Jonbeel Mela: a fair with no currency

#1 Feb 20th, 2018, 23:01
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Tribals exchanging items. Photo: AFP

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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.
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