The ancient kings of Assam’s Tiwa community had banned currency in their kingdom to avoid disharmony
monalisa gogoi / guwahati
Come to Jonbeel Mela in middle Assam. Come to gaiety, singing and dancing, and come to community fishing. But please don’t come with money if you wish to get anything homemade or grown naturally, otherwise the Gova ‘king’ will punish you!
This is perhaps the country’s only cashless fair, where for three days and nights, money has no value, currency is totally banned and demonetisation has no effect. The simple tribal people do not care for change of currency bills like Rs 2,000 or of Rs 500.
Jonbeel Mela is a popular fair of a tribe known as Tiwa of middle Assam. It is held at Dayang Belguri of Jonbeel area .The fair is held from the end of the first week of Magh and usually it starts on a Thursday and ends on a Saturday. ‘Jon’ means moon in Tiwa language. And ‘beel’ means a waterbody. The fair is named so because it is held on three successive moonlit nights and at the banks of a crescent shaped wetland. The fair was started by the once all-powerful Gova king, who had powers over all the neghbouring kingdoms, including the Khasi and Jaintia kings of distant Meghalaya. In fact, there was no Meghalaya at the time the mela started in the 15th century. There were only small or large independent kingdoms.
The Gova king could have been something of Marxist, for Marx had said that money is the root of all evil. The Gova king’s tribal subjects were simple village folk, innocent and friendly. The king had banned currency in his kingdom because he felt that when people transact in currency, their innate fellow-feelings are washed away. Thus, to retain the sense of brotherhood, he had banned currency in his kingdom. He feared also that apart from making people somewhat mechanical, it would also mark out the rich from the poor and create disharmony.
The people obeyed the king implicitly. Till now it is believed by these people that the king is the embodiment of a deity, which is why he is called Deoraja, or God-King. So even now, the rule is that so far as traditional items are concerned, like rice, turmeric, ginger, potato, cotton, cane and bamboo products, chillies, pumpkin, lemon, poultry, eggs, aromatic rice, sesame, etc., one has to barter instead of buy these. You cannot buy them with money. However, there are other items that can be bought and sold, but not the homemade or farm products.
The mela had been organised from the 15th century for the King to interact with his subjects, for he would visit and stay at the mela for all three days. The present Tiwa king, Deep Singh Deoraja is the representative of that royal family and according to the rituals of the royal family,he comes to attend the mela with his ministers and at the end of the ‘mela’ he collects taxes from his subjects.
There was a tradition of the Gova king inviting the neighbouring kingdoms ruled by the Garo, Khasi, Jaintia, Bodo and other kings, and the latter would attend with their council of ministers. Even now such ‘kings’ exist and are known by their local terms, like the Siems or the Khasi Kings, and they still attend the fair.
‘Agni puja’ is an essential part of the mela and it is organised at the very beginning of the mela. ‘Agni’ or fire is worshipped for the well-being of mankind. After ‘agni puja’, community fishing starts at the ‘beel’ i.e, the nearby wetland. The fishing starts after the king has inaugurated the fair, following the fire worship, and goes on till the evening. But this community fishing is not merely to catch tonnes of fish, because these cannot be sold. Rather, the fishing is to build bridges to people’s hearts. The fishing boats become veritable music platforms, with typical Tiwa songs being sung constantly. The Tiwa songs and musical instruments are so popular that most Assamese musicians of today have used them to score success.
The tribal people of neighbouring areas like Meghalaya and Karbi Anglong also used to come to take part at this fair.People of different communities like Jaintia, Khasi, Karbi, Garo, Bodo and Rabha still take part in this festival. More than 10,000 tribal people come every year to participate.
These tribal people live mainly in the hilly areas and they are fully dependent on their agricultural products. These people are very simple and they have no relation with the artificial and materialistic culture of contemporary society. They come to the fair with their agricultural products and homemade items. They stay for three days in the bamboo huts, which are made by themselves. They sleep there and cook their food at the make-shift bamboo huts. They exchange their products which they bring down from the hills with the other people of plains areas and after three days they use to return to their homes. The norm is they should not have anything left to take back home after the fair. They come to attend the ‘mela’ ready with their all belongings. They dance, sing and engage themselves in other group cultural activities. On the last day of the mela people have a community feast, and at the time of farewell they burn their temporary bamboo huts. During the mela the people organise cock fights to attract common people.
The previous Congress government had requested UNESCO to declare the historic fair as a heritage festival. The present Cultural Minister Naba Kumar Doley says: “It is one of the oldest festivals of the world and it has a great significance because currency is kept far away and all buyers as well as sellers follow the ancient barter system.” The central idea is that the Tiwa community must not forget their original culture and the ruling against currency.
Everyone who comes here is addressed as mama and mami, or uncle and aunt. In Tiwa culture, these are the two most revered relationships: maternal uncle and maternal aunt. So having a common addressal works as a unifier. The emphasis on brotherhood, unity and fellowship is a prominent feature of Jonbeel Mela and has been continuing for centuries.
At a time when the Centre is trying to create a cashless India, this is really the most appropriate and suitable example where no cash transaction is allowed. The major difference between the policy of Modi and Tiwa king is that Modi wants to create a cashless India to remove corruption from the society, while the Tiwa king supports cashless transaction to foster harmony and to create a sense of brotherhood amongst different tribes and communities.
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