Exploring your own backyard can be an enriching experience. I never realized this until I discovered something which was not only fascinating in nature but unique in India. It was my yearly visit to my homeland Assam; I decided to explore my surroundings which are ignored mostly during my stay. Being a curious soul, knowing the unknown has always been high on my agenda.
And when I am being offered to experience something unique in nature, my inquisitive mind becomes restless. It was during a conversation with my parents about the diverse cultures, traditions, rituals, and customs in India, I got intrigued to know about an age-old tradition called Barter System which was used for centuries before money was invented. What hooked me in my conversation was when I got to know that this tradition is still practiced in my homeland at an annual festival.
And, I decided to travel a few extra miles to discover this tradition. While rolling down my window, I was invited by the fragrance of my own land and when it blended perfectly with the wind, it brought back a bundle of childhood memories. It seemed as if I was lost in my own wonderland. After driving an hour or so, I reached the place called Dayang Belguri in Morigaon District of Assam. Suddenly I noticed busy roads with a lot of crowds. In no time, I realized that like me, a lot of enthusiasts were there to attend this unique fair.
Jonbeel Mela – it is called. This is a three-day-long festival which takes place every year on the weekend of Magh Bihu (Assamese festival) on the bank of Jonbeel. The word Jon means Moon and Beel means Wetland in the Assamese language. The wetland is called ‘Jonbeel’ because this large natural water body is shaped like a crescent moon.
The uniqueness of this fair is that people from the hills and the plains still practice the Barter system in the real sense during this three-day grand affair. People from different ethnic groups like Tiwas, Khasis, Jaintias, and Karbis participate in the barter system. According to the tradition, Tribal people of the hills come down to the plains with their goods and trade with the people from the plain.
The fascinating part here is that they don’t use any kind of currency while trading. They exchange agricultural products like fresh ginger, turmeric, arum, sesame, wild potatoes, chilies, herbs, other vegetables, fruits, rice cakes, dried fish, fresh fish, poultry, different types of aromatic rice, etc with the people from the plains. A rare social practice, which comes alive during this festival.
The genealogy of this fair can be traced down back to the 15th century, when Gobha Raja, the King of Tewa Lalung tribe, held political meetings with the Ahom King near Jonbeel, where people from different communities used to trade among themselves through a barter system. Interestingly, this deep rooted tradition has been carried on by the people of these different communities for centuries on the bank of Jonbeel. Though the kingdom is no longer in its original form, the King still remains, who is a descendant of the actual kings.
The festival starts off with Agni Puja where the locals pay homage to the ‘God of Fire’. After the Puja, people from different communities get together for community fishing in Jonbeel (Wetland). A beautiful scene where people from different communities, of different age groups, come together to Jonbeel for fishing with Jakoi (A traditional bamboo fishing equipment) early in the morning.
What a wonderful way to exchange dialogues, share happiness and love with each other. The whole atmosphere is cheerful where people sing Bihu songs, crack jokes, tease each other, and of course catch fishes. The purpose of this fishing activity is not just to catch fishes, but to celebrate brotherhood, harmony, and love among different communities. The smiles on everybody’s face set the perfect start of this three-day festival.
As the sun was rising high and spreading its rays, the market was getting ready. I decided to take a stroll in the fairground to get a sense of the barter system. Soon avoiding those crowded alleys, where you will find commercial stalls, I reached the place where tribal people were exchanging goods with people from the plains.
People from the hills make their own bamboo tents in the fairground where they don’t only trade, but sleep and cook their food every day for three days. So while exploring this area, I came across a few of them cooking their meal as well.
Tribal woman cooking
It was quite an interesting affair where tribes not only welcome you to their life with a big smile but also give you the rare opportunity to peep into their lifestyle closely as well. It brought a lot of happiness when I exchanged smiles with them. As happiness has no language bar.
I must admit that those hanging dried fishes were undeniably tempting enough.
Not just that, I also noticed the unique way of cooking pork in a bamboo tube.
It was always fun to strike a conversation with them, especially when they are happily posing for your lens. The simplicity, humbleness, and hospitable nature of these people make the place so beautiful that it is worth exploring these remote corners of India.
I never imagined that just a few km away from my hometown, I could discover something so unique in nature that I came back home richer with a bag full of delightful moments, first-hand experience of the age-old barter system, and a pocket full of the love of these tribal people of the hills.
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