Every year at the end of Assamese Magh Bihu or Makar Sankranti (a harvest festival which is celebrated during the month of January) Dayang Belguri village hosts the Joon Beel fair.
It is 4:30am. The breeze and the rain create a chill, though having rains at this time of the year is little bizarre. This, however, does not dampen the spirits of the people at Joon Beel mela, a one-of-a-kind fair held in the Morigaon district of Assam, where people transact business, but without any cash.
In this age of big buck and billion-dollar multinational business chains, Dayang Belguri village in Morigaon district, some 90km away from Guwahati, offers a fascinating spectacle of the age-old business practice of tribal communities of Assam – as they sell and buy a whole lot of things – from fish to country fowl to brown rice and many more – seamlessly through the system of barter.
Every year at the end of Assamese Magh Bihu or Makar Sankranti (a harvest festival which is celebrated during the month of January) Dayang Belguri village hosts the Joon Beel fair. Joon mean Moon in Assamese, and Beel is the local name for wetland. The annual barter fair starts with community fishing at the moon shaped wetland in the village.
The three-day fair that began last Thursday, is witnessing a huge turnout of people from different communities. People living in the flood plains of the Brahmaputra valley sell their local produce to the tribal communities who live in the hill areas of the state and in barter take their products. Joon Beel remains a bright spot in the horrific history of Assam’s ethnic distrust.
For 40-year-old Rupali Bordoloi, Joon Beel is the most awaited event of the year. This is the time when she can exchange her handmade Laru and pitha (homemade savouries made of rice flour, coconut and jaggery) along with a bag full of beaten rice to some the Khasi tribals who come from the neighbouring hills in Meghalaya. In return she gets organic vegetable and herbs. This has been an annual ritual for her for last 20 years. This particular morning she reached the fair grounds at 3am to meet up with her friends from hills.
“It has been the 20 years after my marriage that I have been religiously visiting this fair. Every year I bring few of my homemade products in exchange of which I get turmeric, herbs, dry fish, pumpkin, ginger and raw stuffs that grow in the hills,” says Rupali.
The fair is fairly medieval. In the 15th century AD this fair was introduced by the Ahom King to discuss the political state of affairs of the kingdom.
“It has been hundreds of years since the old tradition was introduced with the basic motive behind the event being to get better understanding of the political situation prevailing in the kingdom of the raja (king). Today it serve as the one annual event in Assam where communties come together and get involved in community fishing. They actively take part in the barter,”said Dhiren Bordoloi, a fair organising committee member.
The three-day fair begins with an Agni puja specially performed for the well-being of humanity. The theme of the event is to retain harmony among the various tribes and communities spread in this region.
People specially from hills of Karbi Anglong in Assam and Khasia and Jaintia hills of Meghalaya come to barter their products with the plains people. The hill community brings various spices, herbs, ginger, fruits etc and exchanges it with rice, fish, pitha ( rice cakes) which are rarely found in the hills.
On the first day of the festival the titular King of the Tiwa tribal community of Assam, popularly known as the Gova raja, visits the fair and welcomes people from all communities while inaugurating the fair.
“Every year we wait for this fair to come, where we get to meet our brothers from different communities. These three days we enjoy ourselves to the fullest,” says 52-year-old Dhireswor Timung from the Karbi Anglong hills.
Around 10,000 tribal villagers from different communities meet each other in this beautiful valley to celebrate their bonding, culture and an age-old trading system which they are immensely proud of.