About seven kilometres into a detour from the busy National Highway 37 in Assam’s Jagiroad, at a place called Dayang Belguri, colourful tents and a tall Ferris wheel adorn the horizon in preparation for a 500-year-old indigenous fair. Held since the early 17th century (some accounts place its origin in the 15th century), the Jonbeel festival is a three-day annual festival organised by the Tiwa tribe in Assam and Meghalaya.
Touted to be the only regular event on the planet where the barter system is still practised, the Jonbeel festival attracts people in large numbers from the Tiwa, Karbi, Khasi, Rabha and Jaintia communities living in the border villages of Meghalaya and Assam. Unsurprisingly, a lot of fresh produce and local poultry is on display during the festival, including some vegetables that are seldom sold commercially, but none of that is stuff money can buy.
The Jonbeel Mela is also an event that has kept the relevance of tribal kings alive and features the Gobha king's visit on the final day when he holds a durbar and listens to his people's complaints.
It is a time when the Tiwa community, which has split into Hills Tiwas and Plains Tiwas over the years, all come together to celebrate the harvest through community fishing, cockfights, dance and music.
This year’s Jonbeel festival — which also featured undertones of the popular opposition to the newly passed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 that multiple tribes have already voiced their antipathy to — saw all of that, and some more.
Groups of families from a particular hill town or village hire a truck to make the journey to the venue. It is often not an easy ride, as they have to fit all essentials and food supplies for three days, in addition to everything they intend to sell at the fest.
The much-awaited exchange of vegetables at the Jonbeel Mela begins hours before sunrise on the second day, just as the last Garo families make their way to the venue with sacks in their hands and infants on their backs. By 4.30 am, the marketplace is bustling with people from over six different tribes and across age-groups, all trying to find a spot to set up shop.
Tiwa and other tribespeople from the hills bring with them ginger, turmeric, taro, chillies, wild fruits, berries, among other things that grow primarily in higher altitudes. Very often, vegetables on display are never spotted even in the local markets, the vendors confirmed.
Although most food items grown in the plains are now available in the hills as well, the barter system here features items representing the harvest in lower climes — pitha and other items made from rice flour, roasted rice flour, different breeds of sticky rice, rye and a variety of dried fish.
As Laichong Mithi prepares her tomato gravy for an early lunch on the first day of the festival, she says that coming to the Jonbeel Mela was never a ritual before she got married to Phulbor, whose Tiwa family has been partaking in the annual barter for generations. Hailing from Balikunji, a hill town four hours away, Phulbor has been coming to the fest all his life, first accompanying his father and later his wife, to sell ginger, turmeric and chillies that grow in his backyard. Both Phulbor and Laichong agree that the Mela has changed face over the years, with the inclusion of “many people who are neither from the hills nor the Indian plains”.
The Jonbeel Mela this year saw participation from outside the North East as well. Mithilesh Chowa (right), who hops from festival to festival selling fabric, reluctantly admitted that he hails from Siwan in Bihar. “It is my first time here, but I tell people that I live in Jagiroad. You never know who will get angry at the mention of Bihar,” he said.
On the second day of the Mela, members from every Tiwa family and dozens of other communities in the region come out to catch freshwater fish at the beel (lake).
Other than children and the occasional reporter, everyone has a fishing net in their hand, a bag tied to the waist to carry the fish, and a song on their lips.
It is a day when everyone comes out to have some fun, knowing fully well that the lake is highly unlikely to have fish for all of them.
Without warning, groups of 30 to 40 people jump into the freezing water with their nets, searching the shallow lake for small fish. As their songs get louder, so does their xenophobic cursing aimed at the fisherfolk clad in lungis.
It is a difficult day to be a fisherman with a beard (or a lungi), given the consistent “Go back to Bangladesh” chants one gets to hear from the advancing crowd of amateur fishermen. This gentleman (in the picture) remained on his makeshift seat for over two hours, patiently dipping his net back into the water every time it failed to catch fish, and occasionally lifting his gear out of the water to make way for the fishermen on foot.
The Tiwa tribe is said to have one of the richest cultures of folk songs and dance in the region, a glimpse of which was on display during the festival as well. About ten separate groups from both Hill and Plain Tiwa communities performed in traditional attire on the second day, stressing on the need to preserve some half-forgotten customs.
Another item in the list of traditional events that the Jonbeel Mela boasts of keeping alive is the local cockfight, held on the second day of the fest. Although raising fowl for fighting is an ancient practice in the region, cockfights have not always been a regular feature in the Mela, according to participants at the venue.
Gobha king Deep Sinh Dewari is a young leader of the Tiwa community of Assam and Meghalaya. “I would prefer it if you didn’t record. I’m not too good on camera,” the young, camera-shy king says as he prepares to oversee the conduct of yet another Jonbeel Mela.
“The festival is now bigger than it ever was before, partly because of its growing popularity outside our region and partly owing to government help,” the Gobha king said. The magnitude of the fest is only a reflection of multiple other customs that have evolved, including the graduation from an elephant to a car as the king’s preferred mode of transport.
The present king is also the first one to be a son of another king. Until his father’s turn, the Tiwa tribe observed the unique custom where the son of the king’s sister succeeded the ruling leader. But that hasn’t made his job any easier. Being made king at the age of six, after his father’s demise, the Gobha king has had to follow a long list of traditions to win the respect of his people, including several restrictions, such as not having a day job.
Smoked pork, smoked local chicken, smoked shrimps and smoked crabs. Over fifty food outlets spread across the venue served these traditional smoked meats all day, along with bottles of the very popular homemade rice beer and other ethnic dishes.
By nightfall every day, the festival changed its character and transformed into what is more typically understood by the term ‘mela’. Magic shows (in the picture), cotton candy stores, mini carousels and a large Ferris wheel replaced everything traditional that was seen in the mornings, and the transformation brought with it huge crowds from the nearby Assamese towns.
—All photographs have been taken by the author.