Unique tribal fair in Assam where currency is taboo

January 17th, 2009 - 2:43 pm ICT by IANS  

Jonbeel (Assam), Jan 17 (IANS) Thousands of tribal people in India’s northeastern state of Assam Saturday did brisk shopping at an exotic bazaar where currency is forbidden.It was like a gala carnival where more than 10,000 tribal villagers from distant locations gathered at a sprawling roadside meadow near Jonbeel village, about 60 km east of Assam’s main city of Guwahati.

From puffed rice to salt, turmeric, wild potatoes, fish and fowl to fruits, villagers in their traditional costumes have set up makeshift stalls in this unique three-day annual bazaar that concluded Saturday.

“People here practice the age-old barter system with cash transactions considered a taboo,” Dipsing Deo Raja, the 17-year-old king of the Tiwa tribe in Assam, told IANS.

Dipsing, perhaps the world’s youngest living king, inaugurated the fair Thursday by invoking Agni, the Hindu fire god.

“People from distant locations come to participate at the fair carrying items ranging from rice to dry fish, bamboo shoots to poultry,” the king, a Class 9 student, said.

“They do their business like any other trader and at the end of the fair return to their villages happy and satisfied although there is no question of profit and loss.”

There is no recorded history when the Jonbeel mela (fair) first began.

“This annual barter fair is a part of the tribal tradition here and has been going on for ages,” Kip Teron, a community leader, said.

Most of those who came for the fair had to trek through dense jungles to reach Jonbeel.

“We brought turmeric and wild potatoes and we exchanged our items for some rice and salt,” said Hopsing Bey, a villager who came to the fair with his wife and two sons.

For the hundreds of people who come down from the hills and dales to participate in the fair, it is like a gala carnival - they set up makeshift bamboo and thatch huts for the three days and eat together in groups.

There are traditional kings among other ethnic tribes like the Karbi, the Koch Rajbonsis and the Bodos in Assam, besides the Khasis, Jaintias and the Garos in neighbouring Meghalaya state.

“The king conducts all religious rituals, settles land and matrimonial disputes, besides being the guardian of the Tiwa people. He is a highly respected person,” Titaram Bordoloi, a Tiwa community elder, said.

“Of course, the institution of kingship does not have any legal validity under the Indian Constitution, although for the people the king is the ultimate authority.”

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