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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Virus strikes down Shravani mela, set to send economy of Bihar town to ICU

This year, with the dark cloud of Covid-19 hovering over, the Shravani mela, held in the month of “Saavan” – usually spread over July and August – has been put on hold.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Bhagalpur | Updated: July 22, 2020 8:28:33 am
Virus strikes down Shravani mela, set to send economy of Bihar town to ICU Shravani mela, held in the month of ‘Saavan’, is one of India’s largest pilgrimages. (Express photo by Dipankar Ghose)

The only sound is that of the Ganga, its waters gently pushing up against the temple steps. The sandy ghats have rows and rows of temporary wooden shelters with cots in them, interspersed with tea stalls. They are all empty. A little further away are the doors of lodges and motels, all boarded up.

This year, with the dark cloud of Covid-19 hovering over, the Shravani mela, held in the month of “Saavan” – usually spread over July and August – has been put on hold. The silence of the ghats in Sultanganj has affected everything — faith, a local economy that earned its sustenance over this month, and even the local agriculture.

Bhagalpur town is one of Bihar’s ostensible smart cities. The district has more than 1,500 villages, two large rivers, and a well known but decrepit silk industry. Yet, one of the aspects it is most known for is the pilgrimage town of Sultanganj, which has the Baba Ajgavi Nath Shiv Temple on the banks of the Ganga. One of the country’s largest pilgrimages start in the first week of July each year from this town, bringing over a lakh devotees to Sultanganj.

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Devotees, chanting “Bam Bam Mahadev” collect holy water of the Ganga, and walk or travel 108 km to Deogarh in Jharkhand. Even in Bhagalpur city, 30 km from Sultanganj, there are posters of the kanwariya route that are never taken off.

Lal Mohariya, an influential ‘panda’ in Sultanganj, said there is never a day when there are fewer than a lakh people at the Shravani mela. “On Mondays, the numbers are much higher, crossing 2 lakhs on certain days,” he said. “People come from as far as Nepal, Bhutan, and states such as Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and from across Bihar. I see at least 4 lakh to 5 lakh devotees over the period from only the Terai region of Nepal.”

Over the years, such a massive influx has seen an infrastructure develop around it, running into several crores, locals say. Every lane in Sultanganj has restaurants offering vegetarian food, fruit stalls, boarding and lodging facilities, medicine shops, and flower sellers.

“The entire economy of Sultanganj is based on the one month of Saavan, which broadly lasts them for the rest of the year,” Mohariya said. “Each person, from spending on kanwars, food, fruit, a place to sleep, tempo, medicines, spend Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 at the very least. This is besides the dan-dakshina (money spent on charity) they do.”

The effects of the mela being called off this year are felt not just in Sultanganj but even Sonbarsa village in Naugacchia block, across the Ganga, 60 km away. Much of the banana produce in these villages on the banks of the Kosi was used in the mela. Each year, as devotees walk, fruit is the food of choice, bananas being a cheap and efficient source of nutrition. “With the mela not on, there is very little demand. The government must think of something for us,” said Sourav Kumar, who grows the fruit.

When The Indian Express met him on Tuesday, Kumar was a relieved man. Behind the embankment he was standing on, there are rows and rows of green banana trees, and for the first time in recent past a contractor had arrived to buy some. “Normally I would get Rs 250 a bundlep; now it’s barely Rs 70-80. At this rate we are losing money, but at least someone has come. I am not sure the rest of my crop will be sold. I do not know how we will survive,” Kumar said.

The contractor, who said that he was from Jharkhand but refused to be identified, said he was taking only 10 percent of the stock he would usually take. “Shravaani mela ho hi nahi raha hai toh kya kare (what do we do with a bigger stock since the mela is not taking place?) This much is for people to buy at home,” he said.

Bhagalpur district agriculture officer K K Jha said farmers of Bihar had “definitely been affected” during the lockdown. “The farmers have conveyed to ministers that they are not getting the rates they got last year. A decision will be taken by the state government. At our level, if farmers come to us asking for help in transport with trucks, or finding a market, we try and help. Some banana farmers complained to us and we got some customers from outside the state and got the produce sold. But this is clearly not possible for everyone. I know this, and the farmers know this. The lockdown will effect everything.”

Despite this economic damage, Lal Mohariya backs the decision to shut down the mela for a year, even though he believes the government should have done more for those dependent on it for an income. “Lots of people would have come, and there would have been no control on Covid,” he said. “But the government should have done something for the people who depend on this economically. At this point, those who string together flowers, or make kanwars, are on the brink of hunger. The situation will worsen in another 15 or 20 days.”

But not everyone has agreed with the ‘panda’. Mohariya said he has been asked many questions over the past week on the issue of faith. He said, “It is clearly written in the shastras that my devotion should adhere to desh, kaal aur samay. These three things are very important. The fear was that the invisible enemy, which can plague us, would affect us. That is why any devotee saying that the temples should be opened and if temples are closed where will they go. This is wrong. If people had collected, it would have had bad repercussions. That does not help faith.”

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