By Katy Daigle
Fortune-telling parrots. Elephants on parade. Trick ponies, rare songbirds and dancing girls behind barbed wire.
Hoping there is something for everyone at the Sonepur Mela, one of India's largest annual livestock fairs, organizers admit they are struggling to revive a festival that has been sapped by a ban on elephant sales and changing economic realities.
In decades past, the festival drew hundreds of elephants — and hundreds of thousands of people hoping to watch the animals revered in India as an earthly incarnation of the Hindu god Ganesh bathe in the river or do tricks for a crowd.
But a 2003 ban on buying and selling elephants has left owners little reason to cart the heavy beasts to the fair. Buyers of other livestock now use cellphones and the Internet to make deals rather that trek out to this livestock market on the banks of the Ganges River in Bihar, one of India's poorest states.
"This is our Indian heritage. This festival is unparalleled. We can't let it go," said Rahul, a local government official who goes by one name, running down attractions that include an exotic bird market, traditional folk music concerts, hundreds of food stalls and eight caged stages featuring writhing girls in heavy makeup and sparkly spandex.
In size, the festival eclipsed the smaller but more famous Pushkar camel market in Rajasthan. By theme, it was thought to be the largest elephant swap in the world, situated at the site of a mythological battle in which the Hindu god Vishnu helped an elephant defeat a crocodile.
Brisk trading saw elephants bought and sold by Indian loggers, army outfits and temple administrators.
This year, dozens of elephants still showed up, technically only for exhibition, although Rahul noted that "someone can still give an elephant as a gift."
About a dozen of them — chalked up with colorful decorations — galloped on Sunday for a lumbering race over a dusty track, lined by thousands of cheering spectators under a hazy winter sun.
"This fair is famous for its elephants. But now people with money, they want a BMW, they want a Mercedes. Soldiers have jeeps. No one needs an elephant anymore," said veterinarian Brajbushan Prasad Singh. More....