An Assamese tribal fair where money is taboo

Last Updated: Mon, Jan 21, 2008 06:50 hrs

Jonbeel, Assam: It's like a gala carnival with thousands of people shopping amid the cacophony of pop music - the only difference is that currency is forbidden in this exotic fair in Assam.

More than 10,000 tribal villagers from distant locations gathered at a sprawling meadow at a roadside village in Jonbeel, about 60 km east of Assam's main city of Guwahati, for the three-day fair that ended on Saturday.

From rice to turmeric, wild potatoes, fish and fowl to fruits, villagers in their traditional costumes set up makeshift stalls in this unique annual bazaar.

For more news, analysis click here>>

"The most interesting aspect of this three-day fair is that people practice the age-old barter system. Cash transactions here are considered a crime," Dipsing Deo Raja, the 15-year-old king of the Tiwa tribe in Assam, told IANS.

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

"It is a sight to watch, with people from far flung areas coming to participate at the fair carrying items ranging from rice to dry fish, bamboo shoots to poultry," the king, a class nine student at an English medium school in the neighbouring Meghalaya state, 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," he added.

Hopsin Bey, a Karbi tribal farmer, trekked through dense forests for about eight hours to reach Jonbeel.

"I and my wife came with some turmeric, garlic, and sticky rice. In matter of hours we traded our items in exchange for some sugar, salt, and dry fish," Bey said.

His wife Pramilla said the fair acts as a meeting ground for scores of ethnic groups.

"It is pure fun here as we meet people from various other tribes," she said.

Like the Bey's, there are many families who visit the annual Jonbeel fair regularly.

"Me and my family have come here from a very distant village only to see the boy king and pay our obeisance to him," Timola Amsih, an elderly Tiwa tribal woman, said.

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

"This fair is a part of the tribal tradition here and has been going on for ages. There is no recorded history as to when the Jonbeel fair first began," N Barbaruah, a Tiwa tribal elder, said.

"It is our endeavour to keep alive this ancient annual barter fair. The day this fair is stopped means the end of tribal culture and our roots."