On an unusually hot monsoon Monday with the scorching sun shining brightly, almost three kilometres’ long stretch of Shamshabad road in the south east region of Agra city remains cordoned off on either side with barricades. The occasion is the annual fair which is hosted on the first Monday of the Shravan (second month of Monsoon as per the Hindi calendar) in this part of the city. Similar fairs are hosted on three subsequent Mondays in three other parts of the city thus celebrating the entire middle month of the Monsoon season.
These four fairs hosted in Agra are a centuries’ old tradition and are centred around four historical temples, each on a different corner of the city, all dedicated to Hindu lord Shiva. The first fair is organised around Rajeshwar Mandir on Shamshabad road. While this area used to lie in rural parts of Agra district, only recently the city limits have expanded bringing the area well within the urban limits. In fact, all four of these temples were at one time outside the city limits but slowly got engulfed in a rising tide of urbanity.
A few years back the temple underwent external renovation through a crowdfunding campaign and acquired greater socio-political significance. Amidst a fast-emerging urban population and growing urban influence over the existing rural and semi-urban demographic the once humble and unglamorous temple got a facelift and began attracting greater attention than ever before. But the fair which has increasingly been associated with the temple also retains its seasonal etymology as it is called by both names the Rajeshwar Mela and Shravan Maas Mela (Shravan Month Fair).
While many years ago the fair used to be a routine affair where rural and semi-urban crowds used to throng, in recent years the temple has become its centrepiece. As this reporter witnessed all the responsibilities of organising the fair had been accorded to Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal and the newly formed Gau Raksha Samiti (Cow Protection Committee). As saffron clad volunteers, mostly youth in their 20s, managed the crowds and the activities of the fair, the devotees had lined up since morning in front of the temple in almost a kilometre long queue while on the other side of the road shops and rides were thriving with excited men, women and children enjoying the fair in business as usual.
Tradition of fairs in India is a cultural legacy. The culture of the country, which still employs a majority of population in agricultural sector, has remained significantly synchronised with changing seasons. Fairs were a form of punctuation to mark the change of these seasons, celebrating the harvests and beginning of new crop cycles. Monsoon fairs have been a tradition in Agra since long and temples served as a point of confluence for local population to gather around and celebrate. For as long as one can remember fairs such as these were an opportunity to enjoy shopping, going on rides, having delicious food and sweets and making merry. But with time the contours of these fairs have changed. With urbanity, temples have acquired unprecedented significance in the scheme of things. The saffron organisations have taken over the organisation and management of affairs with the temple authorities at the helm as the space for the actual fairs has shrunken.