“It’s raining here, soon flowers will bloom and birds will flock”, Chukhu Mama my host for Yazali Nyokum Yullo Festival said.
“Ahh! I am looking forward to seeing them”, I beamed as I mentally ran through lovely orchid gardens of the state famously known to be a Paradise of the Botanists.
“Well, you may see them…provided we don’t eat the birds first” added my host jovially.
“Ah! Interesting!!” I managed to mumble.
Little did I know that this was going to be my one of many “Ah! Interesting!!” moments that I was going to experience during my visit to Nyokum Yullo festival in Arunachal Pradesh.
Who are Nyishis?
Arunachal has 26 tribes and 112 sub tribes with their own distinct traditions and values.
Nyishi is one of the groups of tribe collectively known as Tani tribes. They believe that the entire human race had descended from the same ancestor Atu Nyia Tani which means the primal ancestor.
In Nishi, their traditional language, ‘Nyi’ refers to a Man or Human Race that descended from Atu Nyai and the word ishi denotes “Highland”, which combined together means the descendants for Atu Nyia Tani who dwell in the highland.
The Nyishis pray to a number of spirits, deities, and souls for blessings, but they principally worship the sun (Donyi) and the moon (Polo) as the visible forms of the god.
Profound Philosophical Concept – Donyi Polo
The Nyishis follow the Donyi-Polo religion. Donyi-Polo literally means “Sun-Moon” and is an animist religion. Which means that the Nyishis believe that every natural thing in the universe has a soul.
Though they worship the sun and the moon, they are not nature worshipers. They believe that sun and moon are physical representations of the supreme god which illuminate the earth. Donyi, the Sun is looked upon as a female god who is the creator of all and Polo, the moon is considered a male god who is the guardian of all.
They believe in the profound philosophical concept that the God is formless, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent and so it is within you, within me and within all creations. This is the main reasons why there are no temples of Donyi Polo.
The Legend behind the Nyokum Yullo Festival
So the legend goes that there were two spirits, ‘Kibu’ and ‘Yabu’. These spirits or ‘Uyus’ as they are called here, tortured Atu Nyia Tani (also called Abotani), the powerful and great ancestor of the Nyishis. Due to the torture, Abotani lost his eyes, powers and as a result, his fields were destroyed.
Abotani was advised by the religious priest (called Nyibus) to worship ‘Nyokum Uyus’. Appeased by Abotani, Nyokum restored the eyesight and lost the power of Abotani which resulted in bumper crops on his field.
Since that day, the descendants of Abotani, worship Nyokum and celebrate the Nyokum Festival.
The Nyishis believe in malevolent (bad) and benevolent (good) ‘Uyus’ i.e. spirits dwelling in every patch of forest, stone, rivers, streams, waterfalls, mountains.
The main occupation of the Nyishis is agriculture. While these Uyus (Spirits) protect crops they can also cause diseases and so they have to be propitiated.
The Nyishi community performs many rituals in order to appease the ‘Uyus’.
However, ‘Nyokum’ is the most important festival as appeasing the Uyus in this festival assures happiness, good health, wealth, the vitality of domesticated animals and of course ‘a good harvest’.
Loss of culture is Loss of Identity
Nyokum was celebrated traditionally at clan level, seeking safety and prosperity of the people who had observed Nyokum. While Nyokum used to be a clan ritual, Yulo was more for the well being of all living beings celebrated at the village level.
With the increasing number of conversions to other religions and the need to protect one’s identity, Nyokum Yulo started being organized as a community celebration.
For the first time in 1968, it was celebrated at a community level in the Joram village of Arunachal Pradesh.
Since then it has become a symbol of a united tribal identity.
Nyokum Yulo Festival: From Ritual to Festival
What was once an agricultural ritual performed in isolated settlements, has now become a government recognized holiday (26th February) celebrated annually in two or more locations in the state.
I had the opportunity of participating in the Golden Jubilee celebration of Nyokum Yulo Festival in Yazali from 23rd to 27th February.
The Sacrificial Mithun
The Nyokum Yulo ceremony is marked by the sacrifice of ‘Mithun’ (Bos frontalis) who is considered to be a symbol of “peace and communal harmony” and its sacrifice is said to usher in the prosperity and well-being of all living beings.
The Mithun, Bos frontalis, often referred to as ‘the cattle of the mountains’ and ‘ship of the highland’, is considered a descendant of the wild Indian gaur or bison.
Every Nyishi owns at least one or more Mithun as it is not only a symbol of social status and a must dowry gift but also most mandatory for sacrifice in most of the Nyishi ceremonial rituals. Rearing of Mithuns is considered a noble act.
The priest tells the Mithun not to be sorry for his death as his death is for a larger good, being the welfare of mankind, crops, and domestic animals.
The Nyokum Yullo ProcessionOn the final day of the festival, all the villagers assemble for the procession.
Women sing and dance to propitiate the Uyus.
They sing about abundant crops and goodwill, health and unity among all the people, happiness, abundance, peace and prosperity.
Dipr Nyibu – Man disguised as an Evil Spirit
A man called ‘Dipr Nyibu’ disguised as the evil spirit ‘Dirr Erri’, carries a bamboo basket on his back for stealing articles from every household of the village. He represents the evil or the bad spirit.
Conceptually it means driving away the bad omen from the village. He is chased out of the village by the children where he finally throws away the contents of the basket.
A fowl or an egg is fixed on the top of a bamboo pole known as ‘Tori’. Young men carry such poles through the procession. At the end of the procession, the Tori is then placed on the altar.
The Nyishis believe that if the Priest has chanted the right chants and in the correct manner the village will be blessed.
They also believe that if the priest has done his job well it will definitely rain on the day of the prayer…and it surely did rain that day.
Place of Worship
The place of worship where the altar of different deities is erected is called ‘Uyus Ako’.
The head priest who conducts the worship is known as ‘Nyokum Yullo Nyibu’. Hymns are chanted by the priest evoking the ‘Uyus’.
Women come with ‘Opo’ or ‘Apong’ (Local millet beer) filled ‘Harcha’ (vessel made of dried bottle gourd) covered with ‘Khoham Okh’ (leaves).
The water and leaves are then offered at different altars.
The ‘Opo’ or ‘Apong’ (Local millet beer) is offered to everyone!
The Millet beer is considered as sacred and it occupies a special place in many rituals, festivals, marriages and communal gathering.
People rejoice by dancing around the altar while the priest chants hymns!
Tribes from various parts of Arunachal Pradesh performed their traditional dance.
The Nyishi Tribe Women demonstrate the process of making of Millet Beer during the Nyokum Yullo Festival.
The Adi tribes performed an energetic Tapo War Dance!
In the Tapo War Dance, the dancers vigorously re-enact the actions of war, its gory details and the triumphant cries of the warriors.
The Tai Khamti are one of the major tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. The word ‘Khamti’ means ‘a land full of gold’
Cock Fight Dance also known as ‘Kaa Kong Tou Kai’ is performed by two or four people who wear a headgear shaped like the head of the cock. (Source).
This dance usually shows a fight between two cocks and is inspired by the ancient tradition of entertaining the king with a cockfight.
The famous Erap Dance was presented by the Galo Tribe.
In early days, Erap used to be a retreat dance after a war expedition.
The Lion & Peacock Dance by the Monpa Tribe
The legend goes that two snow lions fed their milk to a holy saint who was doing a tough meditation. After his meditation was over the saint danced with the lion making merry and this form of dance was named as the lion and peacock dance.
Cleansing Process – Riya Gama
Next day morning, a meal is cooked specially for the ladies who performed the Nyokum.
Next day the women of the village carry water filled ‘Harcha’ (vessel made of dried bottle gourd) and some leaves for the offering.
They clean themselves with water and offer the leaves at the altar.
‘Amyemch Hikanam’ is then done.
Amyemch Hikanam means predicting the future prosperity and finance of the ladies who performed Nyokum.
The priest holds a small measuring cup and asks the women to fill it up one by one.
Even though the same amount of grain is put inside the cup, the heap of grain takes various shapes which help the priest in predicting whether the lady will have a good or bad or an average future.
The retreat of the PriestsIt is time for the priests to retreat.No ceremony is complete without the ‘Opo’ or ‘Apong’ (Local millet beer)!
Worshiping the nature
Spreading the message of peace, harmony, and brotherhood this festival embodies the rich culture and traditions of the Nyishi people.
It’s wonderful to observe that the Nyishis believe that every living creature has a role to play in his or her life be it the tiniest of an organism or the mightiest of animals.
Worship the nature for it is she who nourishes the mankind is the message I am taking back from this unique festival.
The Nyishis mostly eat boiled rice, boiled Mithun, Boiled chicken, Boiled vegetables..well basically everything boiled.
For a vegetarian the eating options are very limited. If you are not experimentative, I would suggest carry some Ready-to-eat food from home.
I am a vegetarian and I did indulge in their food. I carried and consumed Whey Protein to fulfil my body’s protein requirement.
I had millet cake (made of ground and boiled millet), has Tash (made from sago palm) and boiled rice with ginger chutney. I had lots LOTS of boiled eggs.
There are small eating joints in Yazali that offer fried rice and Parathas.
Pineapples and Millet beer are my Recommendations!
ILP (Inner Line Permit) for IndiansAll citizens of India not from Arunachal Pradesh, need to apply for Inner Line Permit (ILP) to enter into Arunachal Pradesh.
The ILPs are issued by the Issuing authorities of Government of Arunachal Pradesh with offices at Delhi, Kolkata, Tezpur, Guwahati, Shillong, Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur, and Jorhat.
You can get ILP right at the Guwahati airport as well. Look for Arunachal Tourism office at the airport. ILP is issued if you can show the original of any govt. issued photo identity card which has your address on it (Voter Id card, Driving License, passport etc). You will also need a passport photo with white background.
PAN Card is NOT accepted if you are applying offline. Government-issued documents on which your address is mentioned, are accepted.
ILP can be applied online. Click here for details.
- Online applications take a day while offline can take from 30 minutes to few hours depending upon the queue at the place where you apply.
PAP (Protected Area Permit) for Non-IndiansFrequently Asked Questions on Protected Area Permit(PAP)/Restricted Area Permit (RAP) can be read here.
Reaching Yazali can be quite an adventure and an arduous process.
Reach Guwahati, Assam which is connected via air and rail with major cities of India.
You can directly drive from Guwahati to Yazali. Till Itanagar, the newly built highway is in a good condition.
The other option is to catch the Naharlagun Express that leaves Guwahati Railway Station at around 9.20 PM every day and reaches Naharlahun railway station (Also known as Itanagar) early in the morning.
You can either take an auto or a state transport bus to either Itanagar or Naharlagun (twin cities). It is easy to find shared taxis (sumos) which go to Yazali (and beyond). It’s a potholed, scenic two and a half hour drive from Itanagar.
- You can contact Raju +91 8415034250 who runs a couple of taxis on this route.
When to Visit
- Nyokum Yulo Festival is celebrated in Yazali from 23rd to 27th February 2018.
Places to visit nearby
- Ziro Valley – Read this Ultimate Guide to the tattooed Apatani tribes
- Don’t forget to carry a Government issued identity card which also has your address on it.
- Although rain is possible in any month it is heaviest from March through September. Remember to carry rain sheets/umbrella.
Cultural Fiesta in the “Island of peace” Arunachal Pradesh – by Guptajit Pathak, Raju Gogoi which can be purchased here.
Dictionary of the Apatani Language – Read Here
Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains: Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent (Shortlisted for the 2018 Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award) – Read Here
Yazali Nyokum Yullo – Read Here!
I would like to thank Mr. Chukhu Mama for the invaluable inputs that he kept giving to my innumerable and seemingly unending questions! His parents who were there when Nyokum Yullo was celebrated for the first time were a great help too.
Mr. Chukhu Mama teaches tourism in Rajiv Gandhi Government College, Itanagar and can be contacted at +91 98628 30513 for queries regarding Yazali Nyokum Yulo Festival.
My thanks to Taba Anju for giving me an insight into their culture and beliefs. Taba Anju is doing Ph.D. on Etymology in Itanagar and is a priest’s daughter.