Live Among the Humble Apatanis Before the Modern World Catches Up

Travel diaries: How a little-known Arunachal tribe is slowly giving in to religion, samosas and other modern quirks.

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Lifestyle
5 min read
Faces of Apatani women and an Apatani boy in the village. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

In March 2015, a friend and I travelled to the Ziro plateau in Arunachal Pradesh at the behest of another friend who lives there. The sights will not disappoint, he promised and besides, we’ll get to spend time among the fascinating Apatani tribes – settlers in the region for many centuries.

The Many Ways of Wining and Dining at an Apatani Home

Our visit coincides with the annual tribal festival of Myoko, about which I have written in an earlier article. The festival offers us a brief but intimate glimpse into the lives of the Apatanis – they appear genuinely thrilled to have us amongst them and treat us with great warmth and no visible mistrust.

Faces in the village. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
Faces in the village. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

The Apatanis are followers of Animism and so the festival involves ritual sacrifices of pigs and chicken. After the Shaman initiates the first ritual sacrifice, each house in the village performs one of its own. We too are invited into a home where we see a second sacrifice – after the one by the Shaman. It is carried out in the open behind the house, and once it is done, we return inside and are offered seats near the fireplace.

In all Apatani homes, the fireplace is constructed in the centre of the living room. Guests and family members sit around it on low bamboo stools, while the meat is cooked over the fire. We eat a little of the deceptively soft and juicy meat and drink a great deal of the local millet wine called Poré-Ó. It has a pungent odour but an agreeable taste.

A fireplace inside an Apatani home. (Photo Courtesy: Tadu Novin)
A fireplace inside an Apatani home. (Photo Courtesy: Tadu Novin)

We notice that women are not served the wine.

When I ask, a man offers a lengthy explanation of how these are outdated customs and not held in much regard now – but are still followed out of respect for the elders.

I later have breakfast in my friend’s house. There is pork and fish and more Poré-Ó – and also Maggi, which his mother has prepared in case we are unable to stomach the local cuisine.

A fish vendor in town. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
A fish vendor in town. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

The Apatanis use no spices and the meat is eaten only with lumps of Tapyo – an indigenous salt. While we chat, I ask her why every woman in the village doesn’t have the same traditional tattoos on her face. She explains it is only the older women who still carry them – and that that the younger ones, armed with modern cosmetics, no longer care to mark their faces.

In a few years, she observes, the tattoos may disappear altogether.

She also serves another local wine called Ó in a large mug. The wine is white and warm and she refills the mug each time we finish it, which is often. The Maggi remains untouched.

A store in town. Most shops are owned by migrants from Bihar. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
A store in town. Most shops are owned by migrants from Bihar. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

Trying to Figure Out How Biharis Came to Ziro

It is only in the villages that this style of cooking is still practised.

On other days, we look for places in town that serve it but don’t find any. What we find instead are shops that sell ‘puri-bhaji’ and ‘samosas’. We learn that most such shops are owned by migrants from Bihar. We try to find out how it is that Biharis came to Ziro in such numbers, but like it is with such things, nobody really knows the answer.

A puri-bhaji snack joint in town. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
A puri-bhaji snack joint in town. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

All the schools in town, I later learn, teach Hindi as a language and the teachers are Biharis without exception. We pass by a school one day, perched at a height that offers a magnificent panoramic view, and wonder what it might have been like if we were there as kids.

It is not often that we spot an Apatani in town and it seems to me that life in the villages rarely mingles with that in town, despite the symbiotic nature of their existence.

View from the school in town, as we perch ourselves at a height from which we may see this panorama. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
View from the school in town, as we perch ourselves at a height from which we may see this panorama. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

How the Apatani Tribes are Being Swept Up by Modernity

Much of the change in the Apatani lifestyle – the disappearing tattoos and the rapidly expanding concrete structures in Ziro – is a product of shifts in the tribes’ internal dynamics. The expenses of the Myoko festival, we are told, have become too much for many to bear and they sometimes seek a way out in the conversion offered by the odd church and Hindu workers in the region.

A church in the middle of nowhere. Often, the Apatanis seek conversion offered by the church. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
A church in the middle of nowhere. Often, the Apatanis seek conversion offered by the church. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

There is also an increasing ambition to market Ziro as a tourist destination, which will inevitably result in a rush of modernisation – such as the airstrip that is now under construction next to the old town.

Much of these insights are provided to us by a garrulous guide who accompanies us on the day we trek to the nearby Hakhe-Tari waterfalls. The trek lasts an entire day and on several occasions, the guide – overestimating our abilities – brings us much too close to disaster.

(It’s probably worth it in the end, since we return alive.)

 Women from the villages. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
Women from the villages. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

More on that in the next and final segment in this series…

(Kushal is a Bengali, brought up in Ahmedabad, and earning his daily bread in Mumbai. He travels and writes when he finds time away from selling SIM cards. He has also published for The Mint and rediff.com)

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