Septuagenarian Ramsing Ingti was advised by doctors some five years ago not to trek hill ranges as he had cardiac problems. But this advisory could not stop him from continuing with a one-day trek down the hills of Karbi Anglong in Assam to the plains of Morigaon, adjacent to the mighty Brahmaputra, carrying a headload of home-grown vegetables and country fowl and meet his friend Bidyanath Bordoloi from Nagaon.
Bidyanath, a 64-year-old farmer, is a proud father of two doctors, but he is still rooted in traditional organic rice farming and come every winter he waits anxiously for Ingti to exchange his home-grown paddy with what Ingti brings. In this way Bordoloi and Ingti are keeping their friendship alive and are proud being part of centuries-old tradition in Assam where people from the hills and plains get together once a year and buy and sell their commodities―barter trade without any monetary transaction.
Like Ingti and Bordoloi, thousands of people from across Assam and neighbouring Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh have been part of this tradition of seamless cashless transaction for three days every year at Joon Beel Mela, an annual barter fair in Assam, that dates back to the reign of the Ahom Kings and has reference in royal documents of the 15th century.
“I have been coming here since childhood with my father. I have known Bordoloi and many others through this fair. It is like a pilgrimage for me. And I will keep coming to Joon Beel Mela till I die. It is far beyond buying and selling stuff on barter, which has been our age-old transaction system when there was no currency. We must keep tradition alive, pass on the knowledge of traditional cashless transaction to the next generation, build communal bonhomie and above all making friends,” said Ingti as he entered the mela.
A week after Magh Bihu, a wetland locally known as Joon Beel (moon shaped wetland) in the nondescript village of Dayang Belguri in Morigaon district, some 90 km from Guwahati, becomes a major attraction for people as tribals attend the annual fair. “In this fair, for ages the hill people have been carrying headloads of home-grown items and exchange with us. We give them rice, jaggery, woollen and lentils. This is perhaps the world’s oldest barter trading system which is till alive. But the government is taking no initiative to keep it up and running,” Bordoloi laments.
This year, the three-day fair concluded on January 23. Being held on the banks of a wetland, the fair starts with community fishing. In the Joon Beel, indigenous fishing equipment are used and people from different communities fish together in the wetland and later partake in eating food together.
The fair is unique and important in many respects. Assam has seen many bloody ethnic riots and conflicts. Unity has always suffered badly in the multi-ethnic society yet people have fought and lived together. Joon Beel Mela acts as a melting pot of ethnicity with people from different communities of the hills of the northeast meeting the dwellers of the vast plains, exchanging their goods only through barter and it strengthens the bond of ethnic bonhomie. This fair is a legacy of Gova Raja, the Tiwa community king who started this fair where the ground rules of getting any item is that there is no use of money, only barter.
It is one event in Assam where tribals and non-tribals, hills dwellers and plains settlers will rub shoulders and enjoy the annual cock fight which is also part of the fair. Though there is a pressure from the government to keep the cock fight out of the ambit of the fair, this time, the events were held.
“In the remote hills, we have to pay a lot of money to get essential items even today. Thus this traditional fair is life-saver for us. I have seen my parents exchange goods through barter in this fair. After marriage I have kept the tradition going. Here, we collect stocks in barter so there are no worries of inflation,” said Madhab Rabha, who came from Sonapur.
It is not just people from rural and remote areas who come to the fair. Even people from urban settlements, including Guwahati, flock to the fair to enjoy the essence of cashless trading. The ado for many is that this fair had remained confined to the northeast.
The Tiwa head inaugurates the fair and also collects tax from the tribals as it used to be decades ago. This was the time when the kings of the erstwhile Gova kingdom took stock of their people, their regime and discussed matters with general public. The fair always ends with a traditional durbar held by the titular Gova Raja. This time even Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi attended the durbar as a special guest.
“The Assam government has also chipped in to promote the unique fair. It now gives annual royal allowance for the 19 customary kings from different communities under the erstwhile Gova kingdom of Assam. The old-trade system might not be pertinent today but the fact remains that here you can see there is no fight over any deal because money is not involved,” said Jor Singh Bordoloi, a prominent elder of the Tiwa community.
Perhaps, it is time the Assam Government promotes Joon Beel Mela as a state event to build bridges of communal harmony.