chested drivers (mahouts) heading the procession.

But it is not just the rows of decorated elephants chained to trees that attract more than 1 million people annually to what is normally a sleepy, nondescript village 40 miles from the state capital, Patna.

Bangles to bird cages

Sonpur is also the largest animal market in Asia. Name any domesticated animal in India, and you will find it here for a price. Buffalos, cows, oxen, camels, horses, dogs, parrots, monkeys, and snakes compete for space beneath the cool and shady groves of mango trees alongside makeshift stalls selling everything from bangles to bird cages.

Thousands of Hindu pilgrims from all parts of India also congregate at Sonpur on the night of the November full moon, the official start of the two-week-long fair.

According to Hindu mythology, a momentous battle between an elephant and a crocodile took place at the spot where the Gandak joins the sacred Ganges River.

The battle raged for thousands of years until the elephant conquered the crocodile with the divine help of Lord Krishna. Pious pilgrims bathe at the confluence of the two rivers on the morning after the full moon to celebrate the triumph of good over evil.

Like most rural melas or fairs in India, Sonpur plays an important role in the local economy. Poor villagers pool their meager savings for the yearly outing, looking for bargains and the chance to swap news and gossip with relatives and friends.

At night, crowds of curious shoppers pour through the brightly lit "Bombay bazaar," where stalls offer everything from cooking utensils to clothes.

In a sideshow alley, an acoustic inferno of loudspeakers lures onlookers to take a ride on a rusty Ferris wheel or a creaky merry-go-round.

During the cool winter months, thousands of itinerant traders, fortune tellers, snake charmers, and beggars make a living moving from fair to fair.

At the crossroads of the ancient trade routes that radiated from India to far-flung Arabia and Central Asia, Sonpur is one of the oldest fairs in India.

The colorful tents of the elephant traders have changed little over the centuries. Each morning the mahouts lead their mounts gingerly through the crowds for a morning bath in the river, before painting the elephants' foreheads to show them off at their very best.

High cost to keep a tusker

Negotiations are still conducted over cups of steaming hot tea beside a blazing fire, and a successful sale will be consummated by making an offering at the local temple.

But Sonpur's importance as a haathi bazaar is gradually diminishing. Elephants are no longer indispensable for fighting wars of conquest, as they were in the days of the Mogul Empire (1526-1857). The high costs of maintaining an animal and mahout are forcing many owners to sell.

"It now costs me 1,500 rupees ($41) a month just to feed the elephant, and another 3,000 rupees for each of the two mahouts," complains Alakh Singh Deo, who has come to Sonpur to sell one of his two tuskers because he can't afford to keep both.

"Ten years ago, we used to have hundreds of elephants here. Now people are not coming like they used to," he laments.

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