Article by Niladri Sekhar Dutta, The North-Eastern Chronicle
Visuals by: Aslam Siddique
We all know about the barter system, the age-old method of exchange long before money was invented, but this system is now non-existent. But do you know there’s one such place or event where it still exists, shocking right?
So what is Jonbeel Mela?
‘Jonbeel Mela’ is considered to be the only regular event on the planet where the barter system is still practised. The Jonbeel festival attracts people in large numbers from Tiwa, Karbi, Khasi, Rabha and Jaintia communities living in the border villages of Meghalaya and Assam.
Jonbeel Mela is a three-day annual indigenous Tiwa Community fair held at the weekend of Magh Bihu at a historic place known as Dayang Belguri at Joonbeel. It is 3 km from Jagiroad in the Morigaon district of Assam and 32 km from Guwahati. Where colourful tents and a tall Ferris wheel adorn the horizon in preparation for a 500-year-old indigenous fair. Held since the early 17th century (some accounts place its origin in the 15th century).
Joonbeel (Joon and Beel are Assamese terms for the Moon and a wetland respectively) is so-called because a large natural water body is shaped like a crescent moon. The theme of the mela is harmony and brotherhood among the indigenous communities and tribes scattered in Northeast India.
The fair is organized under the patronage of the Gobha kingdom. Gobha King along with his courtiers visits the mela and collects taxes from his subjects. People perform their traditional dance and music, making the atmosphere one of joy and fun.
The Gobha king 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, as they ensure the continuation of their old traditions.
The much-awaited exchange of vegetables at the Jonbeel Mela begins hours before sunrise on the second day, just as the Garo families make their way to the venue with sacks in their hands and infants on their backs. By early morning, the marketplace starts bustling with people from various tribes and across age groups, trying to find a spot to set up shop.
Tiwa and other tribespeople from the hills bring with them ginger, turmeric, chillies, wild fruits, berries, among other things that grow primarily in higher altitudes and often various vegetables can be found on display those are very unlikely in the local markets. The barter system here features items like pitha and other items made from rice flour, roasted rice flour, different breeds of sticky rice, and a variety of dried fish.
The interesting part about the fair is almost everything at the fair is plucked from nature or handmade. These include baskets and other items made of bamboo, and traditional handwoven apparel.
The mela has survived since the early centuries and has been a part of many changes. Now people from other regions or states do also take part in the century-old fair even many foreign tourists and a huge number of local tourists from cities such as Guwahati visit every year.
The Jonbeel Mela is not only a mega event, also an idea to sustainably develop its culture and values. So, next time don’t forget to visit this place!