Thuleshwar Das has been coming to the Jonbeel Mela for as far back as he can remember. After all, it’s the only place on earth where the 65-year-old farmer from Ahatguri isn’t judged on the basis of the money he has.
On Friday, Das exchanged fish from his pond for a few bags of turmeric and ginger at the fair. Renumai Devi (57), who took the fish off his hands, was happy she didn’t have to haggle over petty change for once.
In a demonetised age where cashless transactions are being projected as the country’s stepping stones to a brighter future, the Jonbeel Mela – arguably India’s only fair that works on the barter system – comes as a veritable blast from the past. To be specific, the 15th century.
The three-day fair, organised by the Tiwa community at Dayang Belguri in Morigaon district for over five centuries, witnesses the exchange of goods between tribes from the hills and plains of Assam as well as Meghalaya. “Tribal people from the hills come down on the invitation of Tiwa king Gova Roja, and exchange their produce with people from the plains,” said Jursing Bordoloi, secretary of the Gova Deuraja Jonbeel Mela Development Samiti.
Exchange of goods takes place on the second day of the fair. Nearly 40,000 people participated in the fair this year, and transactions amounting to over Rs 1 crore were made.
“I exchanged beaten rice and rice flour for ginger and turmeric!” exclaimed Amiyo Deka of Khusunagug village in Morigaon. Her customer, Riliang Umbah from Ri-Bhoi district of Meghalaya, was happy with the transaction too.
Most hill folks brought items like ginger, turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon and yam, which were exchanged for beaten rice, rice flour, fish and traditional sweets from their counterparts on the plains. As was the practice in the old days, items were sold without the use of weighing scales. Measurements were made with bowls and hands, and both parties decided how much each should get.
Besides trade, Jonbeel Mela is also known for promoting friendship and harmony among tribes in the region. Every participant addresses the other as ‘mama’ or ‘mami’ (maternal uncle or aunt). The bonhomie only grows as tribal families stay on for days at the venue of the fair, a paddy field.
Community fishing at the nearby Jonbeel (the wetland after which the fair is named), cockfights, cultural shows, community feasts and token collection of taxes by Gova Roja and his courtiers are other highlights of the fair.
“We spend nearly Rs 20 lakh to organise the fair. Though 30-35 acres of land is needed to accommodate everybody, none of it is ours,” said Jursing Bordoloi, secretary of Junbeel Mela organising committee.
Jonbeel Mela attracts thousands of tourists each year, and organisers hope chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal – who will drop by on Saturday – provides financial aid and allots a permanent site for the fair.