Sarangkheda Chetak Festival 2016

I’ve had two major brushes with horses – the first was when I read Equus, an eerie play by Peter Shaffer that deals with a young man’s peculiar obsession with horses; and the second was when I befriended a few at the stables at my institute in Pune. I hardly think haphazard pony rides in Matheran and Mahabaleshwar count. But I’ll say this – even for someone who doesn’t ride, I’ve always been riveted by the strangely profound gaze of horses. One gets a distinct feeling that these are sentient beings, to be respected for their rare beauty and matchless grace. I encountered many such profound gazes at Sarangkheda, a one of a kind horse festival in northern Maharashtra.

Tents at Sarangkheda Chetak Festival 2016

We travel through the night to make it to Sarangkheda in the wee hours of the morning. The air is bitingly cold when we arrive at the cluster of tents on the banks of the Tapi River. But as the day proceeds, the weather turns hot and dusty, though not a speck seems to find its way to the snow white manes of some of the horses. The tents are equipped with bathrooms and comfortable beds, though water supply is erratic at times. But their proximity to the fair makes them an ideal choice for making the most of the festival. Sarangkheda is a 100 year old legacy rooted in the region’s reputation for horse trading. Owing to its central location in the Indian subcontinent and the Tapi River which provided fertile ground for feeding and rearing, Sarangkheda became a hub for the sale of horses. This usually coincided with Datta Jayanti, a tradition that has been upheld till date.

We arrive at the 20 acre ground after a sumptuous breakfast of poha, jalebi and kachori. The sheer number of horses is mind-boggling, as are some of the price tags. Padma, being the tallest horse at the festival, is pegged at a whopping one crore rupees. The 2300-2500 horses at the festival will participate in a number of contests based on both beauty and skills. The prize money usually ranges from 31000 to one lakh rupees but this is expected to go up to two lakh rupees next year. The stakes are high and the caretakers leave no stone unturned to adorn their horses with a variety of accessories and comb their manes to glossy perfection. Nearly the entire district appears to have converged at the fair and there are several food and shopping stalls to keep them occupied. Next door, a full-fledged mela is a riot of sounds and colours and the giant wheel can be seen from anywhere in the grounds.

A prize for distribution at Sarangkheda Chetak Festival 2016
A prize for distribution at Sarangkheda Chetak Festival 2016

The schedule here is flexible; so we settle ourselves at the main stage to watch whatever comes our way. Eventually, a few riders begin flaunting their skills on mares and stallions. We are amazed when one rider stands up on his horse in the middle of the arena! To his credit, he doesn’t falter while smoothly getting back into the saddle. A few beautiful horses are then paraded into the arena and curiously enough, a band begins playing loud music. We surmise that it must be a part of the festivities. Imagine our astonishment when a couple of the horses begin tapping their legs in rhythm to the music – an action that can only be described as dancing! I’m not very pleased to see the owners wield harsh discipline to make this happen but apparently, the dancing horses are highly in demand for wedding processions. We also see many horses rear on demand and stand almost upright, with some even walking around in that position.

Horse rearing at Sarangkheda Chetak Festival 2016
Padma rears, much to the joy of admiring onlookers

The race is to be held the following day in two categories between 42 contenders. Additionally, the descendants of Maharana Pratap Singh and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj will be present to confer the Chetak and Krishna prizes, which were the names of the most cherished horses belonging to each of these personalities respectively. We then see the nukra and nukri beauty contest held between pristine white stallions and mares respectively. The horses stand shyly, while the judges move around, judging them on various parameters like health, girth and level of upkeep. Participation in the fair is highly incentivised as sellers only have to pay a token fee of Rs 5 for the duration of the entire festival. This is perhaps why sellers travel from far and wide including Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to showcase their horses at the fair. The previous day, a delegation from Tamil Nadu purchased 75 horses from various stud farms.

A white horse at Sarangkheda Chetak Festival 2016
A beauty contest contender

That night, we are regaled by Rajasthani singers and dancers with the riverside breeze adding to the charm of the entertainment. We enjoy a sound sleep in our tents and wake up to a glorious sunrise over the serene river. In the distance, a mighty bridge ferries a steady stream of vehicles into the village. It would be nice to spend another day in this faraway place but it’s time to return to Mumbai. On the way, we stop to admire the one-headed Dattatreya idol at the local Dutta Temple, an aberration since this God is always depicted with three heads, ascribed to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

The crowds outside the temple, with the fair in the background
The crowds outside the temple, with the fair in the background

We undertake a three and half hour drive to lunch at Vinsura Winery, located in Nashik district, India’s very own Napa Valley. Of all the wines we taste, I enjoy the Chenin Blanc the most. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the colour white is an obsession even when it comes to equestrian beauty. It will be a while before I forget the dusty allure of Sarangkheda and the hypnotic sound of horses’ hooves.

Vinsura Winery

Fact File

  • When: 13-27 December 2016, 6am to 9pm
  • Where: Sarangkheda, Shahada taluka – 425409, Nandurbar district (400km from Mumbai)
  • Accommodation: Triple-occupancy tents at Rs 6000 per night, inclusive of meals
  • Website:

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