Vanessa Betts ventures deep into India’s remotest state to meet the Apatani tribe
For me, Arunachal Pradesh had always meant Tawang Monastery and nail-biting mountain passes, and it was only my second visit that I experienced the unique tribal culture of the central valleys. My boyfriend and I had a free afternoon in the Apatani’s homeland, so whizzed in an auto-rickshaw from Hapoli’s hotels to the time-warp village of Old Ziro – we thought we’d find an interesting market selling crow’s-feather hat-decorations but on Mondays, it transpired, all the stalls close up. So instead, we just took a stroll, and the day became unforgettable.
Apatani people live in nuclear – rather than extended – families, so their pointy-roofed homes are tightly packed in rows, while pigs and chickens scuffle beneath. Wicker altars, festooned with eggs, front the huts because villagers still practise the Donyi-Polo religion – worship of the sunand moon. We’d heard that festival times for the Apatani involve copious amounts of alcohol, and it seemed the same went for funerals. What we thought was a hearty celebration turned out to be a procession of mourners. We were welcome, but didn’t want to disrupt the deceased’s passage to the afterlife – which can happen if the chants aren’t performed entirely right.
After wandering through a couple of eerily quiet villages, it eventually clicked that everyone who wasn’t at the funeral was out in the paddies. We decided to strike out across the valley floor in the direction of Hong village, and see who we met on the way. Striking out proved difficult, though, and it turned into more of a totter along narrow paddy-paths, as we made our meandering trajectory towards a lively-looking group of folk. It was the end of the dry season, so instead of watery fields mixing fish and rice farming, the women were busy rebuilding the very walls we clumsily stumbled along. We got lucky with our timing, it was lunch-break and jolliness prevailed. It was one of those classic cases where unabashed hilarity at our geeky windproof jackets far outdid any sidelong fascination we exhibited at their blue-ink tattooed faces and mighty bamboo nose-plugs.
A little campfire was burning, and out of exquisitely woven wicker baskets came pots of food and some local grog. My partner not being much of a drinker, it was left to me to swig down the murky brew – and feel the buzz that was clearly raising everyone up for the next session of paddy-wall maintenance. It didn’t take much rice-wine before my un-feminine hairy arms were being plucked at, and my partner’s splendidly furry chest examined and shrieked at. And I’ll never forget seeing myself through someone else’s eyes.