Famous for a lot of reasons, the ‘Jonbeel Mela’ in Assam is a major attraction in the state. However, the influx of outsiders has cast a shadow of doubt on the traditional customs and practices of the historic fair. But the customs that have made the Jonbeel Mela popular and that help attract large footfall every year, have been kept alive, opined the Secretary of Jonbeel Mela Development Committee, Jursing Bordoloi.
Renowned for some unique customs that are not common elsewhere across India, the Jonbeel Mela kicked off on January 19 at a place called Dayang Belguri at Jonbeel, some 65 kilometers from Guwahati city. The three-day mela usually takes place in the week of Magh Bihu and has been traditionally organised by the Tiwa community of Assam from 15th Century AD. However, several other indigenous tribes of Assam and other parts of the northeast also come down from the hills to set up stalls to sell their produce.
The name ‘Jonbeel’ comes from two Assamese words ‘Jon’ meaning moon and ‘Beel’ meaning a pond or a water body. The name comes from a large natural water body in the shape of crescent moon, beside which the traders set up their shacks.
A whole of host of traditionality is usually up on display, one of which being the men and women from the hills, lovingly referred to as ‘Mamas’ and ‘Mamis’, meaning uncles and aunts. This very beautifully establishes a relationship between the mainlanders and the highlanders. Apart from that, the practice of barter trade is still seen at the fair with the traders exchanging their produce for items. Singing, dancing and other ritualistic practices sum up the historic Jonbeel Mela.
According to traditions, the tribal Gobha king and their courtiers come down along with his tribe of people from the hills on the first day. At a special ceremony, the king collects taxes from his folks in one of the ritualistic procedures. Following an Agni Puja, where the where the fire god is worshipped for the good of mankind, the people practice community fishing and set up stalls showcasing the items that they have brought along with them to either sell of barter.
The second day sees the traditional barter system of trade being followed as sellers trade their products for other items to take along with them back to the hills. Speaking to us, a trader said, “We have brought these items to exchange them for pithas, ladus and xandoh guri. I have turmeric, arbi and ginger for trade and some other items that I’ll sell here. We caught fish early in the morning that we’ll sell and also eat ourselves.”
Several items ranging from farm produce like taro root or arbi and ginger, to wooden hand-made utensils, bamboo items, freshly caught fish and meat are available for either selling or barter trade. In addition, small eateries where people can try out local delicacies like roasted pork and fish along with rice are also set up.
On the third day, hoards of people gather around the pond to practice community fishing, they catch fishes with the traditional equipment and proceed to prepare local delicacies and relish them.
In recent years, there has been an influx of traders from outside, who sell machine-made items like clothing and other accessories at the fair. Questions have been raised on whether the traditional customs and rituals will be subdued.
Secretary Bordoloi said, “We have not allowed too many outside items. The old customs and traditions have been kept alive. However, with climate change the farm produce has declined. Earlier, traders used bring bags loaded with their varieties of produce. Now the quantity and the variety of farm products have decreased. Some traditional pitha shops and traditional dresses have only been allowed.”
He further said, “Apart from that, we have clearly allocated the areas for different types of items. We are trying to keep the focus on barter system, and most of the sellers here have come for that only.”
Speaking on the efforts to take the Jonbeel Mela to a global stage, the Secretary said, “In our efforts to promote the fair, we also invited a team from UNESCO, who will be making a documentary on it.”
“We are facing a problem, that is, the lack of estate. We can take the fair to even greater heights and for that, we request our honourable chief minister to grant us 20 bighas of land. We have ourselves bought some of the land, but will require the government’s help,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Gobha King, his highness Dipsing Deuraja was courted on what has changed over the years. He said, “A lot has changed. Earlier, we did not see such crowds in the mela. However, thanks to the media coverage, people have come to know about our culture and our traditional fair. I would also like to thank the Assam government in helping us take it to a world stage. It is a massive boost for our Tiwa people, who come down once a year to sell their produce. The barter system is still prevalent here and it’s good to see.”