At the time of its month-long fair, usually sleepy Gopinathpur village in Joypurhat's Akkelpur upazila springs to life. Puppet shows, games and circus rides; music, bright colours and lights buoy spirits and draw crowds, but the main attraction is the horses. The continuation of a 500-year-old tradition, the Gopinathpur horse fair is unique.
“This fair is the only annual horse market in the country,” says Abu Sayeed Zoardar, chairman of the local council and head of the fair committee. “Horses were once a major mode of transport. Horse-rearing was a well-established career. In modern times the demand for horses has declined. Nowadays people do it mostly for enjoyment.”
“Even after independence, the Gopinathpur fair used to attract horses and breeders from as far as India, Nepal and Bhutan,” Zoarder continues. “That's just a memory; but horses still reach the fair from districts across North Bengal and from as far as Jamalpur and Mymensingh.”
The fair, which traditionally begins after the Dol Festival, opened on 1 March this year. Horse breeders brought more than 1,000 horses of different ages and varieties to sell at the fair. Many other fairgoers were there to buy.
“I sold my horse for Tk 1.5 lakhs,” says breeder Saiful Islam from Rajshahi. “Originally I wanted Tk 1.9 lakhs but still the result isn't too bad.”
“I've been selling horses at this fair for the last 25 years,” says Abdul Khaleque from Naogaon. “This year I sold three for Tk 5.8 lakhs.”Manik Hossain sold his four-year-old horse to Sekender Ali from Rajshahi for Tk 2.5 lakhs, the highest selling price for an individual horse at this year's fair. “It's a racehorse,”
Manik explains. “I cared for it myself.” Horses that have been sold are moved to an adjacent field for display.
Perhaps more than most livestock, horses are sentient, intelligent animals, each with a specific temperament. Most breeders are sentimental about their horses, many of which are given names to which the horse will respond when called.
“Horses are becoming rare since they aren't needed much for transport anymore,” says Manik, regretfully. “Even at this fair other animals like cows are gradually taking their place.”