02/01/2015 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Jonbeel Mela: Where You Barter Love for Love

By the time I reached Jonbeel Mela, the community fishing had already started. Hundreds of people--men, women and children--jumped into the wetland with jakoi (traditional bamboo fishing equipment).

STRDEL via Getty Images
Tiwa tribe people participate in community fishing at the Jonbeel Mela on January 20, 2012. Hundreds of tribal communities like Tiwa, Karbi, Khasi, and Jaintia from nearby hills come in large numbers to take part in the festival exchange goods through barter rather than money. Community fishing is also held during this festival. The significant point of this festival is its theme of harmony and brotherhood amongst various tribes and communities. During the three day long Jonbeel festival these tribes and communities perform traditional dances and play music. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

I was a cub reporter then at Guwahati (Assam) and one morning I was asked to report on a unique festival fair, the Jonbeel Mela. This was my first field assignment, so without any delay, I excitedly took the first available bus to the venue, Dayang Belguri near Jagiroad, a one-hour ride from Guwahati.

For the uninitiated, Jonbeel Mela is held every year around mid-January, usually during the weekend of the Assamese harvest festival, Magh Bihu. Among other activities, the main attraction of the fair is that tribes from the hills come down to the plains and trade their agricultural produce and other goods with the non-tribals or people from the plains. But there is a catch here, which is unique not only to India but perhaps, to most other parts of the world. No currency is involved in the exchange; rather it is done through barter system where one good is simply exchanged with another! A surprising hark back to the time when man didn't know the concept of money but still managed to depend on each other.

Literally speaking, Jonbeel Mela means the 'fair of the moon lake'. Indeed, the fair is held besides a naturally picturesque lake that is crescent-shaped. Going by genealogy, in the 15th century, Gobha Raja, the King of Tiwa Lalung tribe held political parleys with the Ahom King and other hill chiefs near Jonbeel; and around the occasions, fairs were held where people from all the kingdoms embraced each other and traded their goods.

By the time I reached Jonbeel Mela, the community fishing had already started. Hundreds of people--men, women and children--jumped into the wetland with jakoi (traditional bamboo fishing equipment). People were singing Bihu (festival songs) full-throated; there was laughter, jokes and happiness; some had big catch, some had none, but all were united in a seamless sense of brotherhood. Nobody cared to know whether one was a Tiwa, Karbi, Khasi or Jaintia (different hill tribes), or from hills or plains, or from Assam or Meghalaya. I wanted to jump in and join the fun, but somehow restrained from making myself muddy as I had to return the same day.

The market, in the meantime, was ready. There were fresh ginger, turmeric, arum, sesame, wild potatoes, chillies, herbs, other vegetables and fruits, rice cakes made by the tribals, dried fish, fresh fish, poultry, different types of aromatic rice, cotton, lac, traditional costumes, cane and bamboo products, wooden furniture, handicrafts and daily-use articles. The atmosphere was more of fun and merry haggling, than serious business. Here and there, people would break into a Bihu song and dance, and everyone would join in it. I wonder, when politicians talk about tribal issues and state-border disputes, are the real voices of these grass root people taken into account?

I was actually in the second day of celebration. The day before, the fair started with a fire worship, where anyone and everyone, participated and prayed for world peace and harmony. It was then followed by a community feast, organised by the present Gobha Raja, the King of the Tiwa Lalung tribe. He takes part in the festival and also collects taxes from his subjects. The tax is, in fact, used to carry forward the tradition and hold the festival every year. The fair ended on the third day with an address by the King to his subjects and a cultural get-together, where diverse aspects of different tribes were presented, including traditional songs and dances.

Back to my story. Having nothing but cash, I roamed about the market aimlessly. At one place, there was the traditional cock fight with people betting; the wagers ranged from vegetables to poultry. At another, there was a fish market with the catch from the community fishing in the morning. People played traditional games impromptu. Everyone called each other endearingly as Kai (brother), Bai (sister), Mama (uncle) or Mami (aunty). I lost myself in the gay abandon and simply soaked in the ambience, until my eyes fell on one corner of the fair where a middle-aged man was selling smoked pork and rice beer.

I approached him and asked if he would sell for cash. His answer was a strict no but maybe, he liked me and offered some free. I wanted to interview him, so came back when he was almost done with his exchange.

He took me inside one of the makeshift bamboo huts. During the three-day-festival, all the tribals live and dine together in them.

Kai, as I called him, shared a lot, until it was time for me to catch the last bus back to Guwahati. We talked about his family, his dreams for his five children, life when he grew up, struggle against the vagaries of nature and the militants, jhum kheti (shifting cultivation), the slow erosion of traditional values and morality.

He called me his son and blessed me, and gave a tribal ring as a souvenir. He wanted city boys like me to spread the message of love between tribals and non-tribals. As I hugged him goodbye, I realised my eyes were misty. For I knew I would perhaps, never meet him again. He didn't have a phone; mobile connectivity in those areas then was not very good.

That was almost seven-years-ago; I didn't have any contact with Kai since then. But come January, Jonbeel Mela will be held again. Heard from friends that the fair still has the same fervour, and now it has more visitors and tourists. The Assam Government has approached UNESCO to declare it as a heritage festival. This is indeed good news. More people should experience an occasion where for a change, money doesn't matter at all.

And as for me, a part of my being stayed back that day in the market and with Kai, and thanks to that, today it rejuvenates my faith in humanity every time I feel it is plummeting.