Jonbeel Mela: a fair with no currency
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The car left the busy highway at Jagiroad, barely 50km from Guwahati, for an equally busy but much narrower detour. We crossed a crowded marketplace and the countryside began to unfold: cattle, barren winter pastures, the occasional bamboo grove. The road was getting bumpier. The car almost hit a rickshaw as it tried to dodge a group of schoolgirls on bicycles. We paused for a while to let the dust settle. That is when I noticed a large Ferris wheel on the horizon—and knew that was where I had to go.For I was there to attend the annual Jonbeel Mela, a traditional fair in Assam that still works on the barter system.
Old and new
The Jonbeel Mela, held this year from 18-20 January, usually takes place a few days after Magh Bihu, the harvest festival, in Dayang Belguri in Morigaon district. People barter goods, socialize for a few days, and then go back to their villages. No currency is used.
The fair ground is an open area slightly bigger than a football field, by the side of a crescent-shaped water body called Jonbeel. The lake that lends its name to the fair (jon is moon and beel is lake) also witnesses community-fishing during the fair. Jonbeel Mela is organized by the Tiwa community, with participants from the Tiwa, Karbi, Khasi and Jaintia communities, from the interiors of the state’s Morigaon and Karbi Anglong districts, as well as some border villages of Meghalaya. No one knows exactly when the fair started but some of the medieval buronjis (historical chronicles maintained by Ahoms) refer to it as a venue for diplomacy.
The Tiwas, one of the many Tibeto-Burman tribes found in Assam, are subdivided into hill Tiwas and plains Tiwas, based on their habitat. They have their own language and culture, though most of them now speak Assamese.
Interestingly, even this small area in the middle of Assam was divided into tiny kingdoms in medieval times. In fact, the royal descendants are still treated as kings by fellow tribesmen and attend ceremonies in that capacity, although they no longer wield any political power. The Jonbeel Mela is organized under the patronage of the Gobha kingdom.
The Gobha king still oversees the arrangements for the fair and conducts a “durbar” at the end of the event. This is where he meets and interacts with the people from the fair to try and understand their issues. Though such practices only have symbolic significance today, they ensure the continuation of old traditions.
“It takes several hours to reach this ground from our village in Karbi Anglong even in a car. But our grandfathers used to walk for days to do the same,” Jatin Teron, a young Karbi in his early 20s, tells me as he climbs down from the back of a pickup van.
The fair had just started. Participants from distant villages—who would live in makeshift straw huts for the duration of the fair—were still arriving. For though modern transportation has made the commute easy, it still takes a significant effort to reach the venue.
I walked around the ground, looking at the products available for exchange. They included different types of local rice, lac (collected from insects in the jungle), pumpkin, wax gourd, sponge gourd, yam, pomelo (a type of citrus fruit), wild banana flowers, raw pepper, dried fish, baskets and other items made of bamboo, and traditional handwoven apparel.
Items like ginger, pepper and turmeric may seem common, but these are mostly the wild varieties—almost everything at the fair is plucked from nature or handmade. “We have brought ginger, dhuna (a resin collected from trees and used mostly as a mosquito repellent) and taro (a root vegetable). We’ll take back a lot of pithas (rice-based delicacies) and fish,” says Mala, a cheerful hill woman in her late 30s, who was there with her entire family.
Mala’s family had arrived from the neighbouring Ri-Bhoi district, in Meghalaya. It is hard to get fish in the hills. In return, they would offer wild vegetables, which are unavailable in the plains.
Hints of Change
While the mela has survived, signs of change were unmistakable. Besides the Ferris wheel, there was a “well of death” for motorcycle stunts, some rides for children, eateries selling roasted pork, fish, rice beer, and shops selling factory-made items. The latter now outnumber the traditional stalls.
Some of the shops were playing Bollywood songs on loudspeakers. I saw a man asking them to turn down the volume. He introduced himself with his surname, Pator. He is one of the local Tiwa men involved in the organization of the fair.
“Such additional attractions are needed to keep people interested. It is hard to survive otherwise,” he says, before moving on.
The fair has received a reasonable amount of publicity in recent times. I even noticed a couple of foreign tourists; huge number of local tourists from cities such as Guwahati visit every year. So it may be good idea to develop it sustainably as a cultural spectacle.