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The Sonepur Mela - Slowly down the Ganges to India’s largest animal fair

Held over a month every year around the full moon in November the Sonepur Mela in north India is far less known than fairs like the popular Pushkar camel fair in Rajasthan, but it’s both much larger and older. And at the same time, up to a million or so visitors will take the opportunity to bathe in the Ganges holy waters near the Hariharnath temple. Attend the festival and you’re in for a thorough immersion in local culture. You can read Horatio Clare's article in the Financial Times about the trip he took with Alex to the 2013 mela or read our blog on it here

The tourism infrastructure in this part of India remains minimal so Sonepur Mela has remained off the radar for all but the most determined of visitors. Today, staying aboard one of Assam Bengal Navigation Company's river boats, specially designed to navigate the shallow waters of the Ganges, gets the curious to the centre of the action and makes a civilised base from which to explore.

Since the 3rd century BC people have annually come here to Sonepur trade animals from elephants to bulls to horses, birds and dogs. Today elephants are no longer officially for sale, but they are still here and allegedly deals are done quietly behind closed doors. But that’s the only thing that goes on without lots of noise – tannoys blare announcements, elephants are painted with clashingly loud coloured decorations, charmers pipe snakes from baskets and enormous crowds throng the narrow streets. Its an intense assault on the senses so returning by village boat to your ship at the end of the day its peace and calm are a welcome retreat.

Over a couple of days guides accompany you to the fair, but if it all becomes too much Bihar has other fascinating sites to explore; visit the Tomb of Shah Daulat at Maner, the finest Mughal monument in Eastern India, the State Museum in Patna, or the State Printing Press, once the East India Company’s opium warehouses. A third, longer, trip might take you to Vaishali, a site sacred to both Buddhists and Jains, where Buddha preached his last sermon.

Patna, the capital of Bihar, is easily reached by a short flight from Delhi or Calcutta opening up a variety of options to visit other parts of India on the same tailor-made trip, or you can extend your river cruise if you’d like to spend more time getting to know other places on this remote stretch of the Ganges.

If you're thinking of travelling get in touch and we’ll be happy to plan and book your tailor-made tour of India. 

Posted by: Andrea Hulme

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