Online trading may be the latest buzzword, but in a small hamlet near Guwahati members of Assam’s Tiwa tribe gather every year to hold a unique trade fair through barter system.
The world’s oldest system of trade has been kept alive by the Tiwas, a tribe of Central Assam and neighbouring Meghalaya, who hold the three-day annual fair in the third week of January.
The fair is popularly called the ‘Junbeel’ Mela meaning moon (Jun) and wetland (beel) as it is held beside a large natural water body shaped like a crescent moon.
A few days before the fair, members of Tiwa, Karbi, Khasi and Jaintia tribes come down from the neighbouring hills with various products.
“On the occasion of the mela, a big market is held here where these tribes exchange their products in barter system which is perhaps the only such instance in the country,” said the secretary of Jonbeel Mela Celebration Committee J. S. Bordoloi.
The products usually traded during the fair include ginger, bamboo shoots, turmeric, pumpkin, medicinal herbs, dried fish and ‘pithas’ (rice cakes).
The fair is declared open by the ceremonial ‘Tiwa’ king Deepsing Deoraja, (also called Gova Raja as the ancient kingdom of the Tiwas was known as Gova) who along with his ’courtiers’ participate in a community feast and then collects a customary tax from his subjects.
Mr. Bordoloi said the main attraction of this fair is its theme of harmony and brotherhood amongst various tribes and communities.
As per tradition, community fishing is held on the second day of the fair and people from all walks of life participate in it with great enthusiasm.
“I have been coming here and taking part in the barter trade since my childhood. This is a very old custom of ours and is the most important event of the mela though we also enjoy the fishing, singing and dancing,” said 60-year old Raja Bordoloi who emptied his stock of dried fish in exchange for ginger and medicinal herbs.
The fair, which goes back to the 15th century, begins with an ‘Agni Puja’ (an obeisance to the fire god) for the well-being of humanity.
The Assam government, in its bid to promote this unique fair, had announced an ‘Annual Royal Allowance’ last year for the 19 customary kings from different communities under the Gova kingdom that included parts of three districts of Assam - Morigaon, Nagaon and Kamrup.
“The step taken by the Assam government is indeed welcome and we had been demanding it for long as the economic condition of all these customary kings is going down. We also urge the government for more assistance to hold the traditional fair which is unique in today’s world,” Mr. Deoraja said.