Jonbeel Mela: Where Barter Still Thrives

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The Jonbeel Mela is a unique trade fair in Assam, where goods are bartered, not bought and sold. Catch the story of this bazaar, a legacy of the Ahom Kings, and the socio-political role it played in the Kingdom.

In a small village, 65 km from Guwahati, it’s all hands on deck as makeshift bamboo huts go up in preparation for a unique mela or fair held here, in mid-January, every year. Under colourful canopies, arranged in small piles on swatches of hessian or just plain cloth, is an array of goods and edibles. Spread out on large sheets and neatly packaged are shawls, sarongs and other traditional apparel.

Villagers with their wares | Wikimedia Commons
Villagers with their wares | Wikimedia Commons

Tribals from the hills bring spices, herbs, ginger, fruit etc, while those from the plains bring rice, various kinds of ‘pithas’ (sweet rice cakes), fish etc. Other products on display include betel leaf, areca nuts, lime, black pepper, mustard seed, earthen-ware, iron-ware and even livestock.

But none of this is on sale – at least, not in the way you think. At the three-day Jonbeel Mela, goods are not bought and sold; they are exchanged in barter, just as they have been for 500 years at this haat, or traditional bazaar. Here, the producer and the buyer interact directly and decide on a fair exchange.

Villagers exchanging goods | Wikimedia Commons
Villagers exchanging goods | Wikimedia Commons

The Jonbeel Mela is held in the village of Dayang Belguri, in Morigaon District in Assam, and it coincides with Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu, the harvest festival in Assam. The words ‘jon’ and ‘beel’ are Assamese for ‘moon’ and ‘wetland’, as the fair is held on the banks of a water body shaped like the crescent moon.

Legacy of the Ahom Kings

Organised without interruption since the 15th century CE, after it was started by Ahom monarch Swargadeo Rudra Singha (r. 1696-1714), the Jonbeel Mela is the only surviving fair of its kind. A few centuries ago, it was one of many that date back to the Ahom Kingdom of Assam. The purpose of these traditional fairs was not barter alone. Most of them had a political objective – to get tribal chiefs together, so that they could stay abreast of socio-political developments.

They also presented an opportunity for the tribal communities of the region to bond and experience a feeling of harmony and brotherhood. While tribal leaders discussed politics and matters of state, regular folk exchanged news, information and plain gossip! This was crucial in a region such as North-East India, where mountainous terrain punctuated by rivers and plunging gorges tends to keep small communities isolated from each other.

Trade & Commerce In Medieval Assam

Epigraphic and literary sources like the various Buranjis (chronicles of the Ahoms kings) reveal that since its establishment in the 13th century, the Ahom Kingdom engaged in internal and external trade in textiles, minerals and forest products. Trade with neighbouring countries like Burma, China and Tibet was carried out through mountain passes and rivers. Merchandise was transported in large boats down the Brahmaputra and onward to sea ports like Tamralipti in ancient Bengal, on the coast of the Bay of Bengal.

Ahom Kingdom and neighbouring states | Wikimedia Commons
Ahom Kingdom and neighbouring states | Wikimedia Commons

In medieval times, domestic trade was based on barter and the use of currency was very limited. Assamese historian S L Baruah in his A Comprehensive History of Assam [1985] writes about how currency in the Ahom Kingdom consisted of cowries(a flattened, yellowish shell with a glossy dome and a long, narrow opening), gold coins etc. There is mention of mohar (coins), sicca (rupee), adhali’ (half rupee) etc, used in trade outside Kingdom.

The economy was rural and villages were largely self-sufficient. Mughal chronicler Shihab-ud-din Talish, who had accompanied Mir Jumla during his invasion of Assam in 1662 CE, in his text ‘Tarikh-i-Assam’ writes - “....it was not the practice of Assam to buy any articles of food in the market and all inhabitants store in their house one year’s supply of food of all kinds and were under no necessity to buy or sell any eatables..” (A Comprehensive History of Assam, Vol III, H K Barpujari).

Ginger and Vegetables | Wikimedia Commons
Ginger and Vegetables | Wikimedia Commons

It is interesting to note that certain places derived their names from the specific produce grown there. For example, Tamulbari (garden of areca nuts), Panbari (garden of betel leaves), Kamalabari (garden of oranges), Benganabari (field of Rabi crops like brinjal) and Banhbari (garden of bamboo).

Tribal Haats As Centres of Trade

References from various Buranjis reveal that the Ahom kings often set up local markets or haats in various places to promote internal trade as well as to keep the peace among the various hills and plains tribes. It was a strategy to keep themselves abreast of the latest happenings in the Kingdom and neighbouring areas.

So, for instance, Ahom monarch Swargadeo Pratap Singha (r. 1603-1641) set up two markets, Dopdar and Borhat, to encourage an exchange of goods with the Nagas (Kachari Kingdom), while Swaradeo Sutyunpha (r. 1714-1744) established a market at Marangi to keep relations amicable with the King of Cachar.

The most important of these haats was at Sadiya, a town in the eastern-most corner of Assam, which was the central market of the hill tribes in the extreme North-East. Here, the Khamtis and the Singphos (tribes of Arunachal Pradesh) brought their swords and spears, medicinal plants and ivory, copper and silver, which they procured from China, while the Adis and the Hill Miris brought vegetables, wax and cotton blankets, which they exchanged for produce from the plains. The Nagas and the Garos mainly sold salt and cotton, the Khasis and Jaintias iron implements and honey.

Suhma Kingdom | Wikimedia Commons
Suhma Kingdom | Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, on the western front, there was another fair, near present-day Mangaldoi District, in a place called Simalabari. Here, the Bhutias came down from the hills to trade lac, woollens, yak tails, salt, gold dust and Chinese silk, in exchange for Muga silk, cotton clothes and dried fish.

One such initiative was by Swargadeo Rudra Singha, who established the Jonbeel Mela. It was set up in the Gobha Kingdom, (roughly corresponding to present-day Morigaon, Nagaon and Kamrup), chiefly to collect revenue from the various tribes in and around that region. (A Comprehensive History of Assam, Vol III, H K Borpujari). Remarkably, this mela has endured through changing times and political equations, and still follows the age-old barter system as the medium of exchange.

Jonbeel Mela Today

Traditionally, the Jonbeel Mela is inaugurated by the Gobha Raja or King, who heads the Tiwa tribe, which consists of both the Hills Tiwa and the Plains Tiwa. The region where this fair takes place i.e. Morigaon, traditionally belongs to the Plains Tiwa.

Entrance to the mela | Wikimedia Commons
Entrance to the mela | Wikimedia Commons

The Gobha Raja officially declares the fair open after the Agni Puja, or worship of the Fire God. This is followed by community fishing in the beel (wetland), where men wade into the water to catch fish with traditional bamboo fishing equipment like julki, jakoi and khola.

Community Fishing at the mela | Wikimedia Commons
Community Fishing at the mela | Wikimedia Commons

To this day, the Gobha Raja visits the fair and collects taxes from his ‘subjects’, even if only symbolically, to continue the tradition of his ancestors. The King and his men mingle with the visitors and also join in the feasting on the banks of the beel.

The mela is not untouched by modern influences – a giant Ferris wheel , which is a huge draw today, is proof of this. But other than a smattering of trappings from present times, the Jonbeel Mela has retained its essence, a proud tradition of the farsighted Ahom Kings.

Cover Image: Hindustan Times

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