Posted by Pritisha Borah, Anirudha Borah, Ashim Kawah Nicholas, Shymolima Kakoti and Trisha Saika
“Joonbeel Mela, is more than a market fair for us. We come here every year and each year is new for us, we sing, dance and enjoys the space”, says one of the woman sellers at the Joonbeel Mela. She had come to the mela early morning with some of her locally grown vegetables like ginger, gourd, and turmeric. As the name suggests, Joonbeel mela is a market fair organised near a moon-shaped wetland. Joonbeel mela is based on the concept of ‘barter system’. It was first started in the 17th century and under the kingship of Gobha King of Tiwa. And since then every year, the Tiwa community group has been organising the Joonbeel Mela.
A three-day annual event, it is organised in January in the Morigaon district of Assam (which is around 32 kilometres from Guwahati). The first day of the Joonbeel Mela starts with rituals and the second day the barter system market fair startsearly morning with many cultural performances that last until late evening. On the third day, the Gorbha king attends the Joonbeel Mela and talks with the community members to knows their problems and challenges. Although the festival is all about celebration, for the Tiwa community people, it is also an opportunity to reclaim their tribal identity. Other tribal groups like Khasi, Karbi, Rabha, etc. also participate in the market.
Looking around the market, we found that the majority of the sellers are women. One of the women sellers of the Tiwa community present at the Joonbeel Mela shared that “Women are in majority here and it’s our traditions and customs which was passed to us by our ancestor. Women are mostly practicing it and like coming here”.
In the market fair, they sell agricultural products like ginger, turmeric, etc., which are cultivated in the hill area. The marker starts early morning around 5am and the exchange goes on till 10am. There is no appropriate and uniform measuring scale for exchanging goods. The only measuring scale that is used is a bowl. For instance, if you give one bowl of puffed rice, then in return you might get, say a bowl of ginger or turmeric of the same quantity. But if you have established friendly relations with the seller, then they might even give more than one bowl.
It is unique to see how the age-old tradition is still being practice in a modernist capitalist world. However, over the years the Joonbeel mela has extended beyond the traditional practice of just exchanging goods. Along with the vegetable market, there are a lot of stalls set up by different tribes who exhibit their traditional clothing and ethnic food. The Joonbeel mela‘s charm lies in the fact that it brings about a certain joy as well as financial autonomy to women of all age groups. When we reached the mela, the first sight that caught our attention was that of a few women dancing and singing to the tunes of traditional folk music. The joy of successfully completing the traditional rituals one more year was evident.
The women shared with us that the joonbeel mela is a platform to enjoy and assert their freedom, where they come and just unburden themselves for some time, all the while preserving their distinct cultural identity and customs. The women also said that the mela also facilitates communal harmony between the hills and the plains. The conflict between the communities of the hills and the plains can be traced to colonial times and the relationship with colonial masters as well as people from the plains have always been a matter to be studied and reflected upon.
Another thing that caught our eyes was the food corner of the mela. It was a corner serving some exotic indigenous dishes and local brew. Most of the stalls in the food corner was run by women. However the stalls were being operated by the men of some local tribes as well as tribes from different parts of Assam. The dishes served were smoked pork, smoked chicken, smoked fish, pork cooked with colocasia, snails cooked with lentil dal, etc.
We saw that this year, Joonbeel Mela has also given a platform to the local weaver communities. What resulted was a perfect combination of tradition and modern ideologies in one common space. The weaver community shared that there is a marginal profit bearing in the market. But the seller community shared that there is no profit-making in exchanging the goods but since it is a traditional practice, they were more than willing to do it.
The Joonbeel mela is a unique blend of traditions and customs with the women’s sense of freedom and liberty. Women sellers at the mela told us that they like to come to the market because they feel independent to come outside their house and negotiate with a mixed group of customers. They further shared that because at home their decisions are never prioritized, coming to the market helps them reclaim their freedom and mobility to live their life to the fullest for three days. sowever, for many of these women, reaching the market is a challenge in itself. Most of the women come down from the hill to reach the market. They start at three in the morning carrying the load of bags full of produce to barter. For three days they stay around the mela in a temporary shelter. There are also no proper toilet facilities for women and they have to defecate in the midnight and in an open area. But they are still happy to take the risk and bear challenges for what they get in exchange: three days of freedom, liberty, and dignity.
Joonbeel mela has been an avenue of freedom and a safe space to just be for the tribal women for three days. At the same time, it is a reflection of how a sense of equality and a respectful environment should be created so that the women don’t have to wait for a year to enjoys what is rightfully theirs and to feel independent. Safe spaces such as the joonbeel mela should be created in an organic and natural process.
Pritisha Borah is working in the development sector for the past year ten years with a special focus on women and adolescent health. Currently working in Assam and associated with Child in Need Institute (CINI), she can be found on Facebook.
Aniruddha Bora has completed MA in Social Work from TISS Mumbai, Around 3 years of experience in Public Health and is presently Working with Child in Need Institute Assam. He can be found on Facebook.
Ashim Kawah has completed MA in social work from TISS Mumbai, around 2 years of experience in adolescent health and 1 year experience in community development and is presently working in Child in Need Institute. He can be found on Facebook.
Trisha Saika completed her MSW in HRM from Centre for Social Work Studies, Dibrugarh University. She has two years of experience in Women’s rights and Adolescent Health. She can be found on Facebook.
Shymalima Kakoti has completed her MSW from NEF College and has a year of experience in Medical and Psychiatric Social Work. She is currently working in Child in Need Institute.
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