Jonbeel Mela: Bridging ancient traditions with modern influences

The Jonbeel Mela stands as a distinctive marketplace in Assam, diverging from conventional trade practices.
Jonbeel Mela: Bridging ancient traditions with modern influences

 Dipak Kurmi

(The writer can be reached at

 The Jonbeel Mela stands as a distinctive marketplace in Assam, diverging from conventional trade practices. Instead of the typical buying and selling with currencies, this fair revolves around the ancient tradition of bartering. Delve into the narrative of this bazaar, an enduring legacy from the era of the Ahom Kings, and unravel its intricate socio-political significance within the kingdom.

In a quaint village situated 65 kilometers away from Guwahati, a collective effort is underway, with everyone lending a hand to erect makeshift bamboo huts in anticipation of an extraordinary mela or fair. This annual event takes place in mid-January, becoming a focal point for the community’s vibrant activities. Under vibrant canopies carefully arranged on swatches of hessian or simple cloth, a diverse array of goods and delectable edibles await. Traditional apparel, including shawls, sarongs, and other indigenous garments, is meticulously displayed on expansive sheets and thoughtfully packaged for the festivities.

Tribal communities descend from their hillside abodes, bearing a rich bounty of spices, herbs, zesty ginger, and a medley of fruits. Simultaneously, their counterparts from the plains contribute essentials such as rice, an assortment of ’pithas’ (sweet rice cakes), and the freshest catch of fish. The vibrant display extends to encompass an eclectic range of offerings, featuring betel leaves, areca nuts, zesty lime, piquant black pepper, and mustard seeds, alongside the rustic charm of earthenware and ironware. Remarkably, even livestock makes its presence felt in this diverse showcase of regional abundance.

Within the three-day extravaganza of the Jonbeel Mela, the concept of commerce diverges from conventional norms. It’s a place where goods don’t exchange hands through typical transactions; instead, they engage in a centuries-old tradition of barter. For half a millennium, this haat, or traditional bazaar, has been the stage for this unique practice. Here, the creator of the goods and the prospective buyer engage directly, fostering a collaborative atmosphere where they negotiate and determine a mutually satisfactory exchange.

Set in the picturesque village of Dayang Belguri, nestled in the Morigaon District of Assam, the Jonbeel Mela perfectly aligns its schedule with the vibrant celebration of Magh Bihu, or Bhogali Bihu, marking the grand harvest festival in the region. In the local vernacular, ‘jon’ and ‘beel’ resonate with the Assamese language, translating to ‘moon’ and ‘wetland,’ respectively. This choice of nomenclature is not arbitrary; rather, it mirrors the fair’s enchanting location along the banks of a water body that gracefully mirrors the crescent moon’s shape, adding an ethereal touch to the festivities. Uninterruptedly orchestrated since the 15th century CE, the Jonbeel Mela, inaugurated by the Ahom monarch Swargadeo Rudra Singha (reigning from 1696 to 1714), stands as a unique testament to historical continuity. In an era where several fairs dotted the landscape, tracing their origins to the Ahom Kingdom of Assam, Jonbeel Mela emerges as the sole surviving representative of its genre. Beyond the realm of barter, these traditional fairs, including Jonbeel, served a broader purpose centuries ago. Their objectives extended beyond commerce, encompassing a profound political dimension aimed at uniting tribal chiefs. These gatherings became vital forums for these leaders to remain informed and engaged in the unfolding socio-political landscape of their time.

These gatherings provide an invaluable platform for the tribal communities in the region to forge connections and embrace a sense of unity and brotherhood. As tribal leaders delved into political discussions and state affairs, the common folk engaged in the lively exchange of news, information, and good-natured gossip. This communal interaction held particular significance in the context of North-East India, where the rugged mountainous terrain, interspersed with rivers and deep gorges, often acted as a natural barrier, isolating small communities from one another.

Delving into epigraphic and literary records, including the diverse Buranjis chronicling the reigns of the Ahom kings, a rich historical tapestry unfolds. Dating back to the 13th century, the Ahom Kingdom actively participated in both internal and external trade, dealing in textiles, minerals, and a bounty of forest products. Extending their economic reach, the kingdom established trade routes connecting with neighbouring nations such as Burma, China, and Tibet, threading through mountain passes and rivers. The transportation of goods took a remarkable journey, navigating the waters of the Brahmaputra in sizable vessels before continuing their maritime voyage to coastal ports like Tamralipti in ancient Bengal, positioned along the Bay of Bengal.

During the medieval era, the dynamics of domestic trade were rooted in the practice of barter, with the utilization of currency remaining significantly restricted. In his 1985 work, “A Comprehensive History of Assam,” the esteemed Assamese historian S. L. Baruah sheds light on the monetary system prevalent in the Ahom Kingdom. The currency of the time encompassed cowries—a flattened, yellowish shell distinguished by its glossy dome and slender aperture—as well as gold coins. Historical records reveal the existence of various denominations such as mohar (coins), sicca (rupee), adhali (half rupee), and others, which played a crucial role in facilitating trade beyond the borders of the Kingdom.

The economic landscape of the time was predominantly rural, with villages operating as self-sufficient entities. Shihab-ud-din Talish, the Mughal chronicler who accompanied Mir Jumla during the 1662 CE invasion of Assam, offers a glimpse into this agrarian society in his work ‘Tarikh-i-Assam.’ According to him, the prevailing custom in Assam diverged from the norm as the locals refrained from purchasing food items in markets. Talish notes that each household meticulously stored a year’s worth of diverse provisions, rendering them independent from the need to engage in buying or selling edible goods. This practice, as documented in ‘A Comprehensive History of Assam, Vol. III’ by H. K. Barpujari, highlights the self-sufficiency ingrained in the daily lives of Assamese inhabitants during that period.

Fascinatingly, certain locales earned their names based on the distinctive crops cultivated in their vicinity. Instances include Tamulbari, reminiscent of the flourishing garden of areca nuts; Panbari, where the cultivation of betel leaves prevails; Kamalabari, adorned with orchards yielding bountiful oranges; Benganabari, characterized by fields producing Rabi crops like brinjal; and Banhbari, a haven where bamboo thrives abundantly. This nomenclature reflects the intimate connection between the geography and the diverse cultivation practices, encapsulating the essence of each place through its agricultural prowess.

Historical accounts documented in multiple Buranjis shed light on a noteworthy practice of the Ahom kings. These monarchs frequently instituted local markets or haats across diverse locations, serving a dual purpose of fostering internal trade and maintaining harmony among the myriad tribes inhabiting the hills and plains. This strategic initiative not only stimulated economic activity but also functioned as a mechanism for the rulers to stay well-informed about the unfolding events within the Kingdom and its neighbouring regions. The establishment of these markets emerged as a prudent strategy, intertwining economic development with the imperative of maintaining peace and vigilance over the ever-evolving socio-political landscape.

In an illustrative example, the Ahom ruler Swargadeo Pratap Singha (reigning from 1603 to 1641) strategically instituted two bustling markets, Dopdar and Borhat. The purpose behind these endeavours was to foster a dynamic exchange of goods with the Nagas, hailing from the Kachari Kingdom. Similarly, Swargadeo Sutyunpha (reigning from 1714 to 1744) took a diplomatic stance by establishing a market at Marangi. This proactive measure aimed to cultivate and maintain amicable relations with the King of Cachar, showcasing the Ahom monarch’s adept navigation of political and economic strategies.

Among the array of haats, the most pivotal hub unfolded in Sadiya, nestled in the eastern extremity of Assam. This vibrant town served as the epicentre of commerce for the hill tribes scattered across the furthest reaches of the North-East. Within this bustling market, the Khamtis and the Singphos, representing the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, showcased a fascinating array of goods, from swords and spears to medicinal plants and ivory, along with copper and silver sourced from China. On the flip side, the Adis and the Hill Miris contributed to the exchange with their offerings of vegetables, wax, and cotton blankets, seeking a reciprocal trade with the plains’ produce. The Nagas and the Garos specialized in vending salt and cotton, while the Khasis and Jaintias displayed their wares, including iron implements and honey. This dynamic marketplace encapsulated a vibrant tapestry of trade where diverse cultures converged in a harmonious exchange of commodities.

An impactful endeavor credited to Swargadeo Rudra Singha was the inception of the Jonbeel Mela. This innovative initiative took root in the Gobha Kingdom, spanning the contemporary territories of Morigaon, Nagaon, and Kamrup. Its primary objective was the systematic collection of revenue from the diverse tribes dwelling in and around the region, as detailed in ‘A Comprehensive History of Assam, Vol. III’ by H. K. Borpujari. Notably, this mela has weathered the tides of time and shifting political landscapes, remaining a steadfast institution. Astonishingly, it clings to the time-honoured barter system as its modus operandi for trade, maintaining a link to the ancient practices that defined its inception.

In a time-honored tradition, the commencement of the Jonbeel Mela is graced by the inauguration conducted by the Gobha Raja, the eminent leader of the Tiwa tribe. This tribe, comprising both the Hills Tiwa and the Plains Tiwa, is under the regal stewardship of the Gobha Raja. It is noteworthy that the location of this vibrant fair, Morigaon, has a historical affiliation with the Plains Tiwa, adding a distinct regional flavour to the festivities.

With a solemn ritual, the Gobha Raja formally inaugurates the fair following the Agni Puja, a sacred worship dedicated to the Fire God. Subsequently, a communal fishing event unfolds in the expansive beel (wetland), characterized by men venturing into the waters. Armed with traditional bamboo fishing apparatus such as julki, jakoi, and khola, they skillfully engage in the age-old practice of catching fish, adding a cultural and traditional flair to the proceedings.

In the contemporary era, the Gobha Raja upholds the age-old tradition by gracing the fair with his presence and, even if merely symbolically, collecting taxes from his ‘subjects.’ This symbolic act serves as a poignant link to the enduring legacy of his forebears. The King, alongside his entourage, seamlessly blends with the diverse gathering of visitors. Engaging in camaraderie, they actively participate in the communal feasting along the picturesque banks of the beel, fostering a sense of unity and shared celebration.

While the Jonbeel Mela has not remained untouched by contemporary influences—evident in the allure of a colossal Ferris wheel that captivates today’s audience—its core essence remains resolute. Beyond the superficial infusion of modern elements, the mela proudly preserves its intrinsic identity, serving as a living testament to the foresight of the Ahom Kings.

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