Barter by the beel

The centuries old Jon beel mela in Assam has a unique ritual- a barter between the tribes of the nearby hills and plains. Will urbanisation let the historic festival thrive?
25 Mar 2014
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Eatables laid out for exchange at Jon beel mela
Eatables laid out for exchange at Jon beel mela

This was my first time here. I had heard of this festival, perhaps the only existing one in India, where barter takes place at such a scale. Jon Beel mela in Jon Beel, Jagiroad Assam- a historic festival where people from the hills and plains come together for a unique exchange of goods and agricultural produce near a moon-shaped wetland. A place of extremes, of new and old, rustic and modern. 

The annual three-day festival has been celebrated since the 15th century at the end of Magh Bihu. First held under the aegis of the King of the erstwhile Gova kingdom, people from Tiwa, Karbi, Khasi and Garo tribes came together for barter, community fishing and dorbar where the King joined the people for a community feast.

The Nuan puja (prayer ceremony to mark the rice harvest) is carried out using the fish from the beel. Over a lakh people visit this festival and around 10,000 indigenous people from the distant hills come down all the way to celebrate with their counterparts from the plains. “If the beel is destroyed, the whole culture of fishing here, the mela may disappear”, asserted Jurshing Bordoloi, Secretary Jonbeel Mela Organising Committee.

Buying and selling. I progressed to find a huge sprawl of colourful commercial stalls in the field near the wetland, lined with everything from clothes to food, toys to knives. People plunged in, some alone, some in groups, bargaining for a rupee or two to get the best deal. The deal I was hungry to see was being set up on the other side.

People in groups arrived in tempos filled to the brim. These were people from the hills of Karbi Anglong in Assam and neighbouring Meghalaya packed with all their gear. Bamboos, hay, agricultural produce, tents- each group prepared to find a place and set up their own makeshift huts in the field for the barter, which was to take place in the wee hours of the next day. I watched silently as the huts were built in minutes.

One or two from the group dug a piece of earth to make a chulha for cooking jhum rice and fish or meat in bamboo tubes for lunch.

There are various dance performances by these communities, cockfights and fish melas during the fair. A group from Dimoria perform a dance on the joy of fishing.

The barter trade begins the next morning. People from the plains exchange pithas (traditional Assamese rice cakes), chira (flattened rice), fish and other eatables with Jhum ginger, turmeric, chilly, herbs among others with those from the hills- a unique ritual that has kept alive a feeling of give and take while money changed hands in nearby stalls, a few metres away.

People from the hills generally exchange their Jhum produce with fish and pithas with people from the plains, generally the stuff they cannot grow. “It is uncertain for how long this union of the people from the hills and plains would be able to thrive in the age of mechanization and urbanization. The exchange is turning into a business slowly. The commercial shops are increasing in number. The goods that are exchanged are reducing. The number of things that grew naturally in the forests has reduced. Earlier the people used to bring numerous kinds of things especially medicinal herbs to the festival. Now the variety has gone down”, commented Jurshing Bordoloi, Secretary Jonbeel Mela Organising Committee.

Mangaljyoti Bhuyan from Morigaon who has been coming to the Jon beel mela for the last 12 years exchanged pitha, jalpan and fish with the ginger, turmeric and gourds from the tribes of the hills. He says, “It is not profitable, rather expensive for us to give fish for vegetables. But we still do it as the festival brings all of us together. My forefathers also came and my children will also come”.

Community fishing is an important practice during this fair. People flock in huge numbers during this day to fish together.

For about 10 years now, the nearby paper mill’s effluents reach the beel from two sides. The water has turned smelly and the fish population and variety has deteriorated. “This time we have put two temporary barriers on the two sides of the beel in November to keep the polluted water from coming in so the people can fish. We dug the bed and also released around 30000-40000 fishlings in the beel. The agriculture here is impacted as the water has too much alkalinity. The fish has turned smelly”, added Jurshing Bordoloi.

“I have been fishing in this festival every year for the last three decades, the fish number has gone down, said Sunder Bordoloi, a teacher in Naukhula village, Jagiroad.


Its still cold in Assam in January but that is no reason to deter the spirit of the people. Hundreds of people throng to fish, some from the banks and some neck deep in chilled waters. After fishing for an hour or two, people rush to warm themselves near a fire

A fisherman shows his catch before leaving the beel

For ages now, Jon beel has set the stage for the festival to blend barter and business, hills and the plains and culture and modernization. Maybe it is time, the beel took a breather and got some attention from all those who benefit from it.

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