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Want An Offbeat Trip? Check Out Assam’s Joonbeel Mela Keeping The Barter System Alive

Posted: January 7, 2019

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Thinking of somewhere unusual to visit? Consider Assam’s Joonbeel Mela, place that continues to include the ancient practice of barter in today’s modern digital world. 

Let’s imagine we lived in an era, where Paytm, Phonepe, Googlepay, Big Basket, Grofers and the like are non-existent; you need to visit the supermarket every week or month to get your household supplies. You are waiting in the queue and you suddenly realize that you’ve left your wallet at home.

Can you imagine telling the guy in the cash counter, “Hey buddy, so the groceries I just bought are worth one thousand rupees; How about I pay you with two gold class movie tickets instead?” There is a ninety percent chance that you will be kicked out of line and the shop as well.

What if someone told you that there exists a place (a fair actually) that still follows this ancient practice of exchange, a barter system till date? Yes, there is a place where you can buy some fish for three bags of ginger or a bag of turmeric in exchange for a packet of pithas (delicacies made from rice).

Joonbeel – the name won’t ring a bell for too many people across the country. Located in a remote nook of Assam, JoonbeelPaar, (around 30 odd kilometres from Guwahati) where the mela is held, derives its name from the ‘Joonbeel’, a wetland shaped like a crescent. Joonbeel Mela is held in the month of January, around the time of Magh Bihu (the harvest festival of the state). A practice that began in the fifteenth century, the Joonbeel Mela was first organized by the Tiwa (Lalung) and Ahom kings, who not only gathered around to exchange goods but also to discuss the political situation prevailing back then.

Mostly bilateral in nature, two items considered to be of equal value are exchanged using a barter system as per the convenience of the owners. The three-day event is a big deal for the people of the state. People from every nook and corner of North East arrive for this mega event, where the theme is – harmony and brotherhood among the tribes and communities living in Northeast India.

Govaraja, the king of the Tiwa tribe makes an appearance to visit his courtiers and collect taxes from his subjects in the mela. Community feasts, traditional music and dance make the atmosphere lively and full of fun. Tribes like the Tiwa, Karbi, Khasi, and Jayantia come to Joonbeel Par loaded with various products they wish to exchange in the mela. People from the hills exchange goods they have in abundance for those less easily available in the hills, and so do the people of the plains. Ginger, fruits, herbs, and spices are extremely popular with people in the plains, while items like fish and pitha (rice cake) are in high demand among those from the hills.

Curiosity along with word of mouth has led to a surge in the number of visitors (from within the country and around the world) to this fascinating one-of-its-kind fair. There could be a few other ways that would draw people’s attention to the marvellous Joonbeel Mela. For instance, perhaps in the next video of ‘Awesome Assam’, Priyanka Chopra (the brand ambassador for Assam Tourism) visits the Joonbeel Par herself; or what if the Joonbeel Mela gets inducted to the list of UNESCO’s famous Intangible Cultural Heritage sites?

In the fast paced world that we live in today, getting things done is only a matter of a few clicks. Why not test your bargaining skills for a change and try and relive the barter system? Doesn’t it sound fun?

Top image courtesy the video shared above

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