The short walk from the car park to the town centre has made me miserable. It’s -25 °C in Jokkmokk, Sweden, just above the Arctic Circle. Sub-zero weather, even with a sturdy pair of winter boots, a very warm parka, and two pairs of gloves, is enough to get the better of the best. I contemplate ducking into the first shop I find, temporarily abandoning the hunt for my friends, when I hear familiar voices behind me. I turn around to find Marc and Katrin, looking surprisingly cheerful, given the polar weather. They’re troopers all right, I think to myself, as I follow them into a coffee shop.
We’ve made the trip up to Norrbotten County of the Swedish Lapland to visit the famous JokkmokkVintermarknad or winter market, which has been held on the first weekend of February every single year since 1605. The market—an annual gathering held at the centre of the 3.6 square kilometre town—is a celebration of the cultural heritage of the Sámi. The Sámi people are indigenous to Sápmi or the Lapland area, which includes parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Like previous editions of the event, the 414th market we’re at sees the otherwise sleepy town of 3,000 odd people come alive, attracting as many as 50,000 visitors from all over the world. The town’s two hotels and one hostel are fully booked months in advance. Which is why people camp in neighbouring towns like Arvidsjaur, some 153 kilometres away. Busloads of tourists are delivered to the market each morning and hauled away each evening. By the end of the day, they’d have partaken in, amongst other things, snowmobile tours and husky-sled rides. The lucky ones who manage to find overnight accommodation might even catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis.
At Café Gaskass, where we have taken refuge, we strategise, and fill up on coffee and local pastries, hoping that the sugar will keep us going. The proprietress seems sympathetic as she watches us place our gloves and caps on the radiator. “You should layer animal skin closest to your skin,” she tells us. “It keeps the warmth in.”
In the early days, the market was a place for the Sámi people to meet, interact and trade goods. However, in 1606, King Karl IX of Sweden, who had annexed the (Swedish) Lapland into his own territory, saw the market as a fine economic opportunity. He sent his envoys to keep an eye on the goods being traded, which allowed him to extract a heavier tax from the Sámi people, and enabled him to bolster royal coffers. King Karl also employed a priest who would scold, punish, or absolve ‘sinners’—neither the court nor the church took kindly to the shamanistic practices of the Sámi.
Four decades later, the market that we witness is a testament to the resilience of the Sámi. Not only because they never let the cold climes get the better of them, but also because they’ve overcome a long history of marginalisation. What had once been the means to financially exploit them, has now evolved into an event that pays homage to what it means to be Sámi and plays a vital role in Jokkmokk’s economy. The brightly coloured kolt or gákti (the sartorial equivalent of a biodata, the embroidery often denoting the wearer’s hometown, age, or marital status), and the lukkha, a traditional poncho, is worn with pride. The bright colours are a stark contrast to the endless white around. Locals who aren’t wearing this are clad from head to toe in reindeer fur—hats, long coats, and pointy-toed reindeer skin boots, all of which we find on sale at the market. But these aren’t the only signs of the reindeer in Jokkmokk. The reindeer is everywhere!
Traditionally, the Sámi were nomadic reindeer herders, and even today their lives are inextricably linked with the animals. We walk down the main market street lined with stalls that sell reindeer meat in every form possible form. There’s vacuum-packed, dried, and smoked reindeer; reindeer sausage, reindeer salami, reindeer liver, reindeer tongue, and even packaged reindeer blood. The last one is used to make reindeer blood pancakes, and blodpalt or blood dumplings. Also on display are reindeer skin rugs, reindeer antler artefacts, reindeer paintings, posters and photographs for sale. The market has other stalls as well, selling tunnbröd (Swedish flatbread), a plethora of Swedish candy, grilled sausages in bread, and curiously enough, T-shirts with the logos of rock bands on them.
We’ve only walked through a small portion of the market, but the cold has already crept all the way into our bones. Luckily, we chance upon the Samenas Utbildungscentrum or the Sami Education Centre, which runs various skill-based courses for Sámi people, including traditional Sámi art and craft. Here we are introduced to duodji, a Sámi handicraft where the functional and artistic coincide. From the kåsa (a drinking cup carved out of birch burl), to the komse (a cradle made of a hollowed-out tree trunk, covered in reindeer skin), to leather purses, coffee bags, knives, and pewter jewellery, it’s a treasure trove. There are also plays, musical shows, dances and talks that shine light on Sámi history and culture.
Later, we manage to catch an indigenous fashion show on a ‘snow stage’, bright blue kolts and striking modern renditions of Sámi garments breaking up the cold whites. We also spot a reindeer caravan, led by local reindeer herder and festival favourite Per Kuhmunen and his family; visit the Attjes Museum, the gift shop, the Sámi Duodji art centre and the tourist centre. Our ambling is only interrupted by a quick pause for lunch at the cafeteria in the Education Centre. The dry Swedish air has left me completely dehydrated, and all I can manage is a bottle of water. But in the days leading up to the market, I’ve already consumed a lot of gamey reindeer meat, and the slightly subtler elk, so I don’t feel too bad. Marc tucks into a piping hot plateful of elk stew, complete with elk blood dumplings swimming in it. It’s a simple but rich dish, and as he later says, “The sort of meal I imagine the locals need to make it through the day.”
By the time we walk to the middle of a frozen Lake Talvatis, five minutes from the market, a crowd’s already gathered for the big show.
It’s time for the reindeer races. We find ourselves craning our necks, jostling for space with an enthusiastic audience. The races involve two competitors at a time. The reindeer stand side by side, each fastened to a sleigh. Then a person climbs aboard the sleigh and lies face down on it. On signal, the reindeer go galloping down the course, the intrepid rider hanging on for dear life. Not all make it to the finish line. We see a few riders flying right off their sleighs, while the reindeer continue to race. Other reindeer slow down and come to a halt midway. A stubborn one even plonks down at the start line and refuses to move. Nonetheless, everyone is cheered on loudly.
The sun sets early this time of the year, so we decide to leave soon after the races. I have a two-hour drive on icy roads to get back to my hotel in Arvidsjaur. As I leave the market area and drive onto the main street leading out of Jokkmokk, the town suddenly looks ordinary. Pretty and frosted exquisitely with snow, no doubt, but bearing almost no sign of the festival that’s taking place just a few hundred yards away. It’s the same feeling I get when I pull off the arrow-straight highway, to stop at the Arctic Circle landmark seven kilometres south of Jokkmokk. The sense that in the midst of something seemingly ordinary and mundane, something so surprising and extraordinary can lie tucked away. Like a whole incredible culture that flourishes all the way at the world’s end, and the people who are determined to keep it that way.
There are direct flights from Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru to Stockholm. There are domestic flights between the Swedish capital and Arvidsjaur, the nearest convenient airport to Jokkmokk (153 km/2 hr north). Buses between the two towns are infrequent, so a taxi or rental car are better options. For those not looking to visit Stockholm, flights from Indian metros to Arvidsjaur require two or more layovers and are more expensive.
Vaishali Dinakaran is a writer and journalist based in Berlin. She and her husband have a habit of driving around Europe at the drop of a hat, sometimes for no apparent reason other than that there are roads.