The Great Sonepur Mela

The Hariharnath temple at Sonepur in Saran district is now more known for the great Sonepur mela on Kartik Purnima day. The meal runs for about a month and is attended by lakhs of people. The congregation is the largest on the Purnima day for the bath in the river and puja at Hariharnath.

Sonepur is a very important junction on the North-Eastern Railway. It is the district headquarters of the Traffic andLocomotive Departments. There are large Railway workshops and a number of quarters for employees. The Railway colony has a Recreation Club.

The Viceroy, Lord Dufferin opened the old Gandak Railway Bridge by the side of the Sonepur Railway Station, in March, 1887. It is 2,176 feet long and is built of eight spans of 250 feet, with two broad pathways for pedestrians. Because of the swift flow of the Gandak when in flood and of the unstable nature of its bed, the bridge was regarded as a triumph of engineering skill when it was built.

Incidentally, Sonepur railway station had the longest platform in the world, being 2,415 feet in length, but it lost this distinction in 1950. Storvik, a station in Sweden, and the longest of Storvik’s platforms being 2,470 feet now take its place.
The Hariharnath temple is about a mile from the railway station. Sonepur is a growing town now. There are some dharmashala. At the time of the Sonepur mela the whole area of about four square miles becomes a canvas town. Thousands of people pass several days in the tents and in the open air. Hundreds of shops function. Several lakhs of people visit the Hariharnath temple during the month of Kartik and offer oblations. The mela is entirely due to the puja of Lord Hariharnath for which people come.

Sonepur has the legend that this was the actual place where, in pre-historic times, the fight ended between the lords of the forest and the water, Gaj and Grah- the elephant and the crocodile. According to the Srimad Bhagwat Purana, there was a vast lake round the Trikut hill, which had, as the name implies three towering peaks, crowned with dense forest and infested with wild animals.

There lived a huge crocodile in this lake. An elephant came with a herd to the tank to have a bath. The crocodile caught the elephant by the leg and tried to drag him into deeper water. The elephant gave a stiff resistance. The struggle continued for a thousand years and ultimately all the elephants and the crocodiles joined in the contest. The elephant, beginning to weaken, prayed to the supreme god Hari, to help him. His prayer was heard and Hari saved him from the grip of the crocodile in the presence of Hara and other gods.
In Hindu mythology the crocodile is deemed to have been in its previous birth a Gandharva chief named Huhu. Huhu went to bathe in this lake with a party of Gandharva women and, it is said, in a truculent manner he caught a holy sage by the leg.

The sage Dewala Muni, who had also come to have his bath, got angry and cursed the Gandharva chief and changed him into a crocodile as a punishment. Thenceforward he lived in the lake in the form of a huge crocodile until he was restored to his Gandharva life by the sacred touch of Vishnu (Hari), who, with his discus (Chakra), cut the throat of the crocodile while delivering the elephant from his jaws. On the other hand, the elephant was, in its former existence, a king of the Pandyas, Indradyumna by name, who was a very pious man of a contemplative mood, he did not pay his respects to the sage Agastya. The sage cursed him ad put him in the form of an elephant. He, too, after long suffering, was saved by Hari by his touch, and was allowed to accompany him to Vaikuntha (heaven).

Harihar-Kshetra or Sonepur, along -with Hajipur within a few miles, was an integral part of the Vrijjian Republic. The area of Sonepur-Hajipur remained for long under the influence of Vratyas or Kikatas who were famous for their wealth in kine. In Buddhist and Jain literature Sonepur does not directly come, but in the "Records of Buddhist Religion" there is mention of the existence of a Sangharam, on the confluence of the Mahi and the Sagar, which were either small rivulets or tributaries to the Gandak.

There is a stone pillar of the Sunga period in the Kali Mandir of Sonepur. Some statues of the Gupta and Pala periods have been recently found. In the memoirs of Fa-Hian and Hieun Tsang there is, however, no mention of a place like Hari-Har Kshetra (Sonepur). But Fa-Hian, after visiting Vaisali en route to Magadha, went four yojanas east and came to the confluence of the five rivers.After crossing the river, and going south one yojana, be reached Magadha and the town of Pataliputra (Palinful

Considering the distance of one yojana and the direction mentioned it would appear that Fa-Hian had actually gone through the Sonepur region to reach Pataliputra. Vaishali, so very famous in Buddhist and Jain religions, is within twenty miles of Sonepur. A large number of ancient relies have been found in Vaishali, which is claimed by a large section of the Jainas as the birth-place of Mahavira Vardhamana, the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism. Buddha had also passed this way.

The origin of the Shiva temple at Sonepur known as Hariharnath is shrouded in mystery. A large section of orthodox Hindus believe that Rama built the temple on his way to Janakpur to win Sita. There is, however, no reference to this in the Ramayana. But that Rama passed this way is established. It is a fact that the whole of Tirhut division is imbued with the Rama- Sita cult and there are a large number of temples throughout the Tirhut division, consisting of Champaran, Saran, Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga (Mithila) districts, which commemorate the deeds of Rama, Sita, Valmiki, etc. It may be correct to assume that this Hariharnath temple might have originated in this manner.

The present temple, however, is not old. There is not much of architecture. As Spooner has observed: "We see a single square chamber, constituting of the cella, with a simple ordinary roof, rising to a point, and with a narrow porch in front. These are the constituents of our simplest form of temple, and in the present example we find them in as simple forms as now are traceable among the existing and recorded monuments."

There is a stray reference to the temple of Hariharnath during the Subedarship of Raja Man Singh who is said to have done some repair work. Raja Ram Narain, a noted figure of Bihar, built the present temple during the later Mughal period. The temple has been recently reconstructed by the Birlas. The temple of Hariharnath Mahadeo is the principle place of worship here but several smaller temples also receive the offerings of pilgrims. Among these are the Kali Asthan and the Panch Devata Mandir; the latter was built by a priestess who claimed to have built the temple with the offerings she received.

Sonepur is considered a very holy place and the ceremonial bathing in the Ganga in the month of Kartik is held by the orthodox Hindus to be a great act of virtue. 13ut another great attraction is the fair which is held during the whole period of Ganga man (bath). It lasts for about a month, but is at its height for two days before and two days after the bathing in the Ganga on the day of the full moon (Kartik Purnamasi). Immense crowds assemble. The roads leading to Sonepur from all the sides are literally packed with people for a few days.
 It is said that the Sonepur cattle fair is the second largest cattle fair in the world. Previously hundreds of horses, camels, sheep and elephants used to be brought and most of them were sold out. All the rich people of Northern India used to get their elephants from this market. The turn-over of consumers'goods in this fair is also enormous. Previously hundreds of prostitutes and dancing girls used to spend a month in tents spreading vice and disease. By an Act this vice has been stopped.

The period of the inception of the fair, like the temple, is also not known for certain. Previously the fair was held at Hajipur (Ramchaura) and only oblations were offered to the deity at Sonepur. Hajipur is just across the river. The names of the various muhallas in Hajipur in the mela area have been reproduced in the mela area of Sonepur. The fair at Sonepur appears to have come into prominence during the reign of Aurangazeb and the elephant trade went up.

Marshall, a European traveler in the 16th century, had mentioned that even the traders of the far-flung Tatar desh used to come to the fair to deal in commerce. The fair was the occasion of a large social and sporting gathering of the Europeans. The Sonepur fair was much patronized by the European indigo planters of the Nineteenth Century. A large camp was held in a magnificent grove and the visitors amused themselves with racing, polo, gymkhanas, tennis and dances. They did much to improve the surroundings of the temple and the road communications

There is a description of Sonepur fair by M. Wilson in his Memoirs of Bihar, written a century ago. In 1852, Wilson was an Assistant Manager of Karhaul factory. He has mentioned that one could buy from the canvas-made shops the commodities of Manchester, Buckingham, Delhi, Kanpur, Afghanistan, Kashmir, etc. Cutlery, saddlery, crockery and furniture shops from Calcutta, Lucknow and Kanpur used to be set up at Sonepur. There used to be riding contests, elephant, horse and bullock cart races. He had seen a panch kalyan horse being offered for sale for a lakh of rupees. Several Viceroys, including Lord Northbrook, had visited the Sonepur fair and gone round the temple.

The investiture ceremony or Khillant of Rana Jang Bahadur of Nepal conferred by Lord Mayo, amidst the galaxy of big men, for his service and loyalty to the Govern- ment during the Mutiny (1857), was a great event in the history of the Sonepur fair. Rana Jang Bahadur visited and did puja at the Hariharnath temple. It may be mentioned here that there is a Nepali temple, a wooden structure, in Hajipur, which is also visited by many of the pilgrims going to Hariharnath temple

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