Nestled on the banks of the Tapi river and on the edge of the famous Dutt Mandir, Sarangkheda may pass off as any other village in the Nandurbar district of Maharashtra. But what makes it special is its more than 300-year-old tradition of horse fair, the biggest and oldest in India.
This idyllic village has attracted majestic breed of horses to be traded for their strength, beauty, agility and prestige. According to locals, Chhatrapati Shivaji, the great Maratha warrior and the war strategist, would visit this fair to acquire purebred horses. There are also references of horses and Sarangkheda in the epic Mahabharata. The mention of Chetak of Maharana Pratap and Krishna of Shivaji inspires confidence and pride.
This time around horses like Oscar, Bahubali and Narsimha are a huge draw. Owners of these stallions are proud and the notional value for Oscar is for Rs 1.11 crore while Bahubali and Narsimha are quoted at for Rs 51 lakh and Rs 11 lakh respectively. Among the colts, Badal would fetch Rs 2.5 lakh, probably the highest for his age, if the owner decides to sell it. However, owners were reluctant to sell their wards.
"It's a rich tradition and heritage and we need to carry them forward. The practice of trading of horses has continued to this day as horse lovers from across the country visit Sarangkheda," said Jaypalsing Rawal, the president of the Organising Committee.
"At one point of time, horses from Arabia, Balochistan, Afghanistan were brought here," he pointed out. "We are not talking about medieval ages but references in Mahabharata had made it more interesting for us. We are doing more research," he said.
To give a boost to the fair at Sarangkheda in Shahada taluk, which is about 400 km from Mumbai, the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) has organised Chetak Festival at Sarangkheda located in the Shahada taluk. The festival kicked off on December 3 and will conclude on the second day of the new year. The festival coincides with the Dutt Jayanti fair which marks celebrations at the village's Dutt Mandir.
During the month-long festival, celebrities rub shoulders with commoners, amateurs and enthusiasts as they have a closer look at the 2,500-odd horses of various breeds, including Marwaris and Kathiawadis.
The Maharashtra government has been making lot of efforts to ensure that the event figures in the itinerary of international travelers. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had participatedon the previous two fairs. To give a push to the festival, proper motorable roads have been laid.
The MTDC has also been roped into the event. The MTDC has plans to develop a horse museum for travelers. The idea is to inform visitors about qualities of breed, marking, lifespan and colour of horses. The government has sanctioned Rs 4.98 crore for the museum and the dome shaped horse museum will be constructed on 6.5 acre along the Tapi river. The museum will also have an art gallery, exhibition venue, audio-visual room, food stall and shops. A breeding centre for horses and a veterinary hospital are also planned.
For the first time, the volume of transactions last year was around Rs 3.3 crore, which was more than six times the figures of the previous years. Already, the business was more than Rs two crore midway through the festival. Sarangkheda is unique as the fair is only for horses unlike the fairs in Pushkar (Rajasthan) and Patiala (Punjab). Horses are brought in railway wagons or special vehicles and owners can stay in high-class tents.
Horse owners from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Punjab have brought their wards for this year's festival. Tourism Minister Jaykumar Rawal said that adventure tourism is a growing segment and the government was keen on creating new avenues to attract more tourists. He feels that the Tapi riverfront could be developed to promote water sports and adventure activities. "We intend to promote it as an adventure package," he added.
"I am visiting the fair for the first time. It has a tremendous potential," said Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod, Secretary General of Indigenous Horse Society of India. "If we want to promote such festivals, the government too needs to do its bit," he said. The government should lift ban on export of Indian horses.
The adrenaline rush of adventure activities, the cosy comfort of luxurious stays and the vibrant joy of cultural programmes make the fair more interesting. The picturesque rural hinterlands of Northern Maharashtra get into a hustle-bustle mode during the horse fair. The village with a population of around 10,000 comes alive. The festival creates a lot of excitement. "I am lucky," says 73-year-old Murlidhar Patil. "I have been coming here for the last 60 years. I am a farmer but I have keen interest in horses. I purchase colts and sell them after a few years," said Patil, who describes himself as a broker-cum-enthusiast. "I purchased a mare for Rs 1.2 lakh. I sold her two years later for over Rs 3 lakh," he said. "You have to take care of a horse like a child. You have to feed it with good fodder, ghee, milk, chana and so on," said Patil, who hails from the nearby Vikharan village.
Babubhai Sukharbhai Patil from Valsad in Gujarat considers himself lucky as he could buy two horses, both white in colour, for around Rs one lakh. "I generally give them in baraat (marriage processions). The charges depend on the season," he said.
The Sarangkheda fair is not just about buying and selling. There are horse show competitions, horse dances, horse race, obstacle race, tent-pegging, horse display and breeding information, a horse photo gallery, horse ride, horse buggy ride. Around the Swiss cottage tents, there are plenty of things to do like star gazing, quad biking. One can explore the nature as well as Toranmal hill station.