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Into the Indian Unknown

The ethnic experience

Three days later we pulled into Itanagar, Arunachal’s bustling subtropical low-rise state capital. We’d come less out of desire than convenience. Yet Uday insisted we drop by the Jawaharlal Nehru State Museum and it proved an unexpectedly worthwhile introduction to Arunachal’s great tribal belt.

India officially recognises at least 12 main ‘Scheduled Tribes’ in Arunachal, comprising about 70% of its population. Yet in the museums large hall I counted 27 distinct sets of mannequins, each depicting a tribal group. All wore traditional clothes while painted backdrops evoked their typical milieu. Upstairs were decent displays of their utensils and weapons, and everything from their penis gourds to their ear plugs. We’d already met the Monpas and fleetingly seen Sherdukpens; here were more groups with enigmatic names: Tagin, Galo and Mishing, Wancho, Memba and Nocte.arunachal-pradesh-1

Yet these displays are a memorial, too. Today, in all but the remotest parts of Arunachal, the tribes’ distinctive dress is fading; with mobility and modernisation, their cultures are gradually homogenising. Even the word ‘tribe’ seems loaded with skewed connotations suggesting primitiveness or wildness. The ethnic experience’, as 1 came to regard it, was proving more subtle than I imagined – a good guide was invaluable.

Playing dress-up

Next morning as we weaved through the hills north-east of ltanagar, Uday announced we were in Nyishi country. Huts of matted cane and bamboo stood on cement piles; the longer huts, he told us, indicated multiple wives. The Nyishi used to be known as warriors with a penchant for stealing the women of the nearby Apatani people.

That’s all history now and, said Uday, even in the past ten years the daily wearing of traditional garments has noticeably diminished.

We strolled through a Nyishi hamlet and paused by a hut where he began chatting to a young woman. Asha Tago was 19 and looking after her young niece while her family weeded a nearby pineapple field. Within minutes we all sat cross-legged inside her home where rectangular hanging frames – for utensils and curing meat – hung over a central hearth of packed earth. There were just two other rooms: a tiny kitchen and a dressing-room cubicle.

Vintage fashions: Asha Tago, a young Nyishi woman, wears traditional attire while gazing out from her family’s simple hut in the hills northeast of Itanagar, state capiral of Arunachal Pradesh

Uday and Asha chatted in Hindi: she liked fashion design, there might be a chance to reach Chennai to study… but there were always village chores, she was always busy. Minutes later she left the room, before emerging, beaming. “Now, like everyone, I only wear these for festivals or special days,” she said. She wore a plain cream cotton gown, with beaded necklaces and a sash of hat-shaped silver-alloy roundels. Her headband combined turquoise beads and cigarette-sized alloy cylinders. It was simple yet very pretty. And we’d unwittingly slipped into a kind of voyeurism only slightly offset by her enthusiasm.

It was hard now to imagine a culture of raiding and women- stealing, of pillaging and skirmishes over what superstitious villagers once called ‘sickness-carrying’. The countryside was muscular yet picturesque, villages appeared sleepy and tranquil, and people were open and friendly. Yet pre-Independence reports show authorities vexed by tribal raids, slavery and trade-hindering blockades; often they were simply perplexed by the vast and difficult terrain.

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