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Meet Your Match

Tarnetar Mela is a kaleidoscopic glimpse of the tribal culture of Saurashtra in all its glory. Achal Dhruva experiences a matchmaking adventure

Horse races are the biggest draw of the fair

Tamare parannvu chhe? Khali chokaribatavi do, gada ma nakhi ne bhagadi jayiye” (Do you want to marry? Just point out the girl, we will put her in a bullock cart and whisk her away), the bharwad (shepherd) said with a twinkle in his eye, twirling his long mustache, his rugged face crinkling into a big smile.

I was shocked and rendered speechless. “Can it be so simple,” I began to wonder as I spied a group of nubile open-backed choli and bright ghagra-clad girls, decked up in ethnic finery passing by.

As if following my train of thoughts, the bharwad got off his bullock cart and asked, “Aamathi kai gami?” (Which one of these do you fancy?) and without waiting for an answer he began to walk towards the group with his mates.

The sight of men playing dandiya is mesmerising

“This is absurd,” my mind screamed as I frantically searched for help. My friend, who was enraptured by some coy village belles, was of no help as he was trying his best to capture the blushing beauties on frame. He was oblivious to the suspicious and threatening looks of well-built men-folk accompanying the belles. I was in no mood to be educated about the consequences of eloping with a girl and dragged him into the safety of the crowd before my self-professed pal - the bharwad and his mates actually played cupid for me.

It was a near escape and my heart was beating louder than the drums around me. ‘Tarnetar no melo’ (Tarnetar Fair), the biggest and most popular matchmaking tribal fair of Gujarat, is certainly not for the weak-hearted. It is the playing arena of the hardy tribals, men of action and passion, steeped in age-old tradition and art of eloping.
We had been lured a few years ago to distant Saurashtra in Gujarat for the famous three-day Trinetreshwar Fair or Tarnetar Mela with the promise of a kaleidoscopic glimpse of the social and cultural milieu of this incredible region. Clubbed with an opportunity to experience the age old tradition of swayamvar and young men whisking away prospective brides from the mela in the day and age of satellite television made it ‘a not-to-be-missed event’.

Women shopping for fineries

Tarnetar, a small sleepy village in Chotalia Taluka of Surendranagar district in Gujarat, comes alive with vibrant colours of celebration each year during the Bhadrapat season (August-September) with thousands of bharwads, rabaris (shepherds); kolis (labourers); charans (bards); kanbi (farmers); kathir, kath and other communities descending upon the 14th century Trinetreshwar (three-eyed) Madhav (Shiv temple) of the village, the site of age old mela. The three km area around the temple will once again witness the customary sea of humanity on September 10, 11 and 12, keeping the antiquated custom alive.

The importance of what we had presumed as an obscure fair hit home as soon as we took to the road. All traffic was moving in just one direction, towards the fair. People were packed like sardines on anything with four wheels that moved including the popular mode of transport, the chakada, a unique contraption consisting of the engine of an Enfield motorcycle attached to a trailer. Bullock carts and camels also plodded along at a leisurely pace among the vehicles, while horses cavorted just off the road, circumventing thousands of commodes (English toilet seats).

Thanghad houses the ceramics industry and the ingenious villagers had used the discarded commodes to build their compound walls, an architectural marvel, indeed!

The joyous cries of “Halo, halo, mela maa” (Come on to the fair) filled the air with palpable excitement. But nothing could have prepared me for the actual sight. The mela with its teeming populace in a riot of colour as far as the eye could see easily dwarfed any other fair I had been to.

The popular mode of transport in the region - the chakada

Three towering, sky-high giant wheels peppered with white clouds around them were clearly the centre of attraction for the crowd. The giant wheels not only dole out dizzy entertainment, but also expound the philosophy of the fair. Men in bright embroidered jackets, turbans and pajamas worn in dhoti-style, heavily decked with jewellery broke into an impromptu dance to the thunderous beat of drums accompanied by rhythmic clacking of dandiya sticks.

The sight of men jumping and twirling with such ease and grace was mesmerising. The beat was so infectious, that it was hard for anyone to stand still and many bystanders like me could not refrain from joining the group. This was the real thing, dandiya raas, in its purest form and the ground actually shook. Along with dandiya raas, one also witnessed other dances like huddo, characterised by a vigorous clapping of hands by two rows of men resembling high fives. This special dance of the shepherd community derives its form from the scene of two rams fighting.

Even though women were seen participating in the dances, one observed that they were relegated to the background and kept a low profile. The mela is mostly a male affair with men strutting about proudly in bright colourful dresses, parading on their horses, or having bullock cart races or just dancing. Bedecked with huge gold earrings, necklaces and silver chains around their waists, and huge colourful umbrellas in their hands, the emblem of the fair, they justified their region being known as peacock country.

The towering, sky-high giant wheels are the centre of attraction

The men holding the umbrellas were a sight to behold. According to custom, matches among the various castes are fixed in childhood, though the bride today steps into her in-laws house after she is 18 years old. Years ago, the colourful umbrellas made by the men folk would be an important sign for the bride to recognise the groom. The groom would tie the kerchief sent by his bride to the umbrella for her to recognise her soul mate. At the fair, the bride would recognise the kerchief and get the first glimpse of the groom to whom she was married off as a child.

She would then approach him and the couple seeking an opportunity would get away from the forbidding glances of elders and spend some time alone. If the groom was impatient, he would elope with her without further ado.

What I found striking in the whole scenario is that it is the woman who makes the first move in this part of rural India. This has made the fair one of the most important matchmaking fairs in Gujarat.

The fair may no longer be a traditional affair of culture isolated from the outside world, what with rows of stalls selling all kinds of household utilities and decorative items found in the city, it is still very much a spectacle for urban folk and foreigners. Even though, we had failed in our quest of witnessing the romance of a true blue traditional elopement (not counting my near brush with tradition), we more than made up at the bullock cart races and horse races. These are the biggest draws of the fair and pride of the entire village is put on the finishing line.

Truly, there is never a dull moment at Tarnetar.

 

Fast Facts
Fair Dates: September 10-12, 2002
Nearest Airport: Rajkot, 84 km away by road, while Ahmedabad is 196 km away via Chotalia.
Nearest Railhead: Thanghad, which is on the Ahmedabad-Rajkot line. Trinetreshwar Temple is 10 km from Thanghad. Details of stay at the fair and organised tours are available with Gujarat Tourism offices.
Clockwise: The 14th century Trinetreshwar Madhav temple; handicrafts of the region on display; and tribals break into an impromptu dance