Iew Duh: Shillong's Marvelous Local Market

I love visiting local markets. While I love that extra hour of sleep in the morning, if it’s my turn (sometimes even if it’s not!) to go to Russel Market to pick up the supply of vegetables for Wednesday’s culinary practical class and restaurant service, I am more than willing to sacrifice that extra snooze. I rarely ever go with the desire to buy a lot of things. Rather, I get a childlike sense of excitement at the opportunity to see and explore the market, whether Russel Market or the Yelahanka Sunday santé (municipal farmers market) or the Madiwala market (read about that here). And it was the same sense of excitement I got when I visited the local market in Shillong – the Iew Duh market.

Iew Duh pronounced “Yoh doh”, means barra bazaar, or big market, and is the market locality of Shillong – much like the Chickpet market in Bangalore or Kalbadevi market in Bombay. Sprawling, and positively bustling at almost any time of the day, it is not hard to get lost in Iew Duh.

The crowd at the entrance square of Iew Duh in the evening

My friend Angel, with whom we stayed in Shillong, dropped us off at the main square where the market began. She cautioned us not to try and buy a lot since we were not locals and were sure to get grossly overcharged by the vendors. We decided to just explore for now, and hold the shopping till Angel came back later, to help us by bargaining in Khasi.

We entered the main square and took off into one of the lanes – all the narrow alleys looked the same to our unfamiliar eyes. Shops and stalls were spilling over into the tight walking space; hoards of shoppers were bustling past going about their weekly shopping; vendors were calling out their wares and rates in perhaps one of the oldest forms of ‘Guerilla’ marketing – it was both exciting and overwhelming!

Many areas of the market had rows of vendors all selling the same wares. There was one lane that was lined with ladies selling betel nut (kwai in Khasi) and betel leaves. They sat there observing the passers-by; their hands working almost on autopilot as they ripped the husk off the tender betel nuts with their folding knives and tossed them into a pile with the other peeled betel nuts. There was another lane selling freshly plucked chickens over small wooden table stalls, all hung out on hooks for customers to choose from. Yet another lane inside was full of shops selling dried fish, piled high!

At every corner, I saw new kinds of vegetables and fruits, completely alien to me. It was like stepping into the food section of the Codex Seraphineanus! (The Codex is a comprehensive illustrated encyclopaedia about an imaginary alternate world, with an entire section on food - it is even written in it's own indecipherable language and script.)

The outlandish vegetables featured in the food section of Codex Seraphineanus 

It was nearly impossible to stop and take a closer look at the produce with the bustle – each time we tried, we were nearly carried down the lane by the moving crowd. It was even harder still, to begin the tricky conversation with the vendor about what these roots, shoots and leaves all were. First I would point and ask ‘What is this?’ They would giggle at me in amusement (people always seem to get amused by my curiosity about seemingly mundane things, especially in markets or kitchens…). Then they would try to explain to me in Khasi. I would look at them, even more, confuse than before, and try to compare it to something familiar to me and ask again. Eventually, I ended up settling for a photo of the ingredient, making a mental note to ask Angel, later on, what it was.

Just two of the many many alien vegetables and fruits I stumbled upon

As we wove through the market, into one alley, out another, we finally crawled through a small lane between two buildings and tumbled out into a large open square! In the centre of the market was this bustling square – seemingly the fresh vegetable section of the market. It had no gateway or designated point of entry; its only access was through alleys and passages between buildings. It was almost like a secret courtyard of vegetable sellers, only for those who knew where to find it – and by some chance, we had stumbled right into it!

The vegetable square tucked away in Iew Duh

In the square sat vendors, with sacks and baskets brimming with fresh chillies, tubers, beans, greens, what not! They were seated on tables, stools, and benches, on mats spread on the ground – and were seated in no particular pattern or systematic arrangement. It’s as though they just set up shop wherever they found some space, and shoppers’ had to use their ingenuity to find pathways to get to their vendors of choice.

A vendor we bought chillies form in the vegetable square

It somewhat fantastical to chance upon this square just as dusk was upon us – not that it was very late in the day, being in the Bagan Time Zone, and with winter setting in, sunset usually came around 5 pm in October.  

The market looked almost fantastical as the sun descended in the sky

We began to find our way out of the market and waited for Angel and her family to come back for us. They were to help us bargain and buy a few things we wanted to bring back from the market and also do some of their own weekly shopping.

An adorable old lady from whom we bought some Lakadong turmeric 

Once they joined us it was a very well planned and executed pursuit. We went in, they knew exactly what they needed and where to find it, we bought our stuff and left. There you have the wonderful contrast between meandering, exploring tourists and well-versed locals in a market!

Our loot from Iew Duh

We spent at least three good hours exploring the market and still we had not even covered a small section. We had not even ventured too deep into the areas selling non-food goods like tools, kitchenware, jewellery, bamboo mats and fishing baskets, and who knows what else! But then that’s market exploration for you – each time you go you see different facets and with each visit, there’s something new to stumble upon.

Note: Some vendors weren't too happy about me taking a lot of photographs and so I took limited photos and restricted photos of individual sellers only to those I made purchases from - after asking their permission. But here's a lovely photo story of Iew Duh by travel blogger Amrita Das, if you'd like to see more visuals.


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