The Little-Known Apatani Tribe of Arunachal is a Traveller’s Dream

Why you must visit the Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh – a delightful little tribe, famed for its hospitality.

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Lifestyle
5 min read
The Apatani women can be seen here, ready for Myoko. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

One of my great travel experiences so far is the day I spent in Ziro among the Apatani people during Myoko – their annual springtime festival. I visited Ziro for a week with a friend – most of it spent wandering aimlessly through stunning landscapes (as I mentioned in an earlier post) – but the day at the festival was always going to be the centrepiece of the trip.

The festival in its entirety lasts for a month, though the principal festivities are conducted within the first week. Beyond that, it lingers on in the homes of village folk that visit each other, eat and get drunk.

A home with its ‘babo’ – tall bamboo poles. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
A home with its ‘babo’ – tall bamboo poles. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

We have chosen to attend what is considered the most important day of the festival, armed with the privileged access that a friend who lives there provides.

The Apatanis – Among the Last Worshippers of Nature

On the day, we are picked up from the hotel by my friend’s uncle at dawn. There is a thick fog which glows as the first light of the sun reaches it. The uncle summarises the morning’s ceremonies on the way and encourages us to ask questions – not just of him but of anybody we want in the villages.

Entering a village inhabited by the Apatanis. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
Entering a village inhabited by the Apatanis. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

We learn that the villages in the plateau are divided into three groups and they take turns to host Myoko each year. The festival is hard on the finances, the uncle tells us, and the rotational system was introduced to allow villages time to save for it and recover from it.

We spot bamboo structures begin to emerge from the fog and realise we have entered a village. The occasional glow of a bulb illuminates a small area in a spectral haze. A little further, we hear voices and the murmur of people and finally see them materialise.

The main village priest - the Shaman - pictured right before the festival. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
The main village priest - the Shaman - pictured right before the festival. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

Now and then, the wild screeches of pigs pierce through. We finally reach a clearing where everyone has congregated near a large platform and find the pigs lying on the ground, tied to poles, ready for the sacrifice.

The ritual begins – pigs lie on the ground, tied to poles, ready for the sacrifice. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
The ritual begins – pigs lie on the ground, tied to poles, ready for the sacrifice. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

(The Apatani people are one of the few remaining followers of animistic religions – they worship plants, animals and the forests, and ritual sacrifices are their way of celebrating and worshipping nature.)

An old woman ready for Myoko.
An old woman ready for Myoko.

The women are dressed in resplendent white kurtas contrasted with bright blue and red skirts. They wear strings of multi-coloured beads around their necks and carry little bamboo pots filled with rice and wine. They pose graciously for pictures, and though they do not speak any Hindi or English, try to make conversation.

A woman wearing multi-coloured beads and currency notes around her neck, poses graciously for a photograph. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
A woman wearing multi-coloured beads and currency notes around her neck, poses graciously for a photograph. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

They also have several rupee notes pinned to their kurtas – nobody we ask is able to adequately explain why. An old woman, who is probably the eldest in the village, is dressed in darker shades and carries the traditional tattoo marks of the Apatani tribe on her nose, forehead and chin.

Of a Sacrifice, a Foggy Morning and Beautiful Hospitality

There is also a shaman and he is dressed in a dark Jilañ –with his hair knotted at the top of his forehead. He carries a knife in a sheath tied to his jacket.

An old man ready for Myoko. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
An old man ready for Myoko. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

The rituals begin at the shaman’s house, where the first ceremonial sacrifices of a chicken and a pig are made. The other pigs are kept on display near the sacrificial alter and are sprinkled with rice and wine. It is said that the shaman can divine the coming monsoon from the livers of the chicken and the hearts of the pigs. Both of these are, consequently, extracted and collected during the ceremony and the extraction of the pigs’ hearts in particular (while they are still alive), is a visual I see twice in that hour and do not wish to see ever again.

Ágyáñ – the markers for benevolent spirits in all Apatani homes. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
Ágyáñ – the markers for benevolent spirits in all Apatani homes. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

The fog has begun to lift and the village now basks in the warm morning light.

Most houses are made of wood and bamboo and are constructed in neat rows, elevated from the ground by wooden stilts. There are tall bamboo poles called ‘Babo’ at the entrances, at the top of which are horizontal blocks of wood from which bundles of thread are hung.

As the fog lifts, the village basks in the early morning light. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)
As the fog lifts, the village basks in the early morning light. (Photo Courtesy: Kushal Chowdhury)

The bundles of threads signify the number of male heirs in the family.

Later, we have a sumptuous breakfast at our friend’s house, which I will describe in greater detail another time. We spend the rest of the day moving through the villages, and are invited into homes and offered food and drink. The fireplaces are always warm, but the smiles – theirs and ours – are warmer.

I wonder how long it will be that the Apatanis and their ways will survive. Already, the inevitable march of modernisation is evident in the influx of outsiders and the churches and budget hotels in town – which make Ziro a fascinating place to observe, as a traveller.

I will explore this and other rewarding sights in Ziro in the next segments.

(Kushal Chowdhury’s travails through the hills follow in the same enchanting pattern he began this one – but that shall be saved for another post – next week.)

(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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