Author: Irena Frīdenšteina
North-East India is the least explored part of the country. Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland regions are so called hidden part of the world, and there is a good reason for that. These regions are rarely visited by foreigners, be they tourists, photographers or anthropologists. Most people across the world have no idea that such places even exist. Tribal India is completely unknown, and even Indians themselves have no knowledge that there are tribes with ancient culture, living next to them.
To get there, a special entry permit and a decent dose of patience are required. They charge some money for Arunachal Pradesh permits, which are fairly easy to obtain, yet it's not the case with Nagaland permits. Although free of charge, getting one can be quite a challenge, due to disturbances and political instability in the region, as Nagaland desperately strives for secession from India. A copy of a permit is supposed to be sent for review to a total number of 19 officials, and one has to stick to the approved itinerary and register at each check point, no deviation allowed, or else - a travel agency may even lose its license.
In order to get a Nagaland permit, a travel agency had to produce a fake marriage certificate for my travelling companion and me. According to local rules, two opposite sex people are not allowed to enter this federal state of India otherwise than being married and we had no options how to avoid this regulation. It's much easier to get permits for a group of travelers. In that case, Indian officials perhaps perceive you as less suspicious and less politically dangerous.
People from various foreign resistance organizations render assistance to Naga struggle for independence. Therefore, tourism isn't widely promoted and a relevant infrastructure is poorly developed. Few existing hotels and guesthouses profit from lack of competition and hugely overprice their services. It's a very costly trip. Due to complex formalities and primitive yet expensive living conditions, the region isn't much favored by tourists. Admittedly, it helps to protect this corner of the earth. Only the toughest and the most seasoned travelers are lavishly rewarded, gaining unique impressions and being able to enjoy friendliness and true generosity of these people. It's a truly unparalleled experience of immersing oneself into their astoundingly rich cultural heritage, with no equivalent elsewhere in the world. Nagaland was a fully closed region for as long as until 2002, and it's only recently that an extensive research work and anthropological studies have been carried out, resulting also in books written about this region and the tribes living there.
The population on India has crossed the borderline of 1 billion people, from which Adivasi, the indigenous people of this country, are 82 millions. Their ancestors started to inhabit this territory about 10 to 20 thousand years ago. The term Adivasi in Sanskrit literally means "original dwellers", or indigenous population. While Adivasi are only 8% of the total population of the country, in Arunachal Pradesh they amount up to about 90%. Since ancient times, Adivasi people have been squeezed out of their traditionally inhabited territories and away from fertile lands, making them to retreat into remote mountain areas. Therefore, Adivasi have lived in a relative isolation for a very long time. The tribal communities have been referred to as "primitive", "uncivilized", "exotic", "savage" and "barbarian". Only during the recent years, the attitude has started to change, and we can witness more recognition and appreciation towards the rich cultural heritage and peculiar lifestyle of these people.
Referring to the indigenous people of the country, the government of India uses an official term - "Scheduled Tribes", and there are about 461 of them. During the period of British rule, Adivasi were deprived of a very large portion of their lands and, due to lack of education, they were unable to defend themselves in court. Mines were built and plantations set up in these territories, e.g., the famous Assam tea plantations, but Adivasi - the former owners of these lands, heavily exploited. Huge damage to Adivasi was caused by missionaries, forcibly grabbing their lands and wiping out the ancient tribal culture and traditions. Today, about 90% of Nagaland region population has converted to Christianity. Arunachal Pradesh has suffered this "spiritual invasion" on much smaller scale. Shamanism is still very strong there, making this region so different from the rest of the state. Traveling through Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, it doesn't feel like being in India at all!
Adivasi tribes live in isolated or semi-isolated communities in strictly marked territories. They have their political autonomy, cultural and belief system, their language dialects and folklore. They live with their deeply different sense of belonging and identity. Yet historically, these tribes have always interacted among themselves. Already from ancient times, the ownership of woodlands and farmlands in mountainous areas was shared among tribal groups. About 87% of Adivasi tribes subsist on farming nowadays, making it vitally important for them to achieve legalization of their land rights. Yet the government of India procrastinates on this issue. Despite of many privileges and guaranties granted to Adivasi after India regained its independence in 1947, their living conditions have barely improved.
Our journey took place between the end of April and beginning of May, which is a very suitable time for this purpose. Nature is in full bloom and everything so verdant! Jungle splashes with lush greenery, and rice in lowlands starts sprouting. Just a few weeks later a rainy season begins, making travelling in these areas practically impossible. Roads become impassable and dangerous, and no travel agency would assign a guide or a car with a driver for you, and the only option would be to put off your trip until autumn. During the whole journey, I didn't meet a single foreign traveler, not even during the famous 3-day Nagaland festival.
In April 24, 2010, we arrive at Delhi airport. An immigration officer asks to which region we plan to go and raises his eyebrows in astonishment, hearing that we plan to visit Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. "Why?" he inquires suspiciously. We are warned and strongly advised to alter our plans. Due to army presence and disturbances, not only tourists, but Indians themselves rarely go there. „Bad place! Dangerous! Bad choice!" he exclaims and suggests us to go to Rajasthan or Kerala, instead. I reply that it's my fourth trip to India, and all the traditional routes are covered already. I intend to meet Adivasis, and I'm not a person who gets scared easily. I have experienced a confrontation with Maoists, after all. (At the time when I write this article, some disturbances are talking place in Nagaland again, and the roads are closed.)
Few hours later, we take a flight from Dehli to Guwahati, a large town in Assam region. There are no foreign tourists in the plane, except us. Very few travel agencies in India are ready to take you to Arunachal and Nagaland regions, yet there is no way you could do without an agency either. It's virtually impossible to settle all the formalities and obtain an entry permit on your own. There is no public transportation, and traveling on foot, by bicycle or hitching is not an option either. And after all, the government of India wouldn't allow you to travel just like that, without involvement of an agency. It's a serious holdback factor for travelers who wish to retain their independence and freedom of movement. The only other place where you have to face such obstacles is Tibetan territory in China. The fact that Arunachal Pradesh borders with China and Bhutan makes the situation even more complicated and the restrictions have to be taken seriously.
A travel agency, which we select following the "Lonely Planet" guidebook advice, proves to be very specific in providing information and absolutely perfect in organizing the trip. At Guwahati airport, we are met by our guide Kevin and a driver Dilip who both are going to accompany us throughout our 10-day exploration of Adivasi tribes. 25-year-old Kevin alias Kedosakho - his name in the local language, is fluent in English and can talk Hindu as well, making it easy for him to communicate with local tribes. Kevin is very knowledgeable, amazing helpful, nice and decent guy. Our driver, in his turn, will have to spend 10 days driving us along serpentine roads going up and down those, at times very steep slopes for 6 to 14 hours a day. With a cheerful smile and a skilled driver's virtuosity, he will do his job with concentration and accuracy. I am enormously happy that we had such a good company, which allowed us to enjoy a wonderful, emotionally fulfilled trip. It was such an intense experience, in fact, that during the last couple days of our trip through Nagaland's Mountains, I more than once couldn't help shedding few tears of happiness!
From Guwahati airport, we set out for a 5-hour ride through Assam region to Tezpur. Assam landscape is flat, marked with tea plantations and cultivated fields. Our trip coincides with a start of a rainy season, which turns fields into swamplands, and the nature literally explodes with exuberant greenness of vegetation. On our way to Tezpur, we drop by a rural marketplace. Next to fish and cattle sellers, local barbers offer their services under faded sunshades, set by the canal. Clad in shabby shirts and armed with scissors and razors, they deftly cut hair and trim beards. It's easy for my guide to keep an eye on me, as I am constantly surrounded by at least 30 people.
They all are trying to touch me and feel my fair hair, paralyzing a daily hustle-bustle of the small market for a while. On our way to Tezpur, we also notice a Hindu celebration and pause at the roadside to watch them dancing. Not so long, and we are noticed! Instantly some plastic chairs appear in the very epicenter of the event, and we are asked to sit down. Yet we decline the offer and sit on the ground, just like anyone else. People still try to show us their hospitality as much as possible, bringing us water, apples, bananas, etc. We feel a bit awkward as we are not used to being in the "lime light" that much. We give apples and bananas to children and soon are on the road again. It's late already, and around 5 pm it starts getting dark.
There are specific peculiarities of body-language that should to be understood, travelling in India and getting in touch with people. As an experienced traveler, I can easily figure out them, yet my companion seemed rather confused at times. An Indian person wouldn't answer with an accustomed head nod for "yes" or a head shake for "no". Instead, you can expect a somewhat unclear wobble, which may leave you wondering what it actually was - an affirmative or a negative answer, or maybe the person is still thinking. It means an agreement, in fact! If you ask for coffee in a tavern and see this motion in reply, then know that everything is fine, and coffee will be soon coming!
Millions Kilos of Tea
On our way through Assam, we pass numerous tea plantations. The region boasts about 850 tea factories and more than 2500 tea gardens, spreading over thousands of hectares of land. Currently, Assam produces a half of India's tea, which is more than 400 million kg annually. The majority of tea gardens are located in Jorhat district and its centre, quite indicatively, is dubbed the "Tea capital of the world". People of Bodo Tribe are known to have brought tea into Assam.
Assam region is rich in natural resources, like coal and oil, but its greatest treasure is tea, of course. It's a pleasure to drive along its superb quality roads, which you wouldn't normally expect in such a remote area. They have been built for military needs, as the neighboring China necessitates India to sustain its military presence near the border, and the roads are used for relocation of armored vehicles and heavy machinery. Aside from the tea plantations, the wealth of Assam region is its national parks, featuring unique flora and fauna and drawing numerous tourists. Unlike in Assam, people of Arunachal Pradesh have viewed animals as a mere source of food, almost entirely shooting them out.
Tezpur welcomes us with a modern hotel and offers a comfortable overnight stay. Soon we'll experience completely different conditions, however. We set off very early on April 25 as we have planned to cover 230 km that day. Although it's not such a big distance, serpentine mountain roads can make driving double as long. Brahmaputra, another great river of India, is flowing parallel to the Ganges in the south-west of Assam. It starts in the south-west of Tibet under the name of Yarlung, breaks through Himalayas and flows into Arunachal Pradesh region, where it's known as Dihang. It is a wide river, which marks a borderline between Arunachal Pradesh to the north, and Nagaland to the south. There are almost no bridges across it as there are no industrial projects on its banks either, and ferry traffic is the only way to traverse it.
ARNUCHAL PRADESH REGION
Arunachal Pradesh covers 81424 km2 and according to the census of 1971, its population is about 467 511, which means that the average density is 6 people per 1 sqkm2 (while in India in general it's 178 people per 1 sqkm2). Arunachal Pradesh in Sanskrit means „The Land of Dawn-lit Mountains". It borders with Assam and Nagaland in India, and shares the outer border with Myanmar, Bhutan and Tibet. Its southern part, lying closer to Assam, is fairly well-off and more traits of civilization can be spotted there, while the northern area, near China is quite backward. Poor quality mountain roads are nearly impassable, making it very difficult to travel there.
You would need at least one moth to travel it and visit tiny villages of the area. Hardly anyone is actually going there, except anthropologists, exploring ancient tribal customs and traditions. There is nothing that would even remotely remind you of the modern world, they say. It's expected that the region will experience great changes, however. The government of India has ambitious plans of building several dams there, which would have a radical impact on the environment and people's lives. Predictably, numerous will be relocated, and the habitual flow of life of Adivasi people will change forever. Similar radical changes have affected minorities in China already. Economics dictates the rules these days!
Sacred Mithuns and Hardworking Elephants
The road leads through the jungle with constantly varying tropical and subtropical vegetation. It never gets monotonous. Constantly changing landscape of mountain-slopes, brooks and forests is sliding by, and clouds seem so close that you could almost touch them. Arunachal Pradesh - a land of shamans and clouds! We spot some wild mithuns here and there. They are like a cross between a cow and a water buffalo, at least a shape of their horns suggest such a comparison. While their natural habitat is jungle, nowadays they are domesticated as well, yet neither for milk nor meat, but solely as sacrifice animals. A mithun is the most sacred and valuable ritual offering, and is killed by cutting its throat. They do not propagate fast, normally there is only one calf is born per year.
Mithuns signify ones social status, too. These large animals are very shy, and the only way to lure them out of woods, is offering them salt. They like it very much, and it contains all the vital minerals they need. There is a so called "mithuns' boy" in every village. Villagers pay him a certain wage, and his task is to buy salt and regularly go to the jungle and try to lead the animals that have got used to him and respond to his call, to the village. If he doesn't go there often enough, animals forget him and do not come to him anymore. Our guide Kevin has three mithuns. He will get married one day, and, according to the local traditions, will give money and other possessions to his bride's family, yet the most valuable of all will be mithuns. And the more the better! Traditionally, bride's parents cover the wedding costs.
Mithuns are brought to the village, and the sacrifice takes place during the wedding ceremony. Mitun's throat is slit, allowing blood to drain. The meat is distributed among villagers, but the skull is hanged above the entrance of the house. The more mithuns one can afford to sacrifice, the more he is respected and valued by villagers.
On the way from Tezpur to Ziro, our next stay-over spot, we meet elephants - the most tireless workers of the region. As no forestry machinery is available, elephants prove to be irreplaceable helpers in wood transportation. Vast forest areas are long since cut, yet higher up on mountain slopes patches of wood are still left. The driver sits on an elephant's neck and leads the huge animal, while it carries logs using its trunk. Just few loads of woods allow successfully sustain ones business. Elephants have numerous bruises and scratches at the end of a day, but local herbs, found in the jungle, help to heal them easily. Selling wood makes good money, while average wage may reach only 120-130 rupees (above 1 LVL) per day.
Life at the Roadside - Adivasis of Orissa
Here and there, small shabby huts made of bamboo and flattened metal hoops of tar barrels are squatting on the mountain slopes along the roadside. Arunachal Pradesh region is sited high up in the mountains, and during the rainy season most of roads are heavily washed out and therefore in need of constant repairing. It requires permanent workforce, and mostly Adivasi people from Orissa are doing this job. They chose places where springs are coming out, providing clean drinking water and build their modest lodgings. With no money to purchase any proper building material, they buy empty tar barrels for bargain price of 10-20Rs per piece from the army, which is responsible for road repair and maintenance in India. Disintegrated barrels are used as a building material, and the state doesn't have to worry about removal of barrels from roadsides. Both sides are satisfied. Whether such homes are healthy and ecological, that another question...
Adivasis of Orissa spend several months at a time at roadsides, sometimes their whole lives. Their children have no prospects for education, as roads are stretching through remote areas, and they don't know the local language. Inevitably, they will share the fate of their parents, becoming road maintenance workers with hardly any hope for anything better.
Time and again, strong downpours wash out the steep slopes, holding the shaky little adobes, and they collapse or slide downhill like snowboards, together with their inhabitants. The same happens to houses of other tribes as well. Landslides are rather common, and they wreck houses, causing injuries and fatalities.
Smoke and Smut - the Smell of Home
The so called longhouses of Arunachal Pradesh tribes are constructed according to similar principles - on elevated platforms. People use locally available building materials, mostly bamboo. Roofs are made of rice straw, dried banana leaves or any other suitable natural material. Often the same material is used for flooring as well. The length and the width of a house differ from tribe to tribe. Although natural materials prevail, nowadays tin roofing is becoming popular. If a house catches fire and burns down, which happens quite often, at least roof material can be used repeatedly. Houses have no windows, and there are partly covered balconies at both ends. There is a hearth or a fireplace for cooking in the middle of the house, which is constantly burning.
On a rack above fire, people smoke meat, dry crops, wood and clothes. The fireplace serves for heating as well, so there is no chimney that would let the warm air out. If the fire burns vigorously, there is almost no smoke, whereas when it subsides, sick, black smoke fills the house. Yet it has some benefits. Such fumigation scares away not only anopheles mosquitoes, capable of transmitting malaria, but also other insects that would love to nest in cozy bamboo constructions. It seems that there are more pros than cons to living in smoke. Even modern dwellings built of concrete still have no chimneys. Winters are snowless, yet rather cold in these mountainous areas. Nonetheless, their only heating system has passed the test of time and proven itself to be good and reliable. Of course, absolutely everything smells of smoke there, even people. Not so often that they can savor fresh aroma of the sun-and-wind-dried clothes. Rains are habitual there, and wet clothes are dried above fire, soaking in the strong smell of smoke.
Unfortunately such heating reduces life expectancy due to the negative health effects caused by carbon monoxide. Apatani have discovered a peculiar remedy helping to prevent throat cancer. They collect particular herbs in the jungle, burn them and obtain special type of salt from ashes. Used with food, it minimizes risk of cancer. Their wooden houses can easily catch fire, but for them, it's not a big deal either! People consider that anything that they have can be made anew. Tibetan bells and bronze plates are the Nishi's most valuable possessions and are never kept at home, but hidden or buried in the jungle. Little more efforts take preservation of rice. It is their staple food and the only similarity between Adivasi and Indian cuisine. Grain is stored in granaries but pigs and hens are kept in sheds, both built off the main house. The house may burn down, but as long as they have rice, they will survive. All the other foodstuffs, like roots and edible plants can always be found in the forest, and they will never have to starve.
A master of the house sleeps in a sort of „bedroom", separated off by some rags, while the other family members enjoy their night's rest on woven mats around the fire. There are no store rooms and all the belongings are mostly scattered about the house. They don't have lots of things anyway - just some pieces of clothing, dishes, some kitchen utensils, machetes and knives. If someone in the village has a TV, everyone gathers at his house to watch the latest soap episode. A TV antenna package costs about 10 LVL. As for electricity, it's provided to Apatani households according to set quotas - no more than 2 - 3 light-bulbs per house are allowed, and a monthly payment for electricity is about 0.20 LVL. It's very dark in the evenings, and I find it hard to imagine how it would be possible for me to spend even one night there. Just a 15 minutes stay in a Nishi house brings me headache. Yet the guesthouses we stayed over during our trip were rather primitive, too. The only amenities available - a plastic bucket with water instead of a shower and a toilet - most often it is just a hole in the ground with two metal steps to place your feet... But it seemed like a huge extra and almost like living in a palace, because there was no smoke! What a luxury actually it is to breathe fresh air, something I had always taken for granted.
Before going to Ziro town where we plan to spend two days visiting Apatani tribe, we decided to pay a visit to the neighboring Nishi tribe, too. Their population reaches over 49500 people. The difference between Nishi and other tribes is that Nishi kinship groups have never been political units, and villages have never co-operated to pursue political goals. Being warriors, they have often been forced to flee from one place to another. Fighting and migration have prevented them from being united. In one of the villages we had a chance to visit a Nishi house, which was about 60 m long. Typically, 30 to 60 people live in such a house. The richest men, if they are able to pay dowry, can have up to eight wives. If a man has several wives, he can enjoy a trouble-free life, as now his wives are taking care of prosperity and wellbeing of the household. All eight wives live friendly under the same roof, only each of them has a separate fireplace. The senior wife lives in the main part of the house, which is closest to the door. Her task is to prepare food for her husband and children, while other wives cook only for themselves and their children. It is also here that the food for guests is cooked and guests are received.
If a man passes away, his wives are inherited by his brother. It's an economically favorable deal, as one can avoid paying dowry to the wife's parents.
Nishi women wear multicolored bead necklaces, brass chains and heavy bracelets on their hands. Their earlobes are stretched early in childhood, inserting bamboo rings. Men wear their hair tied tightly at the forehead in a knot, fixed with a metallic skewer. They also wear cane helmets, decorated with a feather and a fake hornbill beak. Those artificial beaks are provided by the government in attempt to prevent further loss of these birds that are on the brink of total extinction.
In evenings, Nishi people gather on balconies of their homes to discuss news, eat boiled bamboo shoots - their greatest delicacy, and perform their rituals. Flooring of houses, made of flattened bamboo, seems so fragile that you fear falling right through it. As I have mentioned, the houses are elevated from the ground, which is quite handy in many ways. Inside the house, near the entrance, there is a hole in the floor that serves as a toilet, and pigs and hens take care of what lands underneath. This feature stays unchanged even in rare household that posse modern-day attributes, like a car or a monocycle. Nothing ever gets wasted, so to say. Stairs that lead up to the house are not very safe and stable, and elderly people cannot climb them. When they become too frail, they have no other choice but to spend the rest of their days inside. We met once such an old and extremely bitter Apatani woman. She hadn't left her house for 10 years, and neither gifts nor money could bring a shade of smile onto her face.
All the work done in tribes is to provide means for their existence. Women plant rice and vegetables and weave fabrics. Excess products are sold in order to buy, for example, a radio set or clothes. People lead a largely self-sufficient lifestyle. Some of them work in governmental agencies or institutions and are able to increase their living standards and obtaining some social guarantees. According to Kevin, many young people dream to get an education and find such a job, which gives greater social security and a chance for a pension. Kevin's goal is to open his own travel agency one day and to work for himself. Work for the government doesn't seem so appealing to him at all.
Candies and frogs
In another Nishi village, we meet an old woman covered in mud, returning from a rice field. I ask her permission to take a photo of her and offer a Latvian chocolate candy "Serenade", in return. She puts a candy in her mouth and feeling that it's too big, takes it out again. Then she bites off a half of it, wrapping the rest back into paper to take home and perhaps share with someone else. We give her a handful of more candies, making her beyond herself with happiness! The woman carries a small wicker basket of fingertip-size fogies, going to be part of family meal together with rice. There are lots of vegetarians in India, but not in Arunachal Pradesh. They eat everything - insects, frogs, dogs, etc.
At least we have brought something more delicious to Arunachal Pradesh kids - many kilos of candies, and something more practical, too, like pens and pencils. They are overjoyed about small gifts! Children aren't spoiled there and are glad and thankful even for a tiny thing.
We savor our own meal, nuts and almonds that we have taken with us from Latvia and cold rice in small plastic boxes from the guest house, on a scenic cloud-clad mountain top. There are no eateries along the road and the only way not to starve is to get some rice, cooked in advance, and eat somewhere at the roadside. But what a beautiful and memorable experience it is - a meal above the clouds, and it definitely surpasses any fancy restaurant!
Approaching Ziro, a fantastic view opens up over rice terraces. Ziro is the oldest of Arunachal Pradesh towns, located at 1600 km altitude. It has its own indigenous method of rice cultivation. On our way along mountain slopes, we notice empty patches of cut down trees, resembling a head with hair shaven off here and there.
The explanation is simple. Due to hilly terrain, there are no flat areas suitable for agriculture, and people cut off and burn trees and bushes, making plots of land to plant rice and vegetables. There is even no need to water them - abundant rainfall is provided by nature itself. These patches of land are cultivated for 3 to 4 years, then the jungle takes over again, and people look for new plots. It's not very favorable for woods, however. Yet in Ziro valley rice is cultivated in terraces as well, the same way as in China, not only in jungle clearings.
We reach Apatani tribe late in the evening. It is dark and rain is pouring heavily. We have a short walk in the town but soon decide to get some rest and leave exploration of the nearby villages and the unique tribe living there for the coming day. Apatani are settled in seven villages over 20 km2 of Subansiri region. In 1987, their population was 5000 people, while currently the number is 11000. Their lifestyle is based on deep-rooted traditions, somewhat bordering with primitivism. Yet their strength is in unity and very efficient resource management. They don't have vast territories of land, and therefore they carefully plan how to use every square meter. Houses are built closely side by side, and any free land is used for rice cultivation. There is an enclosed bamboo plot at each house, used for building material when needed. Apatani land is the only place where pine-trees are growing, brought there by their ancestors.
Slavery has been existent in Apatani tribe up to 1947. According to certain ethnic characteristics, people were divided into nobles and slaves. Nobles were the taller ones with lighter skin color, while their tribesmen of darker, Mongoloid features were slaves. Apatani treated their slaves with generosity and no humiliation. Masters took responsibility for the wellbeing of their slaves and even bestowed them the clan's name. Apatani tribe is distinctly shamanic in its culture, while elsewhere, Christianity has managed to penetrate deep into people's lives. A shaman is highly respected and honored there. It's believed that spirits of ancestors can be addressed through him, and that he can communicate with the spirits of animals, plants, lakes and mountains.
Along with higher gods and goddesses, Apatani worship numerous deities. It's not allowed to approach the gods directly, however. It's not even necessary, in fact, because each thing has its small deity, and can be addressed through a shaman, when needed. A very pragmatic approach, so to say! Apatani people also revere Abotani, who is considered to be their sole ancestor. When somebody in the village falls ill, a shaman makes a dummy out of straw, smears it with blood of a sacrificed chicken and cures an afflicted person with magic spells. Such figures are seen at almost each house and stand there until rain and wind destroys them. If the ailment hasn't receded yet, the sick person is taken to shaman's hut, outside the village. The shaman performs 4 to 5 hour rituals, and if it still doesn't help, the person is taken to a hospital. It happens very seldom, because western medicine is not widely accepted in these areas.
In Arunachal Pradesh, you will not see temples or shrines, like elsewhere in India. Rituals are held on the Lapang - a community platform. Two major festivals that Apatani people celebrate are "Morom" and "Mloko", both linked with agricultural seasons. Morom is celebrated early in spring, before field work begins. Mloko is generally celebrated in March, before fruit trees burst into bloom, and plums have a particular role in this festival. The main attraction of the festival is erection of tall poles at each house. The number of poles correspond the number of sons in a family. In earlier times, strong ropes were stretched between poles and almost circus-worthy tricks performed. It led to lots of casualties and eventually this practice was discontinued.
April 26. A market place is a perfect mirror of local peculiarities. Multitude of herbs and plans, which we would collectively call "weeds" here are boiled and served with silkworms. I also noticed sort of white tablets or pills, sold at the market that, as we learned, are used for brewing millet and rice beer, much like our yeast. Local alcohol is brewed every day and consumed on daily bases, drinking it from carved pumpkins or metal cups.
There is an area in the market where only women work as only they are allowed to sell meat. Products are packed according to the highest ecological standards - everything is wrapped in leaves, no paper or plastic packaging is used.
Purchases are taken home in wicker backpacks or baskets of variety of shapes and sizes. Even firewood is carried in wicker baskets, each weighting up to 20-30 kg. There are almost no toys for children at the market, or any other place for that matter, only some handmade things, like little wooden shooting guns and cricket sets.
Youngsters boast quite trendy outfits and hairdos, and every other treads around in Converse sneakers. Interestingly, they follow not Bollywood, but western fashion and prefer western music. Also in this respect, they differ from the rest of India, were people wear wide leg jeans, wrinkled shirts, and no piece of clothing is ever perfectly clean. These youngsters look more like ones in the streets of London or Tokyo.
Apatani women have typical facial tattoos and nose plugs made of bamboo. Such facial modification is characteristic to no other tribe in the world. Apatani women were considered to be the most beautiful among other tribes and were constantly kidnapped by men of other tribes, especially Nishi. They started to wear nose plugs to make them less attractive and protect themselves.
Typical tattoos are blue lines running along the nose and chin. Nostrils of young girls were pierced to insert bamboo plugs, which were replaced every year, progressively increasing their size until it reached up to 5 cm in diameter. This brutal practice was stopped in 1960ies when the truce was signed between Apatani and Nishi tribes. Nowadays, elderly women feel uneasy about their nose plugs, and it's not very often that they allow you to photograph them. It's a very sensitive issue, and one has to always ask permission. I entrusted this task to Kevin, and on some occasions he did receive an approval. Some elderly ladies were quite responsive and allowed us to take few shots, asking for a small remuneration in return.
In daytime, people works in rice fields, and the village is almost empty. To be perfectly honest, mostly women and teenagers work there, but men are quite lazy. Old people are taking care of smaller children. If you wish to meet Apatani ladies, you have to make your way to a rice field! Trails leading there are very slippery, my rubber flip-flops got lost in mud and the next best option was to go barefoot. You have to be very careful and watch your step, as you can easily slide into a rice paddy, which is not something you would like to do with an expensive camera in your hands! Apatani women plant rice, squatting under plaited rain shields, attached to their backs. They do it many hours a day and many months in a row, which results in a severe back ache.
I want to learn how to plant rice, too, so I join in. They give me a wooden pick, which I apply to make a little hole, and then, elegantly, I slide a rice plant in it. I repeat it again and again, planting one rice seedling after another, while Apatani women stand around, look at me and giggle. It's a unique experience for them, the same way as for me. I have never ever planted rice in my life, and they have never done it together with a western woman! When I have given my contribution to planting and walk away, they call out that I should return in the autumn, around the harvest time! Who knows, maybe I will take part in a rice harvest as well - some other time and in some other part of the world! In fact, I have witnessed a rice harvest in Orissa, in December, yet I didn't take part in it then. Very wrong! One should take part as much as possible and in everything - it gives insight into peoples' lives and can turn out to be a very interesting experience.
I mention to Kevin that I have seen rice baked in bamboo stalks in China, and ask if a neighboring country perhaps has the same practice. Yes, indeed! The very same evening, we are invited to his friends' house and have a chance to taste rice baked in bamboo stalks, in a fireplace. To our great surprise, they have prepared a real feast for us! A fireplace is burning, beer is being heated and rice cooked. According to Apatani traditions, each guest is treated to rice and beer. A refusal would upset the host and he would think that food is not good enough or beer not tasty. It would also be impolite, I think, and slowly drain my beer, although I am not particularly fond of it. Beer is not very strong and has to be heated constantly, which makes it a little stronger, for about 3 percent. Apatani can consume several liters of this beverage in one evening, which even gives them slight hangover in the morning.
The hostess grinds rice, adds some sugar and milk and boils it in bamboo, which results in a sort of sweet dish, which is made only on very special occasions Then follows the main dish - rice, baked in bamboo alongside with different jungle plants, like ferns and some vines, and chicken, baked in bamboo, adding an egg. Clearly, this is not a usual everyday meal, and it makes me feel like a very special guest. Dinner lasts for about two hours, and the time passes by in lively conversations, sipping rice beer. Finally, when we are about to leave, we were given hand-woven scarves, and it's a very precious gift to us!
There is a strictly observed order in which family members sit around the fire. At one side of a room there is a shelf with dishes and kitchen utensils, mostly made of metal, and the wife sits near to it. The husband sits next to her. Guests are seated to his right side, so the host could comfortably talk with them. The other family members sit in the opposite side of the fire. The host shares with us an old fable, telling why it's so that dogs are allowed to live in a house while pigs have to settle for a life below it. A man had told that the animal, who works the hardest, will be allowed to live inside, and the task was to dig up a plot of land. The pig used its snout and worked hard all day long, but the dog trampled all over the place, leaving marks of his paws everywhere. The man came in the evening, he saw that and assumed that the dog has done the job, and allowed it to come inside. The pig protested but till this very day hasn't achieved anything.
On the next morning we set off to visit Adi tribe. To be continued in the 2nd part.
All the photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/mazins1
Keywords: Arnuchal Pradesh, Aranuchal Pradesh, India, Adivasi, Adivasis, tribes, Orissa, Nishi, Apatani
hello, we now maximum article were create by imagine. many time the declare are wrong because they not work properly but they show large.
yazali, near ziro
over all articleis fine but there should be hypothesis from other neighbouring tribes. b,coz every party wants to be superior to other. Nishi,s are one man soldier and are not organised and lacks combines action.nishi,s dont have chief/king/other head system but rather govern by age, wisdom person of community/village.Tribe is colonial word, Adivasi=first settler etc. really it is generic name for a community of classless society.
The people of north east India were always away from mainstream India.So they never fitted into the social stratification of the caste system in India.They are tribe in every sense but they are not called Adivasi with the counterparts in India as the way of life and their practice do not relate to the mainstream India.Status of schedule tribe doesn't mean that they were part of caste systems in India.People in north east India have too much pride to be dominated and all together different history of their existence and origination.
Most of your articles is wrong. Better observe for some months before you conclude.
KayBee, thank You for Your comment and correction! We will fix this information inaccuracy.
Interesting article! Few wrong information here and there about Arunachal but nevertheless an interesting read. Like 'Kaling' pointed out the tribes of NE/ Arunachal is not called Adivasi and it is a collective term used for other tribes in other region/s of India.
No tribes of AP were political units in the olden times except may be Khamtis, Singphos, etc. Nishi tribes were warriors and they had/ have more unity than any other tribes of AP since war brings about a sense of patriotism and communalism. If they were migratory then, almost all the tribes of AP were migratory in the olden days. Till recently most tribes of AP practised shifting cultivation and were gatherers and hunters...
Thanks for an insight thought. Hopefully NE region of India gets a lots of visitors soon so that we can convert it into eco-tourism because sadly the tribal people are not “eco-friendly” these days. Flora and fauna is at its peril...especially the fauna...
Hi. i just want to know if you knew someone from china who practices shaman? need your reply asap.thank you
Great great commentary. I am going there in 3 weeks. Can you share contacts of agency and guide?
i'm from ziro ,arunachal pradesh n would like to thank you for ur beautiful article .
Hi. I am German guide from Rajasthan and I am going to north east region 2nd time.this time for 20 days with my clients. Your report help me a lot to understand about land n people.
hope u had a good time in ziro..
Born and raised
Nice article .BTW, all the tribes that you mentioned are not adivasis . Adivasi is a generic term for original inhabitants of Central India and nearby region who are underdeveloped and undeveloped.The word used for tribes of Northeast India was KIRATA
And Comeback again \m/-