The Sonepur Fair in Bihar and How to See It

A Vibrant Rural Fair

Sonepur Fair, Bihar.

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The annual Sonepur Fair in Bihar is a vibrant rural fair that combines spirituality, sexuality, animal trading, and amusement. Street magicians, religious gurus and tantriks, pilgrims, snack stalls, handicrafts, rides, circus performers, martial artists and dancing girls all create a carnival like no other.

The fair's origin has been traced back to the ancient reign of the Maurya Empire in the 4th century BC, when founder Chandragupta Maurya is said to have bought elephants and horses from it for his army. The fair also commemorates Lord Vishnu's intervention to end longstanding discord between elephant and crocodile in Hindu mythology. After bathing in the river and being attacked by the crocodile, the elephant was saved by Lord Vishnu.

Traditionally known as a cattle fair (once deemed the largest in Asia), trading of animals and birds is no longer the main focus at the Sonepur Fair due to wildlife protection laws. Following a ban on the sale of elephants in 2000, the number of elephants at the fair declined from about 90 in 2001 to none in 2017. There weren't any birds or camels at the fair in 2017 either, and only a small number of cows and buffaloes. However, a government panel was set up to ensure the display of elephants in 2019. The horse market still exists, with equestrian performances taking center stage. The number of horses up for sale has dropped to about 1,500 though.

Sonepur livestock fair, horse race.
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While still wonderfully off the beaten path, the Sonepur Fair now has a more commercial focus with the aim of attracting both domestic and international tourists. In order to facilitate this, Bihar Tourism took over its organization, including tourist accommodations, in 2012.

In 2014, extra stalls were added selling clothing, agricultural equipment, automobiles, and fast-moving consumer goods. A food plaza was also set up with branded national chains. In addition, there were various adventure activities. Sporting competitions and cultural programs were introduced in 2018 to further draw the crowd.

Where and When is the Sonepur Fair?

The Sonepur Fair takes place in Sonepur, 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) north of capital city Patna. The most convenient way of getting there is to take a taxi for about 2,000 rupees.

The fair commences on the auspicious Hindu holy occasion of Kartik Purnima (November 19, 2021), when pilgrims have an early morning bath in the river, and continues for a month. Most of the activities and animal trading happen during the first week of the festival. For the best experience, do be there on the first day to witness the sunrise bathing. You'll need to arrive the day before, so that you can be up early for it. A stay of a day or two is sufficient to explore the festival.

Bihar, Sonepur fair, Kartik Poornima (Full moon day), Morning ablutions on the confluence of river Ganges and Gandak.
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Sonepur Fair Holy Bath: The Main Attraction

What really makes the fair remarkable and memorable is witnessing crowds of pilgrims taking holy bath at sunrise on Kartik Purnima, where the Ganges and Gandak rivers meet, to purify themselves and wash away any negativity.

At around 5 a.m., head down to the river bank and hire one of the many boats that are lined up there. For 200 rupees (if you negotiate well), a boatman will slowly take you up and down the river for a couple of hours while you remain enthralled by the activities going on along the waterfront.

Pilgrims pray and bathe amidst a background of chanting and the heady aroma of incense. Yet, it's the presence of ghost slayers and tantriks (performers of black magic) that's other-worldly. The tantriks carry out their captivating and rather disturbing rituals to the intense and rhythmic beat of drums, as their eyes roll back in their heads, to ward off evil spirits. You'll be mesmerized, and maybe even feel a little uneasy, watching them lead one devotee after another into the water to rid them of their problems. Are the tantriks real or just acting? That's for you to decide!

If you miss this riverside spectacle, you're missing out on the heart of the festival and may even find your festival experience unfulfilling. It may not even be possible to see these rituals in another decade because India is modernizing at such a rapid rate.

Travel Tips: While you may be tempted to simply remain on the river bank and view the bathing from there, don't. It's much more powerful if watched from the river! The highlight is the early morning auspicious bathing of elephants in the river with the pilgrims. Do be aware that the reality of India means that sanitary conditions are very poor near the river, so watch where you walk.

The Pious and the Provocative

Harihar Nath temple of Lord Vishnu in Sonepur is also popularly visited by pilgrims during the night and early morning of Kartik Purnima, after they've taken their holy bath. It's worth going there to see them flock to the temple with offerings of pots filled with holy water. So numerous in numbers, they're held back by police barricades.

In stark contrast to these pious religious activities, "theater" performances are the highlight of nighttime entertainment for men at the fair. Scantily clad women (commonly brought in from Kolkata and Mumbai) dance provocatively to predominantly local Bhojpuri music on makeshift indoor stages across the fair grounds. Shows generally get underway from 10 p.m.

Dance Theatres of Sonepur Fair
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Where to Stay at the Sonepur Fair

Bihar Tourism provides accommodations for foreign tourists in the form of Swiss Tents with attached western bathrooms. Expect to pay 6,000 rupees per night, excluding food and taxes, during the first week. The rate reduces to 4,000 rupees per night during the second week of the fair, 2,500 rupees per night during the third week, and 1,500 rupees during the final week.

If this option is too pricey (the tents are expensive for what you get and other options in the area are limited), you can stay in Patna and travel to the fair. Depending on the amount of traffic, travel time can be anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half. Bihar Tourism usually runs inexpensive day trips to the fair from Hotel Kautilya in Patna.

To make travel arrangements and bookings contact Bihar Tourism by email on or phone (0612) 2225411.

Alternatively, there are a few small hotels around Sonepur and nearby Hajipur. Most are located in the vicinity of the railway station. Safety can't be guaranteed through.

What About Safety?

Bihar, while suffering from a negative image for many years, has greatly improved in terms of law and order. It's become one of India's fastest developing states and a growing tourist destination. I traveled as a single female and didn't feel threatened or anymore uncomfortable than anywhere else in India (although I was sensible and took proper precautions, including not staying out alone after dark). There's a heavy police presence at the fair, and security guards at Bihar Tourism Tourist Village (where the tourist accommodations are).

See photos of the Sonepur Fair in this Sonepur Fair Photo Gallery on Facebook.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, Tripsavvy believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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