UNESCO’s proposition of hailing the Ziro valley, home to the Apa Tani tribe of the Tani belt in Arunachal Pradesh, as a World Heritage site, is only justified. With an incredible lifestyle and an indomitable determination to not be threatened by extinction while also preserving their tradition, closely observing this tribe is one of the most insightful experiences for a traveller.
Nestled in a virgin, snug gold and green valley of the Lower Subansiri district of the farthest north eastern state of India, the Apatanis are a 30 generation old ethnic group of the eastern Himalayas. Their manner of embracing modernisation while proudly wearing the beliefs of the tribe elders is so distinct, it is exclusive. From trying to communicate with the tourists to making a place around the warm hearths of their kitchens for all visitors, this tribe will sustain through the odds of rapid changes in the world.
The beliefs of the Apatani tribe are strongly rooted in paganism, evidenced in their agricultural norm of not using animals or machines. The animistic religious belief of Donyi-Polo, literally meaning Sun-Moon, also has shamanic influences wherein their determination of good, bad, right and wrong are dependent on the natural ordinance. Ethics of the religion translate into honesty, purity, simplicity and the beauty of simply being. Their practice of pisciculture on their paddy fields is one of the most admirable eco-friendly tactics that the world could borrow from. An extremely hard working and efficient tribe, the members of the tribe start their day at 4 am, carrying their bamboo baskets on their heads as they trudge towards the endless fields, each helping one another. It can conveniently be stated that bamboo is the lifeline of their culture as it makes its way into their recipes, manner of smoking their food, the structure of their houses, utensils, furnishings, taps and apparel. Their exquisite style of brewing apong or rice beer and kiwi wine from the Ant Tari, a local fruit, is a treat for all.
Wearing their history
The visual representation of tradition and anecdotes from the history of the tribe is extremely intriguing. The Apatani men and women are a delight for story-hunters. The distinct nose plug adorned by the women with face tattoos comprising of a single vertical line across the middle of the forehead and lines on the chin have an interesting story. The Tibeto-Burman Apatani women are considered the most beautiful women of the state. A boon is a curse concept applies as men from other tribes would visit the valley and steal the women. Rumours often state that as a mark of self-defence, the women would deliberately try to look ‘ugly’. While some would agree, most of the Apatani folk state that the distinguished trend was to set them apart from other tribes. The older men can be observed with similar face tattoos and a distinct voluminous hairstyle with a dart like stick holding up a knot right above their foreheads. It is not uncommon to find them in loose clothes and wearing what to the modern world would qualify as underwear. It is suited for their tasks of carpentry, food storage and cultivation among others. However, with changing times, the younger generation is now going to schools and colleges, picking up other languages like English and Hindi, and are moving away from the norms. Their bastis or villages are now laced with men, women, girls and boys whose clothing styles are more occidental in nature. They celebrate their roots only on special occasions when they would dance to their traditional songs – during their agricultural festival of Dree or their distinct festival of friendship Myoko or even during ZFM or the Ziro Festival of Music which is now an annual festival in the valley. During ZFM, hundreds of women of the valley dressed in white, red and blue mesmerise tourists and festival attendees with their welcome dance called Daminda.
In the face of modernisation, however, as the younger generation is slowly finding exposure and ways to connect with the world in the land of no radios, they are now putting up a fight against some customs that they find objectionable. The practice of polygamy, the inherent patriarchal nature of rituals of sacrificing the Mithun, a member of the cattle family only found in the North-East of India, when a boy is born, the nature of adorning the altar above the houses with strings representing each male child, the lack of scope for divorce for a woman who wants to put an end to her marriage are all challenges that they are trying to deal with.
It is, however, delicate to preserve traditions while also admonishing certain practices. The increasing contact with urbanity has its downsides too, as they are threatened with watching their traditions transform into just another jigsaw piece in the maze of progressiveness.