ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh and spend a few days with the fascinating Apatani tribe at Ziro
Long before the Ziro Music Festival put the remote Arunachal town on India’s festival map, the name Ziro had always intrigued us. Was it a numerical reference to its geographic co-ordinates? Or, the last point of civilization before the border with Tibet? Did a Japanese aircraft crash here during World War II? Questions like these plagued us for a long time, until a coffee table book assignment provided us a chance to visit Arunachal Pradesh again. Negotiating the mountainous roads from Daporijo to Ziro, we crossed places like Don and Raga, and wondered just who was in charge of nomenclature around these parts…
A few hours later, we emerged onto a large plateau with neat irrigated terraces, isolated hillocks and pine-clad spurs. This was Apatani country, home to a unique tribe discernible by their facial tattoos and indigenous cultivation practices. At the PWD Guest House, we were content with the view but a conversation with District Tourism Officer Tater Mize led us to Abasa Homestay, run by an Apatani family. Located at Siiro, just 3 km from the old town of Hapoli, our hosts offered to pick us up from the DC’s Office!
Soon, we were driving with the vivacious Kago Kampu and her husband Kago Habung to their homestay. Named ‘Abasa’ after Habung’s aba (father); the sa was appended as respect. Kampu explained that in the Lower Subansiri district, the Apatani and Nyishi tribes put surnames first followed by the person’s name. Originally the tribe was called Tani. Apa or aba was a generic term for elders and it eventually became Apa-tani.
Winding past Siiro Resort we reached their cute cottage with an attached organic garden. Squash, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, gourds; their kitchen garden was bountiful. Birds chirped in pine trees and cows lazily licked salt from large troughs. It was picture perfect. We parked ourselves at the simbia or verandah and took in the wooded scene from the rivu, a traditional seat with backrest. Over tea, we learnt more about the Apatanis.
Despite lack of epigraphic evidence on their origin, the Apatanis seem to have been here for centuries. Their oral accounts – miji (religious chants) and migung (folk tales in prose) – trace their migration from north of the Subansiri and Siang rivers following the course of the Kurung and Kumey rivers to a place called Karr in the Sipi Valley. Here they split into three groups, taking different paths to the Apatani Plateau and establishing various villages en route. Even today, Apatani settlements are found in clusters of three alluding to the legend. As per one tale, at Yangte in Kurung Kumey district, they held a high-jump competition over a roadside stone. Many such landmarks line the migratory paths of the Apatanis with clues littered across their oral literature.
The oral history passed down through at least twenty generations of the Apatanis capture events that took place after the migration of the Central Arunachal tribes from the mythological places Wi and Wiipyo Supuñ. Carrying seeds of pine, bamboo and mustard, they first settled down in the Talley Valley region around 15th Century before moving to Ziro. In those days Ziro was a misty swampland crawling with snakes, leeches and the mysterious buru, a prehistoric reptile. The last buru was killed by a sacred metal brass plate called talo, revered and preserved as myamya talo by the Apatanis.
Unlike other nomadic tribes, Apatanis settle down in one place and cultivate permanent wetlands instead of migratory jhum (slash and burn) cultivation. We walked to nearby fields and terraces as Habung explained the ancient Apatani irrigation technique. The water required by the paddy field dictates the height of the bund and excess water is allowed to drain into the next terrace seamlessly.
Surprisingly, they don’t till their fields but manage water through channels; a technique similar to a tribe in Japan. They keep the fields in various states of submersion raising different rice crops – early ripening varieties like plare and plaping and late ripening ones like empu, elang and rado, collectively known as Emo, the bulk of their produce. A 2-ft deep nala (drain) runs through the fields and is replete with fish. This paddy-cum-fish farming ensures a year-round supply of rice and fish, an Apatani staple.
We walked to the Kiile river where a bridge led to a sericulture farm at Mani Polyang, 7km away. Another trail led 9 km to Pange, the base camp for Talle Valley, which was a further steep climb of 15 km. The 337 sq km wildlife sanctuary named after the endemic talle plant was home to clouded leopards, red pandas, golden cats, rare tree frogs and reptiles. Trekkers carry provisions for the 2-3 day excursion. For us, the short walk to the river was enough to build up an appetite and we headed back to Abasa by evening for homemade Apatani fare.
Like the rest of Arunachal, rice, pork, fish and vegetables form the staple. Dishes are mostly steamed with very little frying or masalas. Kago Kampu poured us some apong, a local brew made of fermented millet and rice and the warm liquid tasted smooth. It’s traditionally consumed in a turla (bamboo mug) but even in ordinary glasses, it did its job. Meanwhile, Kago Habung prepared suddu yo (bamboo meat). Stuffing a mixture of chicken mince and egg yolk into tender bamboo stems, he twirled the stems on an open fire, careful not to burn it.
Kampu resourcefully mixed the unused egg white with finely chopped vegetables and steamed it in whole eggshells in a momo-maker to create her signature fusion dish. Her innovative cooking won her acclaim in the local rural tourism scene. In a jiffy she roasted sunflower seeds, tossing it into a blender with ginger, garlic, tomato, chilli, salt and butter to make dani apu komoh or kormo pila, a tangy chutney. A dip made of yokhung or green Xanthallum berries added bite to the meal of rice, chicken curry, baby potatoes, salad and steamed farm fresh vegetables. The highlight was peeke, a dish of bamboo shoots, pork and tapiyo (vegetarian salt).
How the Apatanis evolved an ingenious way of manufacturing a dark salt, high up in the mountains far from any sea was fascinating. An edible plant, usually maize or lai, is taken in a slightly raw state and charred to ashes. It’s mixed with water, evaporated and the residue is wrapped in a jungle leaf found near ditches and left to smoke over a wood fire. This residue is natural homemade salt! Since it is rich in iodine, Apatanis don’t suffer from goitre and are usually quite slim.
We signaled thumbs up for the food. “You must say Ano ayado”, said Habung, “Apatani for very good. Ano ayado, we chimed in like obedient children. “Payapacha, thank you”, he replied. We laughed. Our exchange didn’t seem too different from early explorers like HM Crowe, Captain Dun, Major Graham and RB McCabe who made forays into Apatani territory. With distinct facial tattoos and cane nose plugs, the Apatanis have always been a subject of wonder and intrigue.
Little known even to the plains people of Assam who called them aukas (tattooed), it is believed that their mandatory disfigurement was done to make Apatani women less desirable to marauding neighboring tribes. The outside world knew very little about them until Austrian ethnologist Christopher von Fürer-Haimendorf and his wife Betty became the first foreigners to visit Hong village in 1944. Staying for 2 years for the first time (and again in 1964 and 1984), their detailed accounts are the first written records on the Apatanis. We retired to our cozy room tingling with the excitement of visiting Hong the next morning.
Located 6 km from Ziro, Hong is the largest village of the Apatani plateau. We walked as if in a dream through an unending maze of wooden homes with towering weatherworn babos (festive bamboo poles). Strange bamboo skeletons with egg shells outside houses lent an eerie touch as if we had stumbled onto the sets of The Blair Witch Project. We tried not to stare but the faces were riveting. Most went about their daily chores, others wove baskets and some paused briefly to clock our presence. We bumped into Telling Chailyang, member of the local panchayat, who gave us an informative tour of Hong.
The village was divided into 6 clans – Hibu and Takhe being the biggest, besides Tapi, Bullo, Tilling and Tallo Budhi. Earlier all houses had thatched roofs, but after a devastating fire, they shifted to pine wood planks, then bamboo and now CGI sheets. Every clan had a lappa (wooden platform) serving as an open court where menfolk gathered to take important decisions. The village had a democratic council called Bulyang. The eggshell artwork was an outcome of certain rituals performed by the dhondai (Apatani priest). Boiled eggs were divided into half to divine the future while the liver of a sacrificed chicken was inspected to ascertain which ritual ought to be done, when and where.
During the annual Myoko Festival (20-23 March) men carry leaves from the forest to make a nago (makeshift hut) for the ancestors to come, rest and watch the festivities. Every clan erects a babo (decorative pole) and platform as revellers swing high in the air on jungle vines tied to two babos. With the dangers involved in swinging high and the unavailability of the forest vine, Myoko isn’t the same as captured in Haimendorf’s grainy black and white videos. But every three years the festival rotates to one host village and people from nearby villages (Hari, Bula, Rija, Duta, Bamimichi and Mudantage) visit as guests. After the pig sacrifice on 23rd March, it’s open house as visitors are served apong, rice and meat.
Back in Ziro, we realized there’s not much to see or do here in the strictest sense of the word. There’s boating at Nime Ashram and a hike to the ridge of Kile Pakho, 7 km from Old Ziro for a good view over the plateau. The District Museum and Craft Centre is worth a look with some textiles, traditional handicrafts, agricultural implements, weapons and Nyishi byopas (hornbill caps) on display.
Just 2 km from town is the Shiva shrine of Siddheshwar Nath. A short walk up a private plantation led us to a clearing dominated by a large shiva linga. Priest Sachhidanand Dubey from Muzaffarpur greeted us warmly. He explained that the shrine was accidentally discovered by Prem Subba, a woodcutter, in the holy month of shravan in 2004. While cutting a tree, the trunk fell on the opposite side and the workers discovered the top of a massive stone with beads etched on it.
The forest patch was cleared, revealing a 25 ft high 22 ft wide boulder with natural rudraksh beads and images of Ganesh, Parvati, Nandi embossed on it. He instructed us to sip the sacred water emerging from a perennial spring in a hollow near the base of the linga. Despite its exotic past and its newfound music scene, only 17,000 domestic tourists and 3000 international travellers visit the area each year.
However, with Ziro being included in India’s Tentative List for UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, things could change fast. Until then quiet Ziro still dozes in slumber… And what of the name? “When Indira Gandhi had visited the place, the temperature had dropped to zero degrees”, a local government official told us in all earnestness. Unconvinced, we asked what the place was called before that and were greeted by stony silence.
Kago Habung chortled and said, “When you look at the Apatani plateau surrounded by mountains, it looks like one big zero!” We laughed. The irony didn’t escape us. Our constant enquiries threw up nothing conclusive. “Even locals seem to have zero knowledge about why it’s called Ziro”, we rued. “Perhaps that’s why it’s called that…,” added Habung in mock seriousness before we said goodbye, wiping tears of mirth from our eyes. Who knows, life may come full circle and we would be back to Ziro to start afresh.
How to Reach
By Road: Ziro is the district headquarters of Lower Subansiri district in Arunachal Pradesh and 118 km from the capital Itanagar via NH-229. Direct buses are available from Guwahati, Itanagar and North Lakhimpur.
By Air: The nearest airport is Tezpur, though Guwahati and Dibrugarh are better connected.
By Train: The nearest railhead is 100 km away at North Lakhimpur in Assam, reachable from New Bongaigaon by Arunachal Express.
Where to Stay
Siiro Village, P.O. Hapoli (3 km from DC office)
Ph 03788-225561, 94024 60483
Tariff Rs.1000/person, including breakfast dinner
Hotel Blue Pine
Pai Gate, Quarry Line, Hapoli, Ziro
Ph 03788-224812, 225223, 224974
What to buy:
Nichii Niiti Barmi Handloom & Handicraft Co-operative Society
Sales Emporium, Ziro, Lower Subansri
Ph 9436413846, 94366 33967
Craft Centre Emporium, Ziro
Ph 03788 225561
When to go:
The Ziro Festival of Music is held b/w 24-27 September 2015 featuring 35 top bands from the country, local folk acts and outdoor camping. Ph +91-8974052594, +91-9810549494, +91-9810285789 www.zirofestival.com
Traditional celebrations include Murung in January, Myoko in March and Dree, an agrarian festival on 5 July.
Visitors to Arunachal Pradesh need special permits to enter the state. Indians require an Inner Line Permit (ILP) while foreigners need a Protected Area Permit. An ILP can be obtained from the Secretary (Political), Government of Arunachal Pradesh, respective Deputy Commissioner and Additional Deputy Commissioner of the districts or Liaison Offices in New Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati, Shillong, Dibrugarh, Tezpur, North Lakhimpur or Jorhat between Mon-Fri, 10 am – 1pm by filling out a form, giving proof of identity, one passport photo and a fee of Rs.100. One can also apply online at www.arunachalilp.com
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Discover India magazine.