Her back bent low, her hands shaking, she feebly looked up! In spite of her frail frame, her tattooed face and Bamboo nose-plugs looked brilliant!
“It looks like you are in a National Geographic Documentary”, wrote back my friend when I shared the pictures of the Apatani Tribal women of Ziro Valley!
I for sure felt like I was part of some evolved National Geographic assignment as I discovered on foot, the Hija village, one of the Old Ziro Valley settlements.
I was attending the Nyokum Yullo Festival in Yazali, Arunachal Pradesh, India.
From Yazali, it took me around 2 hours of meandering, potholed roads before I got the first sight of the Ziro Valley fields. The pre-harvest paddy fields gleamed golden against the undulating isolated hillocks. I rolled down the window and a pleasant breeze brushed past my face leaving me rejuvenated.
The Ziro valley often called Apatani valley lies roughly between Panior and Kamla (Kuru) rivers of Arunachal Pradesh, India.
The Apatani valley as a settlement is known as Ziro, shortened from Ziro Supung (or Silo Supung). ‘Supung’ refers to a place of habitation which was taken up by ancestors during their initial migration to Ziro.
Who are the Apatanis
Arunachal Pradesh has 26 tribes and 112 sub tribes with their own distinct traditions and values.
Apatani is one of the groups of tribes 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.
Donyi-Polo Religion – a Profound Philosophical Concept
The Apatanis of Ziro valley follow the Donyi-Polo religion. Donyi-Polo literally means “Sun-Moon” and is an animist religion. Which means that the Apatanis 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 reason why traditionally there were no temples of Donyi Polo.
Though I did not find any place of worship the Apatani house, few houses did display a flag bearing the symbol of Donyi Polo outside their house.
Given the wave of conversion to Christianity, Doni polo temples are coming up to encourage people to participate in religious activities just like Hindus and Christians.
Haji Village that I visited had one temple and the devotees go there to pray on Sundays.
Facial Tattoos and Nose Plugs
Tattoos are like stories – they’re symbolic of the important moments in your life – Pamela Anderson
The Apatani women of India’s Ziro Valley were once famous for their facial tattoos (Tiipe) and massive nose plugins (Yaping hullo), though the tradition is now non-existent.
The Tattoo runs from their forehead to the tip of the nose. They also tattoo their chin with five vertical lines. A horizontal line, under the lower lips, joins all the five lines of the vertical tattoo of the chin.
Two big nose plugs called ‘Yaping Hullo’ on either side of the nose and hollow bamboo pieces called ‘Yaru Hukho’ in ear lobes completes their beautification. The hollow bamboo pieces are used for putting on earrings.
The Yaping Hullo is made of cane. Dry Cane is cut. Both the ends of the Cane are smoothened by burning the ends and rubbing it against a hard and smooth surface so that they are smooth and even.
These processes also ensure the sterility of the material so that it does not cause any injury to the nose. (Source: https://bit.ly/2Gn0D1A)
Apatani Men also tattoo their chin in the shape of an English Alphabet “T”.
For Beauty or Safety!?
When I asked for the reason of the tattoos and the nose plugs, ‘Danyi H. Mamung’ my host in Ziro Valley wasn’t so sure. She said there were two theories about it.
TATTOO – Mark of Beauty and Uniqueness
Tattooing their face and getting their nose plugged was considered not only fashionable but also beauty enhancing! Not only this, the Apatani women stood out from the other tribes and thus it was a mark of distinction and uniqueness for them.
Danyi Mamung’s grandparents stay close to her house.
“That’s my grandmother, my “Aan”, She said as a beautiful elderly lady with tattooed face walked towards us.
Her Aan was patient as the bloggers flocked to capture her in their cameras. Her only complaint?
“I wish you had informed me earlier about their arrival, I would have freshened up for the shoot”, she said smiling.
TATTOO – Disfigurement for protection
The other theory which is rather popular on the front pages of Google search is that Apatani women of Ziro were considered to be very beautiful and were thus vulnerable to being abducted by men from other tribes.
As a result, the Apatani women started tattooing their faces and wearing massive nose plugs, in order to make themselves less appealing.
The origin of the tattoo is lost in translation but what remains is beautiful faces with beautiful stories to tell.
Circumscribed landscape – Basti
Physical contours and circumscribed landscape of the Apatani valley influence their small houses and family size as well. A clustered settlement has resulted in small Bastis.
I visited Hija Basti in Old Ziro.
The houses are very close to each other which leaves them with more space for farming and gives them the added sense of security.
Ritual platform (Lapang)
Each village will have one or more ritual performing platforms called Lapang. The platform is raised two to three feet above the ground.
Traditionally the legs were made of bamboo poles. The platform used to consist of heavy hardwood planks laid side by side.
Once thatched with grass, the roof has shifted to split bamboo and increasingly corrugated metal.
With less open space and smaller houses in Ziro, the Lapang provides a convenient space for public events, discussions and ritual performances.
All the houses are on the village street with front and back verandas enclosed with a bamboo railing. The house itself is raised on bamboo or wooden pillars ( gradually shifting to concrete legs). The Abya (Staircase) is usually made of logs with notches.
Pig Sty – Aai jiri
Since the houses are built on the stilts, they have space below them. This space is used for the pigs and is called ‘Aai jiri’. Many houses had pigsty in front while the chickens found a place at the back of the house.
Apatanis believe in two types of totem and erect them outside their houses during the festival of Myoko.
Decorated with egg shells and hen feathers, the smaller of the two totems is called ‘Aanggya’.
The long pole like totem called ‘Babo Aangya’ is made of bamboo and is decorated using thin strips of cane and bamboo.
In traditional Apatani houses, there are no windows or chimneys. The houses look dark from inside.
In traditional days there used to more than one hearth but now with small families, the houses have one hearth at the corner of the room.
The hearth is made by placing wooden logs in a rectangular form called ‘Piri’. Double-decker racks made of wood hang over it with the help of jute or cane rope tied to the ceiling.
Mithun meat and pork are mostly eaten during ritual celebrations.
Chickens and their eggs are eaten as well as utilised for decorating altars and totems.
While Rice, boiled vegetables are the staple diet, Bamboo shoots, wild boar, and small forest rodents are local delicacies.
(NOTE: The mithun, Bos frontalis, often referred to as ‘the cattle of the mountains’ and ‘ship of the highland’, is considered a descendent of the wild Indian gaur or bison.)
Not forgetting the Rice Beer which is an all-time favorite drink for the locals.
Rizi Pisciculture – an Agronomic Ingenuity
The Apatanis of the Ziro valley have a highly traditional Agroecosystem of Wetland Rice Cultivation in hillside terraces.
Nearly every piece of land is dedicated to paddy farming.
Rainwater and streams from hills are trapped by making well-leveled terraces with strong bunds (partitions). These act like fish pits and ensures that water remains for pisciculture.
These terraces are left filled with water as well as with previous years left over harvests (hay). Since the hay is left all alone in the fields it turns into natural manure.
In the picture, stooping low in the muck an Apatani woman can be seen hand weeding and preparing the field for next plantation.
The farmers here rear fish in paddy fields and grow millets on the bunds.
Festivals of Ziro Valley
For Apatanis, Murung is the most important festival which is intended to bring in prosperity and success. It is celebrated in the Month of January or Murung piilo.
The four-week long Myoko festival is held every year in March–April when a village or group of villages plays host to the rest of the Apatani population. For the blessings of the ancestral god, monkey head is offered.
Dree used to be a minor agricultural rite to avert diseases or bad weather and to protect the paddy fields. In the present time, however, it is celebrated each summer as a social event in the administrative center of Hapoli,
In contrast to Myoko and Dree, Murung is a voluntary festival and is sponsored by one man and/or his clan.
The newly introduced Music Festival of Ziro in September is also worth visiting. It showcases the independent music scene in India.
Near the Ziro Music festival venue noticed this kiwifruit vineyard!
ILP (Inner Line Permit) for Indians
All 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 a 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-Indians
Frequently Asked Questions on Protected Area Permit(PAP)/Restricted Area Permit (RAP) can be read here.
Reaching Ziro 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 Ziro Valley. 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 Ziro valley (and beyond). It’s a potholed, scenic 4-hour drive from Itanagar.
- You can contact Raju +91 8415034250 who runs couple of taxis on this route.
When to Visit
Ziro boasts of cool climate all through the year with December and January getting very cold.
If you want to witness the lush green fields consider visiting post monsoon, in the month of September. September is also the month of Ziro Music Festival.
If you want to attend tribal festivals the recommended month is March when many tribes of Arunachal Pradesh have their traditional Festivals.
Where to Stay
Traditional homestay, contact Narang Tam (+91 9402464841)
Siiro Resort, located in Siiro village (03788- 225123)
Ziro Valley Resort, located next to venue of the Ziro Music Festival (+91 9612914294)
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.
Food, especially for vegetarians, can be quite an issue unless you go to Hopoli which is now coming up with small eating joints.
Things to know
Ziro Valley happens to be one of the 22 Indian sites included in the tentative list for Unesco World Heritage Site status.
Apatani- a Paper on Tribal Architecture can be read here!