A Visit to the Ramnagaria Fair

The thing about fairs is that every time they are held…they are held anew. Tradition might prescribe a set of rites and rituals to be performed year after year but every person who is either a visitor or a host at the fair takes home two sets of memories – a public memory and a personal one – or as the French would say – Une mémoire publique et une mémoire personnelle . And more often than not the two are intertwined.

Every year the Ramnagaria fair is held on the banks of Ganges at Panchal ghat  in my home district Farrukhabad in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India . Beginning in late January and concluding by February end, Ramnagaria is frequented by approximately five hundred thousand pilgrims and tourists from across the country.

Ghat translates in English to a small port, which may also serve for religious congregation and as a cremation ground according to Hindu customs.

Panchal Ghat is merely 4 kilometres away from my ancestral home in Bholepur (Farrukhabad)– a town situated along the famous Grand Trunk Road , roughly 170 kilometres from the city of Kanpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh. And yet as children I and my sister (tanitraveltales) could never visit Ramnagaria.

February the month when Magh Melas (Magh corresponds to the month of February in Gregorian calendar hence the February fairs) are held across Uttar Pradesh along the banks of major rivers was also the time when back in Kanpur we were busy with preparations for annual tests.  And it was not until the Holi vacations in March that we could visit the village to meet our grandparents, and cousins.

We grew up listening to the elders in our family describe Ramnagaria . But stories howsoever fanciful and rich are no substitute for the experience. Ramnagaria remained an elusive affair for us.

The best I could do was to imagine a religious gathering on the banks of river Ganges, few merry go rounds , fair rides with names that elude me, a cluttered flea market same as the kind one finds in fairs everywhere, and a crowd unruly and haphazard that either conspires to separate siblings or is ready to break into chaos after an unsuspected attack by a villainous troupe.

To put it precisely the stretch of my imagination about Ramnagaria was a generalized, stereotypical concoction of fanciful ideas about village fairs borrowed from Bollywood blockbusters, the run of the mill school book essays, and to some extent literature – Munshi Premchand’s sentimental short story Idgah comes to mind.

However on my visit to Ramanagaria in February earlier this year I was unwittingly satisfied to find out that much of what I had imagined about the fair all these years hardly bore any resemblance to the vast congregation of people that gathered along the Panchal ghat .

This was no small religious gathering. Vast grounds along the banks were covered in colourful tents. At night one could spot the lights of Ramnagaria from a long way off.

Located in the fertile Doab region in Uttar Pradesh the Farrukhabad district harbours vast alluvial plains with rivers Ganga and Ramganga flowing in the east and Kali Nadi (black river) bordering it in the south.

In olden times when the river channels across the Gangetic plain were healthier and more predictable it is said that there were as many as 36 ghats (small river ports) in the region. During British Raj many ghats, constructed and patronised by native Rais (wealthy gentry), aristocrats, kings and big merchants were used for trade and commute

The river channels from Kolkata(formerly Calcutta in West Bengal, India) to Gadmukteshwar(in Hapur, Uttar Pradesh) were used for transporting goods like common salt, indigo, opium, saltpetre, clothes and utensils.

In addition to which the ghats were also used as venues for the celebration of festivals, as crematory grounds, and as religious places suitable for construction of temples because of the holiness attributed to rivers like Ganga and Yamuna in Hindu Mythology.

Local historians suggest that the present day Ramnagaria fair was previously organised as a Magh Mela on the ghats in the nearby town of Kampil – historically famous for the Thirteenth Jain Teerthankar  (a Jain Spiritual Guru) Vimalnath and also known to be the birth place of Draupadi – wife of Pandavas in the popular Sanskrit Epic ,Mahabharata.

But over the years, many of the river channels of Ganges dried up or changed course thus abandoning a majority of the ghats. Consequently several ghats in Farrukhabad like the Toka Ghat, Vishrant Ghat, Gufa Ghat, Mughal Ghat (Kampil) fell into ruin in the absence of renovation and maintenance by the government in the post-independence era.The Magh Mela (February Fair) today known as the Ramnagaria fair was thus shifted to Panchal Ghat (aka Ghatiya Ghat) near my hometown Bholepur and is thus held there every year.

A major aspect of the fair is the ages old tradition of Kalpwas .  Sadhus (saints) and people camp by the banks of Ganges for an entire month and practice yoga, read scriptures and spiritual texts, take early morning baths, and attend religious sermons. This is called Kalpwas. Religious aspect aside in a way it is perhaps quite similar to taking a month long vacation I guess to take mind off things. Quite hippy too!

Yet how many devout follow the kalpwas’ spiritual routine by the book is hard to tell. These age old holistic practices often devolve into an admixture of religious idolatry and totemic rituals.  There are other downsides to the practice of Kalpwas as well. The congregation of about 20000 thousand Kalpwasis (people who practice Kalpwas) on the river banks leads to indiscriminate pollution in the absence of proper infrastructure to enforce punitive measures. There are no agencies to monitor and discourage widespread dumping of idols and offerings. Neither are there any sustained campaigns to dissuade visitors taking soap baths and washing their clothes with detergents releasing life harming chemicals into the river.

It is ironical but people often end up polluting what they deem holy and sacred. The religiosity degenerates into pompous rituals. The hypocrisy is spectacular.

But Ramnagaria is important for local people for other reasons too.

Situated in the fertile Gangetic plains the Farrukhabad district (aka “the potato city”) is one of the largest producers of potato (about 8 million tonnes annually) in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which in turn is the largest producer of potato in India contributing about 30-35% to the national produce. Farrukhabad has over 100 cold storage facilities (most in the country) and is also home to Asia’s largest potato market.

One may wonder what has a village fair like Ramnagaria got to do with farming. Well, the potato harvest in the region begins in the month of December and extends to March-April. And we Farrukhabadis (as local people are colloquially known) not only produce a lot of potato but our food habits are also quite potato centric. Numerous “parched potato” stalls (around 30 to 40) are set up at the fair to sell out tonnes of the fresh potato harvest.

The sellers make temporary clay ovens (called bhaad) and parch the potatoes in sand retrieved from the river banks, which is then heated in large traditional iron pots (called Kadai). The freshly harvested potatoes have a thin skin that is easily husked out leaving behind a thick mild brown layer of baked starch, which flavour wise I feel is the USP of Farrukhbadi “parched potatoes”.

Retaining a smoked, rustic flavour the hot potatoes are served with a simple chutney (translates in English to sauce) made of green chillies, coriander, and tomatoes with salt added to taste.

For 50 to 60 rupees one can buy a kilo of parched potatoes with chutney on the side.

Other attractions include the performances by the “Raj Circus Company”. Behind the ticket booths raunchy posters featuring women artists in glittering, frilled lingerie were on display. A trick typical of circus advertising material in North Indian towns to attract male crowds.

The tent for the local magician ‘Jadugar King Pasha’ was replete with banners featuring middle eastern dancers.

The graffiti on the rides were interestingly kitschy.

There was one with a girl in traditional lehnga-choli wearing high heeled shoes.

I have always held a fascination for balloon shooting stalls what with the air guns loading and popping, and rainbow coloured balloons arranged neatly in geometrical patterns waiting helplessly to be dismembered.

There is something oddly amusing about men and women bent in earnest concentration pointing rifles at balloons trying to cash in little sums of money they have already spent. It is a jesting gamble, a harmless contention of luck and will.

Many shop owners, asked me to take their picture while posing dashingly with their air rifles…some found a hat and goggles too.

The food stalls included a long array of softy (ice-cream served in cones) kiosks, paani puri and chaat stalls, Farrukhabad’s famous Papdi  – Crispy rounds of deep fried wheat flour mixed withan assortment of sauce, spices, chopped onion, diced tomato, boiled gram and potatoes in butter milk or curd – stalls, in addition to the local versions of the South Asian food –chowmein, manchurian and the likes.

Interestingly, one can also find a lot of khajla- puff pastry deep-fried and soaked in syrup, served with malai (cream) outlets. A Mughalai dessert, Khajla is specially prepared during the time of Ramdaan. A polite reminder of India’s syncretic traditions, Ramnagaria is frequented by a large number of Muslims every year.

Besides, there were shops for saaris, cloth bags, footwear, utensils, decorative items, toys, stone grinders (called sil-batta) made by local craftsmen, jewellery shops and book stalls selling religious literature.

All in all Ramnagaria was nothing like what I had imagined it to be. It is true that religion may have laid the foundations of the fair long time back but over the years Ramnagaria has grown into more than just a religious gathering of Kalpwasis.

Ramnagaria represents the people of Farrukhabad, its potato producing farmers, its local artisans, and the Ganga-Jamuni tehjeeb (syncretic culture) among other things. It is something us Farrukhabadis wait for all year long – the pleasant cold of February , a boat ride in Ganges,  and of course the lip smacking parched potatoes with chutney.

Those of you reading this do visit Ramnagaria with friends and families and whoever else you can find to tag along. It’s a hell of an af-fair!

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