Into the Indian Unknown

Times a-changin’

One group that the early 20th-century authorities found particularly easy-going was the Apatani. It was a lovely yo-yoing drive up over Joram Top and down into the tribe’s secluded 35 sq km plateau. Cradled by pine-clad hills and glazed with rice paddies that uniquely double as fish ponds, the modestly prosperous Ziro Valley epitomises a rural idyll.

Ziro Valley

We began a full day’s exploration at Hong village with local guide Chada. Some neighbouring people knew the Apatani simply as the ‘tattooed’, he told us. Traditionally Apatani women bore facial tattoos and chunky nose-plugs to make themselves less attractive to those Nyishi raiders. “Most tattooing stopped 30 years ago,” Chada explained. As local youths headed down to Assam and beyond for more education, many girls and young women had been teased and laughed at. The practice had now virtually died out.

“But it wasn’t just stealing women,” he said. “We weaved cloth for [the Nyishi], and got paid with piglets. Also, they’d keep an eye on our roaming mithun.” Mithun? The semi-domesticated Indian bison, better known as gaur or gayal, which had long been a measure of wealth.

Hong was a microcosm of the Apatani world. With around 500 families, each of its four clans had their own low wooden ceremonial platform. Slender lanes fenced with bamboo poles threaded among cheek-by-jowl wood-and-bamboo houses. Most now had iron roofs – barely two decades ago dried grass was the norm – and villagers still proudly stacked their mithun horns, offered during ceremonies.

Many front yards bristled with masts that represented families’ boy children – doubling as fertility symbols. There were arcane little totems of matted bamboo to ward off spirits, part of the Donyi-Polo, or sun-moon, animist religion. “Most young people don’t believe in those now,” said Chada, though many homes were still flying the white Donyi-Polo flag with its red sea urchin-like motif.

Then we saw a prominent poster advertising a ‘Spring Healing Crusade’. “Missionaries,” Chada continued, “are very active here, coming mostly from Nagaland.” Since Itanagar we’d noticed numerous signs for ‘Nagaland tutors’ and Baptist- and Don Bosco- run schools. Chada reckoned everyone here got on well and that missionary activity had curbed excessive drinking among local men.

Later that day we admired the valley from atop a hillock overlooking a disused airstrip and then walked among the paddies as villagers planted seedlings. We came upon a group of old men chanting with an eerie stumbling cadence, almost like a skipping CD. They wore black plant-fibre wigs and mantles, and smoked rustic bamboo pipes.

“Shamans,” announced Chada, “praying for crops and water and to protect paddy dams.” Even as they offered us Pepsi, they were planning to sacrifice a couple of chickens – maybe a dog, too. “The dog’s for your safe journey!” Chada joked as we headed back to our hotel. What about the Pepsi? “That’s just modern: Arunachal is changing fast!”

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