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Mythical Encounters – Festivals of Bihar

The region of Bihar is replete with tell-a-tale marks from India’s rich mythology. And, not surprisingly, most festivals here have their roots in tales that history has no means to fathom.

The famous Sonepur Cattle Fair (deemed to be the largest in the world) recreates the Gajendra moksha legend, associated with Hariharanatha temple in Sonepur, which was once strongly opposed to Vishnu. The Cattle fair, beginning with the full moon day of November (Kartik Purnima) commemorates the ancient concord accomplished at Sonepur, between the opposing sects of Vaishnav and Shiva worshippers.

The central venue is the Kaun Hara (who lost?) ghat (bank) which originates from a mythical encounter between the honest elephant (gaja) and the shrewd crocodile (graha). The story dates to the undatable past when the elephant, Jai and the crocodile, Vijai, in their previous birth were fraternally related devotees of Lord Vishnu. Once they quarreled amongst themselves over the distribution of proceeds received from a fire sacrifice. Jai, the elder, cursed the younger Vijai for reneging on the promise of equal shares, while Vijai insisted that each of them were given what they deserved and so there was no question of sharing it. For Vijai, the curse spelled rebirth as a vile crocodile. In retaliation the younger cursed the elder to be reborn as an elephant. When the anger subsided, the two brothers realized their mistakes but the curses were irrevocable. Later, one Kartik Purnima day when the saintly elephant went to the Gandak river for a bath, the crafty crocodile caught his foot. A fierce battle ensued and finally Lord Vishnu had to hurl his disc to kill the crocodile. The Hariharanatha Temple at Sonepur, housing the images of Vishnu and Shiva, commemorates the temporary thaw in what was otherwise a more or less permanent war between themselves and their supporters.

Legend apart, the Sonepur fair is more of a cattle trading center where incredible number of birds and cattle are brought from different parts of the country. Besides, the bewildering array of wares are on sale and add to this the numerous folk shows about which the BBC once remarked, “there’s nothing like the Sonepur Cabaret.” The time to start is very early in the morning when the fog is suddenly pierced by the sun and the huge gathering has just emerged from the holy dip in the cold absolving waters. The mela that lasts upto a fortnight, provides enough time to talk to the parrots; watch the elephants being bathed leisurely; followed by ear splitting trumpets and then the artists working up with colourful designs to decorate the elephants as if the pachyderm has been tattooed all over; see the horses being tested for their speed and stamina; big bulky buffaloes being milked and likewise all other animals demonstrating their skill, strength and productivity.

By midday, it is the cacophony of strong decibels pouring in from all corners as the huge gathering becomes denser with more and more people adding to the sound and sight of the landscape. Ash smeared, saffron clothed holy men blow their conches and bang their gongs. Loudspeakers, from various folk shows and jugglers rent the air together with the unison from the animals. Much before the sun sets in, flames and fumes of dung fire burning at different places appear to screen the sky in a very amusing way, as if some medieval army has just camped for the night. And it is time to share a gossip with one of the villagers who may better summarize the stock and sale of the cattle for the day. Zesty snacks together with tea comes in from the open air restaurant.

The hoary temple at Deoghar (the home of gods) is the most important pilgrim point in Bihar that attracts thousands of Shiv devotees during the month of Shrawan (July/August), when the summer heat has just given way to the early monsoon. Saffron clad pilgrims with pots of holy water, well balanced on their shoulder, make a 100 km. Bare foot trek from Sultanganj, where the holy water of Ganges is considered holier due to its unusual flow northwards.

The sanctity of deoghar lies in its legend of Ravana who went all the way to Mount Kailash, pleading Shiva to make Lanka his home. Ravana’s mother was an ardent devotee of Shiva and she worshipped a Shivling made of clay, which soon dissolved with daily pouring of water over it. This prompted Ravana to implore Shiva if he would reside in Lanka. Lord Shiva did not accede to Ravana’s prayer but offered him one of twelve emblems of his divinity (Jyotiralinga) which would be quite as effective and that he might take it away on the condition that the transfer should be effected without breaking the journey. Moreover if the lingam was placed elsewhere on earth during the journey, it would remain fixed on that spot forever.

The other gods felt unhappy at the jyotiralinga being transported to Lanka which would render them powerless in their fight with Ravana. Accordingly they planned to outwit Ravana . Varuna, the god of water entered the belly of Ravana, urging him to relieve himself. Ravana was left with no alternative but to descend and befriend and old Brahmin (who was Vishnu in disguise) begging him to hold the lingam for a while. On return Ravana found the lingam lying on the ground and the Brahman was nowhere to be seen. He was in a great rage but equally helpless as he tried hard to remove the lingam from the spot but he only succeeded in breaking a piece of the top of it. This place where the jyotiralinga was destined to last for ever is Deoghar, also popular as Baijnath Dham.

Another festival that takes place at this time is the festival of Naag Panchami (July/ August). It is celebrated in honour of snakes at Rajgir. Devotees offer milk and flowers and worship snakes. As it is Lord Shiva who wears a garland of snakes (sarpa bhushanam), he is also worshipped on this day.

Gaya is another holy dot in Bihar, famous for the International Buddhist Gathering and the rallying point is the Mahabodhi tree and the adjacent temple. Few months prior to the Buddhist pilgrimage this sleepy town is agog with people who come here for the Pitrapaksha mela or the ancestor worship typified in Sraddha ritual. It is time for the Gayalis (the descendants of Magga Brahmans who were once devotees of Shiva but later converted to Vaishnavism) to be prepared for the Vedic Sraddha ceremonies or the pindan – a mandatory Hindu rite that is supposed to bring salvation to the departed soul. The legend dates back to Lord Vishnu who is believed to have confirmed the power of cleansing one’s sins in this holy place.

The tradition traces its history to the time of Buddha, who is believed to have performed the first pindan here. Turning the pages of earlier history, one comes across the Puranic legend that ascribed Gaya as one of the holiest spots of the world. The Asura, named Gaya became so powerful that the gods felt threatened and thus thought of eliminating him. As a precondition to his death, the Asura demanded that he should be buried in the holiest spot of the world .This place is Gaya.

The central point of the Hindu pilgrimage in Gaya is the Vishnupada temple, built by Rani Ahilyabai of Indore in the 18th century. The spot on which it stands is associated with the famous mythological event of Lord Vishnu killing Gaya and leaving marks of his footprint on the rock which is the main object of worship in the temple. The shraddha is customarily performed under a fig tree while the women pilgrims perform it indoors as gayawal women live under strange customs, for instance, they never stir out of the house and married girls continue to get their daily ration from their parents. They can adopt a child or even an adult, who may assist them in their work. The Gayawals are believed to maintain centuries old records of the pindaans performed under the supervision of their ancestors and accordingly people prefer the specific family of Gayawals who might have served their ancestors as well.

Though Bihar is in league with festivals like Holi, Dussehra, Deepavali, the Chhath Puja (6 days after Deepavali) is Bihar’s prime festival honouring the Sun God. Unlike the zestful Holi or the expensive Deepavali, Chhath is a festival of prayer and propitiation observed with solemnity. It is an expression of thanksgiving and seeking the blessings from the forces of nature, prominent among them being the Sun and river. The belief is that a devotee’s desire is always fulfilled during Chhath. Simultaneously an element of fear is alive among the devotees who dread punishment for any misdeed during Chhath. The city remains safe during this time when criminals too prefer to be a part of the good.

Chhath in Bihar can best be seen at Deo in Aurangabad or Baragaon near Nalanda, noted for their sun temples. Unlike other sun temples in India that face East, the temple at Deo faces west and during the festival time it is the most crowded place. The festival is more of a sacrifice which entails purificatory preparation. It can be performed by men or women, irrespective of caste or creed. Chhath commences with the end of Deepavali when the house is thoroughly cleaned, family members go in for a holy dip, strict salt less vegetarian menu is observed (even onions and garlic are considered unwanted during the entire festival period), all earthen vessels are reserved for the period only and all possible purity of food is adhered to; clothes have to be unstitched and people sleep on the floor.

The person observing the Chhath (known as Parvati) observes dawn to dusk fast which concludes with sweets. This is followed by another fast for 36 hours till the dawn of the final day when puja commences at the river bank much before sunrise. The disciplined Parvatis remain in water from late midnight until the ray of dawn streaks the horizons. The river is now flooded with offerings to the sun which is followed by breakfast and distribution among the gatherings.


Sonepur Cattle Fair/Kartik Purnima October/ November full moon day,

Deogarh Pilgrimage and Naag Panchami July/August

Chaath Festival October/November

Evuthana Ekadasi October/ November


By Air

The nearest airport is Patna. Indian Airlines connects Patna, the capital of Bihar with Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Guwahati, Lucknow, Ranchi and Kathmandu.

By Rail

Patna is connected to major centers in India by air-conditioned, non-air conditioned and sleeper trains. The main railway station of Patna is a little more than a kilometers from the Bihar State Tourism Department and ITDC information centers.

By Road

One can get to Sonepur via road from Patna. There are plenty of buses, taxis, three wheelers and even tongas (horses carriages). It is just 24 kilometres to Sonepur. It is also accessible by ferry, crossing the Ganga.


1. Patna has a number of luxury and other hotels offering both air-conditioned and non-air conditioned rooms. Many low priced lodges and guest houses are also available.

2. Welcomgroup Maurya-Patna, South Gandhi Maidan. Tel: 22061 Telex: 022-214 Maur-in-I; Cable: MAURYA.

3. Hotel Patliputra Ashok (ITDC), Beer Chand Patel Path, Tel 26270-79 (10 lines) Cables: ASHOKOTEL, Patna Telex; HPP 311

4. Tourist Bhawan, Beerchand Patel Path. (Bihar State Tourism Department).

5. There are a number of small lodges in Hajipur.

6. Tent accommodation is available in Sonepur, provided by Bihar Tourism. Accommodation is also available at hotels Chanakya, Samrat, President and Satkar.


1. Ashok Travels & Tours unit provides transport from the airport and railway station.

2. Taxis are available to Sonepur. For details contact: Manager Ashok travels & Tours, ITDC, Hotel Patliputra Ashok, Beerchand Patel Path. Tel: 26270.